the long and short of English vowels

A colleague mentioned an exercise she was editing in which adult ESL students are asked to sort words according to whether the vowel sound is short or long. She asked, “Where did this terminology come from, anyway? And is there any other way of effectively describing this sound-spelling relationship?”

My response:

> Where did this terminology come from, anyway?

Why, from when there actually was a long/short distinction in English vowels. Up to Middle English, the “a” in a word such as “mate” really was a long version of the one in “hat”, and the “i” in “find” was said just as we say the one in “machine”, and so on… Then a series of shifts in pronunciation of the long vowels happened, so that they became diphthongs. [a:] became [eI], [i:] became [aI], and so on. If you Google “Great Vowel Shift” you’ll find lots. I covered it in my presentation at the EAC conference in Vancouver – see “An Appreciation of English: A language in motion” and my handout, “A brief history of English.”

> And is there any other way of effectively describing this sound-spelling relationship?

Phonologically, we maintain a tense/lax distinction in English (“meet” versus “mitt”, “bate” versus “bet”, “tuque” versus “took”), and we have diphthongs (and tense vowels) that for historical reasons pattern as “long” pairs of lax vowels (and in some cases it’s a bit more complex – the sound in “loot” is historically a long pair of the one that has become “lout”).

As you have mentioned, it’s not that there are no length differences in English vowels; there are long and short allophones of vowels (allophones are different ways we actually say what we think of as the same sound), and typically we use a shorter vowel before an unvoiced consonant than we do before a voiced one (indeed, the vowel length is the main cue as to whether someone is saying “bid” or “bit”). I think you know this – I’m just tossing it in for the sake of anyone else who’s reading.

The issue with current English is just that everyone uses the terms “long” and “short” even though they’re no longer accurate. You could focus on diphthongs versus monophthongs, but then that risks masking the historical relationship that’s still manifest in spelling and derivations (e.g., the “i” in “sublime” and “sublimate”). I’d be tempted to start with an explanation that our “long” vowels are actually different vowels and diphthongs that historically were the long versions of our “short” vowels but have changed in sound. Then they would understand why we call them long and short (as everyone does) when that’s not what’s going on at all. And then you could put the terms into scare quotes, as I’ve been doing.

Sometimes you can’t get around misuse of terms. In Irish, for instance, they have a process they call aspiration – it looks like it in writing, because you see the “aspirated” versions of t, s, c, d, g, m, etc. written with h after (th, sh, ch, dh, gh, mh) (and before someone points out that the h used to be a dot over the letter, I’ll just mention that the dot was originally a superscript h). But “th” is [h], and so is “sh”, while “dh” and “gh” are a palatal glide or a velar fricative, “mh” and “bh” are [v] or [w], etc. But they still call it aspiration, and you can’t change that. Likewise, with English, they’ll need to know that these different sounds are thought of as short or long, even though that’s not really what’s going on.

You can also introduce them to the lax/tense distinction, though that only works with mid and high vowels, and it brings in the diphthongs too (because we don’t say [e:], we say [eI], for instance). Perhaps mention it in the explanation of “long” versus “short”.

And if they won’t let you explain, then argh…

2 responses to “the long and short of English vowels

  1. Pingback: outrage « Sesquiotica

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