Tag Archives: vowels

A Word Taster’s Companion: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

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

Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

What’s left? Is that it? Not even close. There are many sounds that people use in language that we haven’t touched. Most of them can be figured out by using new places with the same manners, or new manners with the same places, and a few require even more inventiveness. But while many of them are occasional allophones in English, almost none of them are English phonemes.

Almost none. We do have a couple of sounds left, one of which is definitely a phoneme but is hard to pin down as to its features, and the other of which is easier to pin down for features but may or may not be a phoneme (but is definitely a well-used allophone).

What are they? They are the difference between uh-huh and uh-uh.

That’s a nice minimal pair, as linguists would say. The difference between two opposite things – yes and no – lies in just one sound. The vowels are the same, front and back. To give a thumbs-up, let the air flow through your throat, /ʌhʌ/; to give a thumbs-down, stop it momentarily, /ʌʔʌ/. (You can also say it [ʔʌʔʌ].)

OK, what’s that thing, [ʔ]? It’s a glottal stop. You know the sound well enough. You probably make it in place of the /t/ in button. If you’re a certain kind of British speaker, you make it as an allophone of /t/ in between vowels: [mæʔɜ] for matter, for instance. It stands in for stops in quite a lot of places, in fact; you might even say it for /p/ in yup. You might even use it in something if you say it casually as [sʌʔm] (“supm”). And in some dialects you might use it in place of [h], as in ’Enry.

But is the glottal stop a phoneme – a distinct sound? Or is it just in uh-uh to keep the two vowels as distinct syllables? It’s probably safest to say that [ʔʌ] is an allophone of /ʌ/. But that glottal stop is certainly a sound we use in English!

And how about /h/? It is often called a glottal fricative. The problem is that it doesn’t normally actually involve greater constriction of the airway. And, in English, it doesn’t act like a fricative. English voiceless fricatives can come between a vowel and a stop (mask, raft, wished) and all English fricatives can come at the end of a word (give, biz, rouge), neither of which /h/ can do in modern English (except in special cases like huh and hah, which sometimes end with [h]). In Old English, yes – but that was a thousand years ago. In some other languages it can as well, and for them it’s reasonable enough to treat it as a fricative. But in English it’s its own little special thing, available only by itself at the beginning of syllables (and, in some dialects, often not there). It also has a tendency to be reduced in some circumstances of casual speech to nothing or near nothing. It’s a phoneme, no mistake: you know the difference between an eel on a heel and a heel on an eel. And it’s a consonant – you say a heel, not an heel. But it’s its own special kind of consonant in modern English.

These two sounds, [h] and [ʔ], are a pair notable for their absence not only from the rest of the classification but from actually being heard. Yes, /h/ is audible, but barely, and sometimes not really at all except as a gap in the sound. The glottal stop is simply a break in the flow of the sound: it’s the ultimate absence. There’s not even any enunciatory cue into or out of it – the tongue and lips don’t need to move for it to be made.

It goes without saying that we don’t have voiced variants of these. The surprise is that some languages do have a voiced equivalent for /h/. How is that possible? What it is, in fact, is really a breathy voicing added to the end of the preceding vowel or the beginning of the next. Make a low, lewd laugh – huhuhuhuhuh – and you will likely be alternating between /h/ and breathy voicing.

What do [h] and [ʔ] feel like to say? Exact opposites: /h/ is a perceptible free flow of breath, whereas the glottal stop is a perceptible lack of flow of breath. It does not usually produce a sense of asphyxiation, though it may leave you with extra breath to expel at word’s end. It simply gives a little catch or hiccup in the flow, and there are a variety of flavours that can have. The breath of /h/ will naturally be associated with all things expressed by breathing out: exhaustion, exasperation, excitement, or even ease. It’s so often so gentle as to be just like a brush of a feather – but it always expels extra air, leaving you a little closer to winded.

Next: syllables

A Word Taster’s Companion: Wow! Yay! Glides!

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

Wow! Yay! Glides!

Glide. Come glide with me. You’ll get the hang of it. In fact, you already have the hang of it. You may never have been on a hang glider, but you have certainly glided smoothly on open air. If you’re flying a hang glider you may say “Wow! Yay!” But any time you say “Wow! Yay!” you’re gliding, no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

A glide is really a high and tight vowel sound serving as a consonant, the open air flowing smoothly but somehow making a consonant. In English, we have two glides: /j/ and /w/, the first sounds in yay and wow. You know (if you’ve been paying attention and have read “The vowel circle”) that the ay in yay and the ow in wow are diphthongs: vowel sounds that involve a movement. These ones in particular move to narrower vowels, [ɪ] and [ʊ]. But you can also hear, especially if you say “wow wow wow wow” and “yay yay yay yay,” or if you hold the opening sound (“wwwwwow” and “yyyyay”) that the opening sounds are pretty much the same as the final sounds of the diphthongs.

Glides illustrate even more clearly than liquids the fact that what is a consonant is often a matter of how it is used and thought of as much as of its characteristics. This is not true of all sounds; /a/ will never be a consonant, and /t/ will never be a vowel. But there is a grey area where consonants and vowels blur together, and the glides are in it (although I think glides sound more blue and yellow than grey).

This is not to say that the glides are absolutely identical with the vowels except for how they’re used. They may or may not be. Say “ye ye ye ye ye woo woo woo woo woo.” Notice how you can tell where the glide stops and the vowel starts. In these words, the glides have to be tighter than the vowels in order to be distinguished from them. Watch how you say ya and you and we and wa. See if they’re as tight.

But now say “ow ow ow ow a wa wa wa wa” and “ay ay ay ay a ya ya ya ya.” Watch how you say them. How closed are the glides? What else are you doing to make the distinction so it doesn’t just sound like “owowowow” and “ayayayayay”?

Glides are voiced. They don’t have to be. But we no longer have phonemic voiceless glides in English. We almost still do: if you want to distinguish which clearly from witch, you may devoice the /w/ – or just say a /h/ before it that spreads the devoicing onto the /w/, which is not quite the same thing. A similar effect can happen in words such as human and humour. Glides are also susceptible to the same devoicing caused by aspiration that affects liquids: try pure twit. Say that slowly, perhaps as if you’re describing someone with great disdain. Listen to the glides: /pjur twɪt/ – the aspiration from the /p/ and /t/ spreads onto the /j/ and /w/ and devoices them.

Glides can also be nasal or non-nasal (oral), just like the vowels they resemble – and, as with those vowels, this variation is allophonic but not phonemic in English. It spreads from a nearby nasal: compare mute (/mjut/) with beauty (/bjuti/). You may find it hard to hear the difference, but it’s there.

What do glides feel like to say? They’re sort of like the yo-yos of the mouth, perhaps in part because yo-yo uses them. The tongue (and, in /w/, the lips) swings in close and then pulls back, like an upside-down bungee jump. These are also things your mouth does while tasting – tasting wine, for instance. A wine taster will have a sip of wine and, holding it in the mouth, inhale on a [w] gesture to aerate it. Then, lips closed, the taster may make a series of [j] gestures ([jajajaja]) with the tongue to swish the taste in the mouth and get it into the nose. When held, glides can have a sense similar to that of nasals: they can express hesitation (“Yyyyyyyeah… wwwwwell…”) or enthusiasm (“Yyyyess! Wwwwwow!”)

Next: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

A Word Taster’s Companion: The long and short of it

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

The long and short of it

There’s something you should know about long and short vowel pairs in English.

They’re not.

Oh, the short vowels are short. And they’re even slightly shorter before voiceless stops than before voiced ones (the [æ] in mat is a bit shorter than the one in mad, for instance).

And the long ones are longer. But not because they’re long versions of the short ones. “Long i” is not actually a long version of “short i,” nor is “long o” an extended version of “short o.” “Long a” doesn’t have any of the sound of “short a” in it at all. Same goes for “long” and “short” e. And u? Even worse.

Let me show you what I mean. Pretend you’re at the doctor and say “ah.” Say it quickly first. There’s your short a. OK, now say “aahhhh,” nice and long. There’s your long a: a long version of a short a. But it’s not your “long a” at all. You know what “long a” is: the sound in fate. But if it were really a long version of “short a,” you would say that word like “faat.”

So why don’t we do that?

Well, we used to. Then something changed.

English “long” vowels actually were long versions of the short ones centuries ago. But accents change over time, pronunciation of phonemes shifts, and there was a big change during the 15th and 16th centuries, a thing called the Great Vowel Shift. The long vowels all moved up in the mouth while the short ones stayed put. The vowels at the top couldn’t move any further up, so they became diphthongs starting lower in the mouth and moving up.

So the word we used to say as “baat” is the word bate. The word we used to say as “bate” is the word beet. The word we used to say as “beet” is the word bite.

Meanwhile, things went even nuttier in the back. The word we used to say like “boat” is the word boot (hence the oo spelling) and the word we used to say like “boot” is the word bout. But what we call “long o” is really the shifted version of a long version of the sound in bought. What we call “long u” is another thing that happened to that vowel: the sound we used to say as in “booty” is the sound in beauty.

Does that seem stupid? Consider that in some versions of English (much Canadian English, for instance), the word stupid – which because of the vowel shift became like “styoopid” – is now back to a pre-shifted “stoopid.”

Meanwhile, the short vowels pretty much stayed put, resulting in these mismatched socks. Watch the zigzag your tongue makes as you say the vowels in bat, bait, bet, beet, bit, bite, in order. You might find it clearer if you say just the vowels and leave off the [b] and [t]. Now try them in the order of bat, bet, bit; bait, beet, bite.

Congratulations. You’ve had your tongue for how long? And you may just be getting to know its ways better now.

But why would this happen? Does it seem too strange for words? Well, in fact, changes to pronunciation keep on happening, everywhere, all the time. A language never stops changing as long as it’s in active use by people who speak it as their first language. The Great Vowel Shift is just the best-known vowel shift. There’s one in the United States called the Northern Cities shift that is in progress now and is responsible for the raised and fronted “short” vowels you hear from Buffalonians and others on and near the Great Lakes (why Ann can sound like “Ian” and gone can sound like “gan” to people from elsewhere). Think, too, about how people from the southern US often say their vowels – they’re different from the way Northerners say them even though way, way back in the mists of time all English speakers said them about the same way. Think about the “Canadian raising” I talked about in “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes”: eyes versus ice, loud versus lout.

And listen around for some other changes that might be more evident in some groups of the population than others (younger people, for instance) – such as a lowering that makes test sound more like “tast.” Listen for changes to consonants too, and differences between different speakers. The one constant in language is change. And sometimes that change can get pretty weird.

Next: on to consonants.

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.

Sharpening and vowel shifts


Look at these two pictures. They’re the same photo, of course. Do you detect a slight difference? Does the second one seem somehow… sharper than the first?

It’s had some sharpening applied to it. Not a massive amount, but enough to make a difference. It’s something that I often do after resizing photos, since sharpness is often lost in the process. And it’s something that a lot of digital cameras do automatically to their JPEGs so they’ll look, well, sharper.

How does it work? Here are close-ups (500% magnification) of details from the two. What do you see?


I’ll tell you what you see: increased contrast, especially at edges – that is to say, places where there is already some contrast. It’s not that every last dark is darker and every last light is lighter; it’s that near the places where dark and light, or two different colours, come together, the difference is increased slightly.

If you oversharpen a photo, it can looks pretty frickin’ bad. Like someone wearing really excessive lipliner, heavy eyeliner with heavy highlighter right next to it…

It’s just gone too far. But you know, when it works, it works for the same reason that lipliner and eyeliner work: our eyes (and brains) love not just contrast but edges.

Look at kids’ drawings (or the average adult’s, for that matter). If they draw someone in solid clothing on a solid background, do they just make two fields of colour? Or do they draw outlines (and sometimes just lines)? (Answer: the latter, natch.)

When the light comes into our eyes, and when our eyes send it to the brain, what we’re seeing is just colour next to colour. But we look for edges. We even fill i edges in places where we don’t actually see them. Part of that is coloured by real-world experience – we can identify a figure even when the contrast within the figure is greater than the contrast at the edges because we have expectations regarding the shape of the figure. But part of it is just that we are made to find edges and we like contrast. Clarity. It’s well adapted. It makes it easier to deal with the real world. We see what we see, but we think of it how we think of it.

This also applies to sounds. We hear a continuous flow of sound, but we are able to parse it into separate phonemes when we know the language. We also perceive different sounds as being the same if they fit into the same expected phoneme – and we can hear the same sound as different it is presenting different phonemes (for instance, many people will say both vowels in kitchen the same but hearers will still perceive them as different). I talk about this phenomenon – categorical perception – in “Nothing to chauffeur a classiomatic” and “oot & aboot.”

It also plays a role in another phonological process, one that happens not in the instance of production and reception but over time over large areas: vowel shifts.

Vowel shifts are when some of the vowels (anywhere from one to all, but usually a certain set in a mutualle affecting way) in a language, or at least one dialect of a language, come to be pronounced differently from how they had been before. Many languages have undergone vowel shifts, and they are still taking place – a thing called the Northern Cities Shift has been going on in northeastern US cities for several decades, resulting in Buffalonians sounding to Torontonians as though they’re saying “Ian has gan to the affice” when they’re saying “Ann has gone to the office.”

The causes of vowel shifts are much argued over and certainly not exceedingly clear to anyone. Some people even argue that what we think of as shifts are often not shifts but mergers and similar other movements. I’m not going to hazard as guess as to why shifts happen. But there is one thing that vowels in shifts often – not always, but with a certain frequency – tend to do: diphthongize. They become a movement from one vowel sound to another.

Some examples: A sound like the a in father may become like the a in fate. A sound like o in toll may become like the o a in to all. A sound like the oo in loot may become like the ou in lout. A sound like the e in ell may become like the ye in yell. A sound like the i in machine may become like the i in mine. A sound like the a in bat may become like the i in bite.

Not all of these happen in the same language – some are not too likely to happen together in the same language, in fact. Not all of these are found in English. But what they all have in common is that they heighten the contrast. They use a glide (“w”, “y”) or contrasting vowel sound to make the original sound stand out more, and they may also move the original sound farther in the other direction from the glide. A high and tight sound (“ee”, “oo”) may get a leap into it from a lower, more open sound (becoming “ay”, “ow”). It may happen the opposite way: a glide opens into the sound (“et” becomes “yet”). Or the sound releases out (“toll” to “to all”). Or it becomes two sounds on opposite sides of the original (“bat” to “bite”).

In a way it’s similar to what we do to some consonants when we emphasize them: add an “uh” after them, or at least a strong puff of air. Think of the Barbara Woodhouse style of dog training: “Sit-tuh!”

These are certainly not the only kinds of vowel shifts. Sometimes a vowel simply moves in one direction or another. In English, as I discuss in “An appreciation of English: A language in motion,” [a:] moved to [eɪ], [e:] moved to [i:], and [i:] moved to [aɪ], while [o:] moved to [u:] and [u:] moved to [aʊ]. The vowels at the top, not being able to move farther in the same direction as the others, added a contrast element to make them stand out. They emphasized their position at the top by the addition of a contrast from the bottom. The others just moved, maybe adding just a little bit of diphthongization.

It can go the other way, too. Sometimes a diphthong is even smoothed out into a single sound. Think of how southern Americans often say I: “Ah” – something that had become a diphthing has stoppped being one, but by deletion of exactly that part that was the original sound. There are always two opposing forces operating: ease of saying and clarity of hearing. The contrast effect wins out when there is need for a greater distinction of the vowel. Other vowels may have come to have sounds that are a bit too similar, for instance, so this vowel takes on a bit of sharpening. It’s sort of like a backswing that allows you to deliver a stronger blow. In golf, I mean, of course.

I won’t go into whether similar effects can also be discerned in other sensory input. But I have suddenly developed a strange craving for salty caramel…

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?” Continue reading