In the last part of this blog we learned about what general phonetics is and consonants. In part 2, we learn about vowels. Just a heads up, anything in square brackets denotes the letter in the IPA, so please check all pronunciations on the IPA chart at ipachart.com if you are not fluent in IPA. So many symbols from the IPA and letters in English do not match in sound. A quick example of this is the letter “j” in English and [j] in IPA. The [j] sound in IPA makes a “ya” sound in English.
First, we have to understand the difference between a consonant and a vowel. Consonants are sounds in human speech that constrict air flow somewhere in the vocal tract. This constriction can occur from the inner throat all the way to the tip of your lips. These constrictions allow for hundreds of different sounds, which in part make most languages unique. Vowels, however, are the exact opposite. Vowels are sounds that have a relatively open vocal tract with no built-up air pressure anywhere. However there are many overlapping qualities between consonants and vowels. Consonants don’t always have to be hard stops. They work more in a sliding scale of constriction in the air flow. Glide consonants are the most vowel-like consonants, as they do not restrict the airflow too much. Examples of these include [w] [j] (check the IPA website https://www.ipachart.com/ for the pronunciations). However there is still some constriction in the form of slight mouth constrictions.
For a comprehensive list of vowels and consonants you can also check that out at ipachart.com. When you click on each letter, you can hear the sound it makes.
To phoneticians, vowels are extremely significant to the development of language sounds and are usually the reason for sound change throughout history. Vowels are susceptible to change due to the nature of the open mouthed sounds (historical phonology is a subject I will cover in one of my other blogs). There are two forms of vowels: Monophthongs and Diphthongs. Monophthongs are single, simple vowels. An example of this is the [a] sound in father. The [a] sound in father is a simple, one vowel sound. The other form is a diphthong. Diphthongs are complex, two-part vowels that involve movement from one vowel to another. An example of this is in my. If broken down into a phonological sense, my can be represented as “mai”. “My” in IPA is [maɪ]. Usually, we would expect a hat over the [a] and [ɪ] to show that it is a diphthong. I have provided a vowel list (monophthongs only) below, with its correlated sounds.
The contour of one’s mouth, tongue, face, vocal cords and vocal tract is called segmental features. Let’s try to examine the segmental features of vowels. These include tongue height, placement of tongue, rounding of tongue, tensing of mouth. Vowel height determines the height of your tongue while uttering vowels. Vowel height can be categorized into three different positions - High, mid, and low. Tongue advancement determines where most of the tongue mass lies in the mouth when pronouncing vowels. They include front, central and back vowels. Rounding of vowels determine if the lip is rounded or not while pronouncing the vowels. Example of rounding in vowels include the [o] and [ʊ] sounds. There is another segmental feature (tensing and lax), however this is not as important as the rest. We can classify vowels using only their segmental features as well. For example, [ə] would be a mid central unrounded vowel.
This blog covered the introduction of phonetic concepts relating to vowels. The next blog in this series on phonetics will cover the IPA chart and how to interpret it with the segmental features we have learned.