Daily Archives: January 16, 2013

A Word Taster’s Companion: The vowel circle

Today: the fifth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The vowel circle

Vowels are the blood of words. They’re what allow words to move, to project, to be sung.

As I’ve explained in “The world speaks in harmony,” what vowel you’re saying is determined by where your tongue constricts the airflow in your mouth. That can be anywhere in your mouth that allows air to pass through the middle. But, in practice, languages have typically between five and twelve sounds that are recognized as distinct vowel sounds, and as long as a sound is close enough to one of those, it will be interpreted as that sound. And the acceptable sounds – the phonemes – are, depending on the language, mostly or entirely in a somewhat circular arrangement around the mouth.

The single-sound vowel phonemes we have in English are these:

/u/ as in boot

/ʊ/ as in put

/o/ as in boat (actually a slight diphthong in most kinds of English – see below)

/ɔ/ as in bore

/ɑ/ as in bop

/a/ as in bar

/æ/ as in bat

/ɛ/ as in bet

/e/ as in bait (actually a slight diphthong in most kinds of English – see below)

/ɪ/ as in bit

/i/ as in beat

/ə/ as in but (when it’s said in a stressed syllable it’s a little different and is often written as /ʌ/) – our one vowel that’s right in the middle of the mouth

The letters in slashes like /e/ are the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for the sounds. Slashes mean we’re talking about a phoneme – a sound that’s a recognized distinct sound in a language. When we’re talking about the actual sound that’s made, whether it’s the same as the phoneme or not, we use brackets, like [e].

Those single-sound vowels are called monophthongs by people who really want to or have to call them that. (Take a moment to taste that word, monophthong.) We also make a number of diphthongs – vowel sounds that move from one part of the mouth to another. They’re not two vowels, one said after another; a diphthong is a single phoneme, but it’s one that starts in one place and ends in another. You might call them vowel movements.

Here are diphthongs we make in standard Canadian English:

/ɔɪ/ as in boy

/aɪ/ as in by – Canadians often say it like [ʌɪ] before a voiceless consonant, as in bite

/eɪ/ as in bay (we tend to think of it as just /e/ – see above)

/aʊ/ as in how – Canadians often say it like [ʌʊ] before a voiceless consonant, as in bout

/ɪʊ/ as in hew (also said as /ju/ – j is the IPA symbol for the “y” sound)

/oʊ/ as in hoe (we tend to think of it as just /o/ – see above)

You’ll get some other diphthongs in some other dialects of English. Some even have triphthongs – a three-vowel movement, as in some southern US versions of words man: [aɪə]. But let’s not go crazy here just yet. You’re best off tasting words in your own dialect, so if that sound’s not in your dialect, let’s not worry too much about it now. (Oh, by the way: all versions of English are dialects, and everyone has an accent. Dialects are not just what other people speak, and accents are not just what other people have.)

OK, enough with the technical basics for a moment. Let’s do some more tasting. You already know, if you’re read “The world speaks in harmony,” that speech sounds are what they are because of harmonics. And you almost certainly know intuitively that some sounds seem higher or lighter and others seem lower or heavier. Those impressions have a lot to do with the second formant – the space in the mouth in front of the tongue. A sound like [o] or [u] tends more often to go with low, heavy, dark things; a sound like [i] goes more with high, light things. This doesn’t mean that all words with [o] and [u] must be for big things, et cetera, but if you’re using the sound for effect, that’s where you’re likely to head.

So… if I say I heard two things hit the floor and one went “plunk” and the other went “plink,” what do you assume about them?

If there are two characters in a children’s book and one is named Bobo and one is named Titi, what might your initial expectations be of them?

When you taste a word, you have to be aware of the vowels you’re using. But you also have to watch your impressions of the sound and feel and taste.

Let’s circle around your mouth with vowels. Start at [u] and move gradually and smoothly through [i], through [e], through [æ], through [a], through [o], to [u]. Then circle back in the other direction. Do it as smoothly as you can. Pay attention to what your tongue and your lips are doing.

Do you notice your lips rounding at [o] and [u] and unrounding as you go to the front? We do that in English. It’s a very normal contrast in languages the world over: round the back, unround the front. This heightens the contrast between the harmonics.

But it’s not a universal thing to round the back and unround the front. Many languages also have rounded front vowels and even unrounded back ones. (In fact, we have an unrounded low back vowel in English: /ɑ/.)

So now repeat the tongue circle exercise starting at [u], but this time keep your lips rounded as you move your tongue through the front vowels and back to [u]. Try both directions. It may help to pay more attention to what you’re doing and less to what you’re hearing. Unfocus, like when you’re watching fence posts go by on the highway and you go from counting them to watching them blur together.

Now start the loop at [i] and keep your lips unrounded all the way around, both directions.

Congratulations. You have, in the course of doing this, made several vowel sounds that never show up in English, including some that bedevil Anglophones trying to learn Turkish or Russian. You won’t need these sounds for tasting common English words, but the more you can do with your mouth, and the more you try to do with your mouth, the more fun you’re going to have. (I’m talking about language. Stop that.)

There are two other differences in vowel quality that you can make, neither of which makes a phonemic difference in English. One is what’s different between French beau and bon: whether the vowel is nasal or not – in other words, whether any air is passing through your nose while you’re saying it. In English, we do make some vowels nasal, but just when they’re before nasal consonants, as in some, sun, and sung. Sometimes the nasal consonant is dropped in casual speech and indicated just by the nasalization of the vowel, especially if there’s another consonant after the nasal – you might say [bõz] rather than [bonz] for bones, for instance.

The other difference is length. You can hold a vowel sound for a longer or shorter period of time. This is important in languages such as Finnish and Hindi. Contrary to what “everyone knows,” we don’t have an actual length distinction in English. We do not actually have long and short versions of vowels. We just have a distinction that we call long versus short. Read “The long and short of it,” next, for the low-down and dirty.


Visual: A short word, six letters, but with some vertical. It has an overall trend from upper left, with the f ascender, through the lower r and s mixed with the dotted i and high k, to lower right on the y descender. It has verticals, a cross-bar, curves, a hump, a dot, and diagonals: nary a thing missing in its quick frolic through typographical shapes.

In the mouth: It launches with the erupting embouchure of [fr], which may have voicelessness spreading from the [f] onto the [r] to make a sound like a rocket or the “sending” sound in Mac Mail. The lips then pull back in two stages: neutral for the first vowel, then pulling back wider at the end – after the tongue has hissed off the tip with [s] and kicked off the back with [k]. If it’s a rocket, it’s one that quickly launches through stages and goes off out of sight almost before you see it.

Etymology: Frisky (adjective) comes from frisk (noun), which comes from frisk (verb), which comes from frisk (adjective, obsolete), which comes from… um, there are two possible options. One is that it’s from the Germanic root that gives us fresh (and modern German frisch, which means the same thing). The other is that it’s from Middle French frique ‘lively, smart’, which in turn comes from Germanic. Either way it’s from Germanic and has danced around rather a lot, including looping a full circle from frisk adjective to frisky adjective like a dog chasing its tail.

Collocations: Often you feel frisky or are feeling frisky (never mind groovy), and may be particularly frisky; if you are frisky you are also likely young and may be a pup or a colt or even a goat (but not so likely, it seems, a kid).

Overtones: The word starts with the frothy fresh [fr], which shows up in a variety of words, including a fair few that are well served by saliva spraying forth from the mouth: fracas, frappé, fraught, fray, frazzle, freak, fresh, friction, frizzy, frolic, frosh, frothy, and frustration, not to mention frith. It then sharpens that feeling (like adjusting the nozzle on a hose from spray to jet) with the risky, which also smacks of whisky, whisk, brisk, and perhaps mist and disk and maybe even crispy. And if you look you can see the sky.

And then there’s that other common sense of frisk, first seen in the late 1700s: to manually search someone’s person by going through their clothes etc. while they’re still wearing them. I suppose if you were to do a similar patdown on your paramour he or she might find it rather frisky. Anyway, it’s directly derived from the verb frisk meaning ‘frolic, be frisky’, at least as far as anyone can see. And it may lurk in the background when this word skips across the lawn of your mind.

Semantics: Picture a puppy, especially a Labrador puppy. A little ball of energy. Incessantly wanting to play. Frolicsome. Wagging the tail with the whole body. Jumping up, licking, barking, running around. Frisky. Almost too much to handle. But happy!

Of course, anything or anyone particularly playful can be “frisky.” But among humans, it seems especially to connote a particularly sexual inclination: for puppy love substitute concupiscence – but you can retain much of the other described behaviour, if in some respects figuratively.