English Pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet 3 (Vowel Backness/Height/Rounding): A Video Transcript
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Hi, this is Gabe from TowerofBabelfish.com.
This is the third and final tutorial on English pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet. In the first two videos, we talked about the three characteristics of consonants: Voicing, Place and Manner. In this video, we’re going to talk about vowels.
So.. where consonants were all about how you obstructed your airflow, vowels are about how you let the air through. They, too, have 3 characteristics. They are: Height, Rounding, and Backness. We’ll discuss them in that order.
I’ll be discussing three English dialects here:
• General American, which is a sort of average dialect of the central Midwest
• Received Pronunciation or the queen’s english, or BBC english, which originally came out of Southeastern England
and we’ll talk a little bit about
• Californian, my dialect.
If you have another dialect, there’s a pretty good chart over at Wikipedia with 10 different dialects and all the differences between them. That’s linked in the video description below. The concepts will be the same, only some of the vowels you use will be a bit different than the ones I use.
Let’s start with three vowels,
• i - see
• E - bed
• ae - cat
If you say them in that order, you’ll probably notice that your jaw drops more for E than i, and even more for ae. You can say these vowels without your jaw’s involvement, and it’s what many classical singers learn to do over time. They go [singing]
What your jaw or your tongue are doing is increasing the distance between the back of tongue and the roof of your mouth. This is vowel height.
i is a closed vowel (or sometimes called a high vowel), and ae is a more open (or low) vowel. Every vowel has a measurable vowel height, and it’s measured by the sound it makes. If I sing a series of vowels and change their vowel height, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear one pitch moving up and down - it’s a really high whistle. It should be around these pitches [whistles] i e ae a. If you’ve heard of Tuvan throat singing, that’s a big part of what they’re doing. And if you haven’t, you should - it’s really neat stuff.
Linguists measure this pitch to determine the height of whatever vowel you’re saying.
Now let’s compare i and u as in food. First focus on your lips. You’ll notice that they come together in a circle for u and are relatively relaxed with i. This is rounding. Just like with consonant voicing where you had voiced/unvoiced pairs like d and t and z and s, each vowel comes in rounded and unfounded forms, and on the IPA vowel chart, here, the rounded vowels are on the right side of each line and unrounded on left, so i is on the left side of this pair, and u is on the right.
Now start paying attention to your tongue and compare I and u. Go back and forth between them for a couple of seconds. You should start to notice that the back of your tongue pulls back around a centimeter for u and goes forward for i. You’ll get the same effect with uh and eh, although the tongue will move back a little less between those two. As you might have guessed, this is vowel backness. U and uh are backed vowels, and I and eh are fronted vowels. At this point, we have the vocabulary we need to talk about vowels and look at a vowel chart for English.
Here are the vowels in the English dialects we’re discussing. You’ll notice that height is arranged up and down, and backness left and right. Rounded vowels are written on the right, and unrounded on the left. The backed vowels in most English dialects are
father, butt, put, food
U takes some practice to isolate, because it never occurs alone in English - there’s always a consonant after it. Like in book, look and foot. It’s written a bit to the left on the chart because it’s not as far back as u, if you go U u U u, your tongue will come forward on U.
The fronted vowels are: ae E ih i
cat, bed, sit, see. again you’ll notice that your tongue retracts a bit on ih as in sit because it’s a slightly more backed vowel than i.
this sound is O, as in caught, law. it’s a rounded vowel, and my dialect - californian - doesn’t have it at all. When I say caught, I use the same vowel as in father - the open backed unrounded a, and I really have to force myself to make a difference between them it’s not natural at all to my mouth. Father - caught.
This symbol in the middle is called a schwa, and it’s important to note that it’s different in every language. In English, It’s the sound in about and a tree, the bushes, and it has most of the same characteristics as uh, like sun.
The main difference is that sun is accented and clear about its three characteristics, and schwa, as in about, is unaccented and a bit indistinct. It’s not quite clear what it is, really. Many languages have unaccented schwa vowels, and part of picking up a good accent is figuring out their rough characteristics - in German, it’s is somewhere between eh and ih, Liebe, and French is pretty-much in the same place as deux, - le feu, for example.
Now American English has two schwas, actually - the normal one, and the R-colored one. You can see there’s a little squiggly R added to it - this is a diacritic, and it modifies the vowel it’s attached to. We’ve already seen a couple of these in the consonant section - the velarizing diacritic - we used it in the voiced alveolar lateral consonant l, and the devoicing diacritic, for the icelandic hnifur. So the R-colored or rhotic diacritic just means that during the vowel, either the tip of your tongue goes up - RR- , or the back of your tongue bunches up -RR-, or both. If the vowel is unaccented, then you use the r-colored schwa - winter, runner. RP speakers don’t have this sound, and say winter and runner. If the vowel is accented, then you can’t use a schwa anymore - part of the definition of a schwa is that it’s unaccented and unclear - and so in received pronunciation, we use the only really central vowel in English - 3, as in turkey, and in america, we color this vowel with R and get URkey. AR[ɑ˞ and OR ɔ˞ can exist, but since it happens at the end of the vowel instead of all the way through (most people say start and not stRRRRt), it's usually written like this or this [ɑɚ] or [ɑɹ].
There’s another back open a vowel, and you’ll notice from its placement on the right that it must be rounded. This vowel doesn’t exist in general american, but in received pronunciation, you round on the word hot
There are only a few vowels left, and we’ll get to them in a little bit.
This chart is arranged in a trapezoid for a clever reason, because if you think of it as a side view of your mouth, with your lips on the left and your throat on the right, then you can trace this trapezoid with the back of your tongue. Say i, and Imagine a point right at the highest part of your tongue, here. If you say u i, that point will move from here to here in your mouth. You can trace the sides of that trapezoid with I ae and u a, and you can make a diagonal line between ae and a, since ae is not as open as a. If you think about the directions you go when you do this, you can get a pretty good sense of what’s going on. You start with i and you go back, u, down, u a, forward, a ae, and back up to i.
Many vowels in your target languages can be found by taking your vowels and modifying just one of their characteristics, particularly rounding, since you either round or you don’t, for the most part. If you take i and round it, you get y, which you’ll find in German and French. If you take u and unround it, you’ll get m, which shows up in many Asian languages.
Now there’s something important that’s missing here. When you ask most people what the vowels are in English, they’ll typically say AEIOU. Now we have i; where are the others? And what may be surprising for some of you (it was surprising to me when I learned it) is that none of the others are single vowels at all - they’re mostly two vowels, or diphthongs. When you say “ay” as in say, you’re combining two vowels - eh and Ih. In general, you spend most of the time on the eh and glide up to ih right at the end. Learning to separate these two sounds can be helpful, because the more single vowels, or monothongs you have, the more versatile your tongue and ears will be when learning the vowels in a new language, and you might as well take advantage of the vowels you already have in English.
If you learn to stop on the first vowel of EI as in SAY, you’ll find a more closed e, which brings you much closer to the /e/ vowel in, say, German in the word “seele”. Now if this is your first time hearing it, they might sound pretty similar. say, seele, but if I pronounce the german word with an English diphthong, it might get easier to hear the difference. sayle, seele, sayle seele. Learning to hear the two vowels in your diphthongs can help out a lot in figuring out a new language’s sounds.
Ju isn’t exactly a diphthong, it’s written like this in IPA and you’re already familiar with the palatal approximant j. This approximant is quite close to the vowel i, and The main difference between ju and iu is that most of the time is spent on the u instead of the i. So you say ‘ju’ instead of ‘i’
The American diphthongs are day my boy no and now, and if you add combinations with R, you get near, hair and tour.
RP has most of the same ones, but for O, RP switches the closed o for a schwa in “no”, and all of the R combinations - since they don’t have R-colored shwas - use normal schwas as well, so you get near, hair, tour.
Now there’s one last thing that’s pretty important, and it’s something that makes vowels significantly trickier than consonants to master
Here is another way of depicting the vowel chart - this one is a graph of the sound made when pronouncing these vowels. It still forms a trapezoid, and when you graph it this way, than you still get frontal vowels on the left, backed vowels on the right, open vowels on the bottom and closed ones on top. There are two things I want to point out here: one, take a look at the differences between the two graphs. On the left we have general American and on the right received pronunciation. Look at these vowels. In American, this is eh as in bed. In British, it’s more closed, e as in bed. You can use graphs like this to adjust your own vowels in the direction of the new vowels you’re trying to learn. The other thing to notice is the large circles around each vowel. Vowels don’t land in an exact spot on these charts, and if you’ll notice, the British e even switches symbols to a closed e. These are average locations for a vowel, and each of these symbols can only give you a general idea about the character of a vowel. E in British, for example, is much more open than the e in German seele, even if they use the same symbol. These symbols correspond to regions or categories of vowels with a decent amount of wiggle room.
When you’re learning vowels, you’ll need to keep in mind that to get the exact character of your target vowels, IPA isn’t enough - you will need to listen to and mimic recordings. the IPA is there to give you two things:
First, it gives you the general sense of the vowel in terms of its height, backness and roundness, and second, to keep the vowels consistent within a language.
Every time you see i in English, it will be the same - seat, eat , feet, keep. Same thing with bed - an American is going to say bed red said, and a Brit, depending on where he’s from, may say bed red said, but no one is going to be switching between them for different words, bed red said. So a closed o in Italian o as in cosa rosa can be different than a closed o in another language - German’s closed o is Significantly more closed. Sohn. Rose. But once you learn the Italian closed o, it’s going to be exactly the same for every word that uses that IPA symbol in Italian, so where that symbol is a little bit vague when it comes to describing all languages, it means something very specific when it comes to describing one language.
So, to quickly sum up the English vowels, in General American, you have:
i, ih, eh, ae, u, uh, ah, ah, uh, ur, and sometimes the schwa.
And the main differences in RP are : e bed gets a little more closed, the IR is no longer r-flavored, bird, a hot.
The diphthongs EY, AI, OI, OU, AU and some R flavored ones. Ear, hair, tour.
RP switches just a few of these: No, Ear, Hair, Tour
There are triphthongs, but they’re just R added to a diphthong, like in flower and fire, flower and fire, and that should wrap it up for English.
If you want to memorize the symbols and concepts in all three of these videos, either use my Anki deck or make your own, and stay tuned for future videos. I’m going to be doing tutorials for French, German, Italian, And eveeentually Russian.
That’s it! Feel free to subscribe up top, and until next time!