Throughout this topic I am going to deal with the phonological system of the English language, focusing on the vowels and diphthongs. I am going to divide the topic into five sections. In my first section I am going to establish a difference between phonetics and phonology and between speech sound and phoneme. In my second section I will provide an overview of the process of speech production, presenting the different organs involved in that process. Then I will offer a classification of the vowel sounds, and a description of English vowel sounds. In my fourth section I will deal with English diphthongs. Finally, in my last section I will establish a comparison between English and Spanish vowel systems.
In my first section I am going to define some concepts which may be useful for a better understanding of this topic. First, I would like to establish a difference between phonetics and phonology. Phonetics is the discipline that deals with the characteristics of sounds themselves, without any reference to their function. Since the phonetic unit is the sound, it formulates methods of description and classification of the sound types that occur in speech (articulatory, auditory and acoustic; or stages of production). On the contrary, phonology studies the sounds from the point of view of their working in the language. It investigates the phonic differences with the differences in meaning.
Another distinction I would like to point out is that between speech sounds and phonemes. Phonetics deals with sounds. A speech sound is any phonetically distinct unit of sound, that is, any unit of sound produced by speech organs that can be distinguished by the phonetician from all other units of sounds produced by the speech organs. On the contrary, phonology deals with phonemes. A phoneme may be described as a family of sounds consisting of one important sound of the language (generally the most frequently used member of that family) together with other related sounds, called allophones, which take its place in particular sound sequences or under particular conditions of length, stress or intonation.
In my next section I am going to provide an overview of the speech production and the organs involved in that process. In all languages we speak with air from the lungs. The air-stream released by the lungs undergoes important modifications in the upper stages of the respiratory tract before it acquires the quality of speech sound. The air comes up through the trachea or wind-pipe and then passes through the larynx, which is commonly called the Adam’s apple. The larynx is formed of muscled and cartilage, and housed within this structure from back to front are the vocal cords, which are two small folds of ligament and elastic tissue. The cord may be brought together or parted, by the rotation of the cartilages through muscular action. The opening between the cords is known as the glottis, through which the air can pass freely when we breathe quietly in and out. When the vocal cords are brought together tightly, no air can pass. The most important function of the vocal cords is the production of voice. Voiced sounds are achieved when the vocal cords are vibrating close together, whereas voiceless sounds are made when the vocal cords are wide open, the air passes freely between them and there is no vibration.
The air-stream undergoes further modification according to the shape within the upper cavities of the pharynx, mouth and nasal cavities. The pharyngeal cavity extends from the top of the larynx to the region in the rear of the soft palate. We may find different positions of the soft palate. If it is lowered, the air escapes through the nose and the mouth and we obtained nasalized sounds; if it is held in its raised position, there is an oral escape through the mouth.
The shape of the mouth determines finally the quality of the majority of our speech sounds. The mouth is limited by the teeth at the front, the hard palate in the upper part and the soft palate in the rear. The area of the palate moving backwards from the teeth is known as alveolar ridge. The remaining organs, lips, tongue and soft palate with its pendent uvula, are movable. The teeth are used in English to some extent as passive articulators in sounds such as /t/.
The tongue is the most important of the organs of speech because it has the greatest variety of movement and flexibility so as to assume a variety of positions in the articulation. The lips are particularly significant in the formation of vowel quality and take up different positions. They can be brought firmly together so that they completely block the mouth, or they can be pushed forward to a greater or lesser extent.
After a brief overview of the process of production of sounds, I am going to move to my third section, dealing with the classification of the vowel sounds. But, what is a vowel sound? Every speech sound belongs to one of the two main classes known as vowels and consonants. A vowel is a voiced sound in forming which the air issues in a continuous stream from the pharynx to the mouth. In the production of a vowel there is no obstruction and no narrowing such as would cause audible friction. All other sounds are called consonants and they are formed when we interrupt the passage of air through the mouth.
A common classification of vowel sounds must describe the positions of the articulatory organs according to:
· According to vowel quality or vowel length we distinguish long and short vowels. There are five long vowels / i, a, o, u, з:/, as in words such as bee, bar, bore, boom, burr; and seven short vowels / I, æ, e, Λ, o, U, ə /, as in pit, pat, pet, cut, pot, put, cutter. Vowels are always longer before a final voiced consonant than before a voiceless consonant.
· According to the position of the soft palate, we deal with both the nasal and the oral cavity. Vowels are classified into oral vowels, if the soft palate is raised so that the air is forced to go out through the mouth, and nasal vowels, if the soft palate is lowered so that the air can pass through the nose as well as through the mouth. Nasal vowels are always in the environment of a nasal consonant, as in the word sing.
· According to the position of the tongue, vowel sounds can be distinguished from each other by the degree of raising of the tongue and by which part of the tongue is raised. We distinguish four degrees of raising of the tongue:
o Closed vowels: the tongue is held as high as possible without touching the roof of the mouth. / i, u / as in mean, moon.
o Semi-closed vowels: the tongue is about one-third of the distance from close to open. / I, U/, as in pit, put.
o Semi or half-open: the tongue is about two thirds of the distance from close to open. / Λ, æ /, as in cut, cat.
o Open vowels: the tongue is as low as possible / a:, o/, as in shark, shock.
With respect to the part of the tongue we raise we distinguish three types:
o Front vowels: the front of the tongue moves towards the hard palate. / I, i /as in sit, seat.
o Central vowels: the central part of the tongue is raised. / з:, ə /, as in refer, reference.
o Back vowels: the back of the tongue is raised to the soft palate. / U, o /, as in do, door.
- According to the lips position, vowels can be rounded, which are drawn together with a round opening / o, o:, U, u: /, as in pot, taught, put, moon.; spread or unrounded, which are characterized by lips together / i, I, e, æ, Λ, a:, з /, as in seat, sit, red, cat, cup, barn, bird; and neutral, neither rounded nor spread /ə / as in another.
- Tense versus lax vowels: tense vowels are articulated with more muscle tension than the lax vowels, as in scene, prey, pot… These tense vowel sounds are articulated in more peripheral positions of the mouth, and are less centred. To produce lax vowels, the tongue is supposed to be held loosely, as in the words hat, bet, pin… The muscles relax somewhat when moving from long to short vowels, the jaw drops slightly and the lips are not so tightly spread apart. The tongue moves towards a more central position in the mouth.
- Weak and strong vowels: the term weak refers to the weak form of vowels when they are found in unstressed position. They arise naturally from the rhythm of the English language. The only two vowels that are always weak forms are / I / as in pin and / ə / as in and, at.
After seeing the classification of English vowel sounds, I am going to define each of the 12 English vowel sounds:
- / i /: long, close, front, unrounded, tense vowel. The lip position is spread. The usual spellings are EE (three), E (recent), EA (sea), IE (belief), I (police), and so on.
As a variation, I would like to mention that long vowels are reduced when they occur in syllables closed to / p, t, k, f, t∫, f, Ɵ, s, ∫ /, so that feet becomes similar to fit.
- / I /: short, semi-close, front, unrounded, lax vowel. It is pronounced with the front of the tongue in an almost half-close position. The lips are loosely spread. The most common spellings are I (miss), Y (symbol), E (pretty), IE (ladies), AGE (marriage).
- / e /: short, semi-open, front, unrounded, tense vowel. The front of the tongue is raised to a position between half-close and half-open. The lips are slightly spread. The most commons spellings are E (less), EA (bread), A (day), IE (friend).
- / æ /: short, semi-open, front, unrounded, lax vowel. The front of the tongue is raised to a position between half-open and open. The lips are slightly spread. The most frequent spellings are A (bad), AI (plait).
- / a: /: long, open, back, unrounded, lax vowel. The back part of the tongue is raised, but not very much, as the jaw is usually lowered to produce the sound. The lips are open in a neutral position. The most common spellings are A (fast), AR (part), AL (palm), AU (laugh), EA (heart).
- / o /: short, mid, back, rounded, lax vowel. It is between open and half-open position, with the back of the tongue raised and the lips quite rounded. The most common spellings are O (short), A after W (was), AU (because).
- / o: /: long, mid, back, rounded, tense vowel. The back of the tongue needs to be raised to a position between half-open and half-closed and the lips need to be vigorously rounded and close together. The most common spellings are OR (born), AW (raw), AU (taught), A(L) (talk), OAR (board), ORE (before).
- / U /: short, semi-closed, back, rounded, lax vowel. The part of the tongue between the back and the centre is raised to a position that is between closed and half-closed. The lips are not so round as in /o/. The most common spellings are U (put), OO (good), O (woman), OU (could).
- / u: /: long, close, back, rounded, tense vowel. The back of the tongue is raised to the almost fully closed position. The lips are closely rounded. The most common spellings are OO (moon), O (who), OU (soup), EW (chew), UE (blue). This vowel is often preceded by / j / sound.
- / Λ /: short, semi-open, central, unrounded, lax vowel. The part of the tongue between the front and the centre is raised to a position between open and half-open. The lips are not rounded. The most common spellings are U (sun), O (come), OU (country), OO (blood).
- / з: or ə: /: long, mid, central, unrounded, tense vowel. It is pronounced with the centre of the tongue raised to a position between half-open and half-closed. The lips are neutral in position and in tenseness. The most common spellings are ER (herd), IR (bird), UR (burn), W+OR (word).
- / ə /: short, mid, central, lax vowel. It is pronounced with the centre of the tongue raised to a position between half-open and half-close and may be slightly more closed near the consonants K, G. This sound may represent all the vowels in the alphabet and many of their combinations. It is never found in a stressed syllable but it is found in many suffixes. It is more often found in grammatical element than in content words. A (can), E (mother), I (possible), O (doctor), U (must).
After dealing with the classification on English vowel sounds and describing all the vowel sounds in English, I am going to move on to my fourth section, dealing with English diphthongs. I will begin by defining what a diphthong is. A diphthong is a glide from one vowel to another, and the whole glide acts as one of the long, simple vowels. We may distinguish then two elements within the structure of a diphthong: the first element carries the vocalic strength when the diphthong is pronounced. The second element is the point in the direction of which the glide is made, and therefore it is not pronounced as loud as the first part. In English we have eight diphthongs:
- Closing diphthongs occur when the tongue moves from a more open to a more closed position. English closing diphthongs are:
- / eI /: the glide moves from just below the half-closed position to the / I / position, nearly closed. The front of the tongue is used and the lips are rounded. The most common spellings are A (late), AI AY (paid, play), EI, EY (eight, they).
- / əU /: it begins with the tongue in the central position and moves to / U / position, but it is not until the latter part of the sound that the lips begin to round and the jaw to close. The most common spellings are O (go), OA (road), OE (toe), OU (soul) OW (know).
- / aI /: the front of the tongue moves from the open to the nearly closed position, with a slight closing of the jaw and a slight spreading of the lips. The most common spellings are I (time), Y (try), IGH (high), IE, YE (die, dye).
- / aU /: the part of the tongue which is behind the centre is moved from an open to a half-closed position. The lips become rounded with the second element of the sound. The most common spellings are UO (house), OW (how).
- / oI /: the tongue glide begins at the back, between the half-open and the open positions, and moves to the front, becoming more closed. The jaw closes slightly and the lips become unrounded in the second element of the sound. The most common spellings are OI (choice), OY (employ).
- Centring diphthongs: the movement of the tongue is towards the centre, that is, the centre of the tongue is raised to the centre of its height.
- / Iə /: the tongue moves from the half-closed, front-of-centre position to the neutral /ə/ position. The lips are spread very slightly in the second element. The most common spellings are EAR (ear), EER (beer), ERE (here), EIR (weird), IER (pier).
- / eə /: the glide begins in the half-open front position, a little more open than the normal /e/, and moves to the central /ə/. The lips do not move. The most common spellings are ARE (care), AIR (fair), EAR (bear).
- / Uə /:the glide is from the back to the centre and from more than half-closed to half-closed. The lips are rounded at the beginning and are neutral by the end. The most common spellings are OO (poor), URE (sure), UR (curious), OUR (your).
Together with diphthongs, in English we also find triphthongs. They are vowel sequences, the most common of which are formed by adding a schwa to a diphthong. There are five triphthongs in English: / aIə , eIə , oIə , aUə , əUə /.
After looking at English diphthongs and triphthongs, I am going to move on to my last section, in which I will establish a comparison between English and Spanish vowel systems. When comparing English and Spanish phonological systems, we find important differences and few similarities. Regarding vowel quantity, the English system, with twelve vowels, is much richer than the Spanish one, with five. Regarding vowel quality, English has short and long vowels, whereas in Spanish the distinction is not present. Accordingly, their articulatory representation in the oral cavity is to be different in English. Many of the English vowel phonemes are allophones of the Spanish vowels.
A main difference between the two vowel systems is the presence of Schwa in English and its absence in Spanish. This difference emerges from the distinction between stressed and unstressed vowels in the speech chain in English as opposed to Spanish.
Spanish / a / has 3 different realizations in English: / æ, a:, Λ /. The Spanish / a / is more central than the English / æ /and carries more tension. There is no similar vowel sound in Spanish to English / a: /. / Λ / is shorter and more central than the Spanish / a /, and as a result it is usually associated to the Spanish / o /.
Spanish / e / has two realizations in English: / e, з: /. English / e / is similar to the Spanish / e /, although the Spanish sound is relatively more close and more tense. English / e / does not occur in final positions.
In English there are two realizations of Spanish / i /, being / I, i: /. Spanish / i / is nearer / i: / than / I /. The English / I / is between Spanish / i / and / e /.
In English we find / o, o: / for Spanish / o /. / o / is similar to the Spanish sound, but slightly more open. However, Spanish has no equivalent phoneme to / o: / either in quality or quantity.
Finally, Spanish / u / has two realizations in English / U, u: /. Spanish / u / is more at the back and more tense than English / U /, which is moreover shorter than the Spanish sound. / u: / is more closed and more tense than Spanish / u /. Moreover, it is longer and the lip position is not so rounded.
We also find some differences between English and Spanish phonological systems regarding diphthongs. There is a difference regarding quality, as the vowel sounds in the English diphthongs do not correspond to the Spanish ones, especially those containing schwa. All English diphthongs are classified as falling, whereas in Spanish there are falling and rising diphthongs. Moreover, English diphthongs do not always occur in all positions. Some of them are restricted to be beginning, medial or final position. In Spanish, almost all diphthongs may occur in all positions. I would also like to point out that in Spanish there are no triphthongs.
To sum up, throughout this topic I have dealt with the difference between phonetics and phonology and between speech sound and phoneme; I have provided an overview of the process of speech production, presenting the different organs involved in that process. Then I have offered a classification of the vowel sounds, and a description of English vowel sounds. I have dealt with English diphthongs, and finally, in my last section I have established a comparison between English and Spanish vowel systems.