Describing Vowel Sounds

 Describing Vowel Sounds

Unlike consonants, in which the airstream is constricted somewhere in the vocal tract, vowels are pronounced without any constriction at all in the airstream. Vowels usually function as the nuclei of syllables and the consonants that surround them often depend on the vowel for the audibility. For example, in the word pop, neither [p] has much sound of its own. The [p]s are heard because of the vowel [a:].
To describe vowels, we use different features than those we use for consonants. To describe vowels, we indicate:
  1. raising or lowering the body of the tongue toward the roof of the mouth (the palate).
  2. advancing or retracting the body of the tongue forward toward the teeth or backward toward the back of the throat.
  3. rounding or not rounding the lips.
  4. making these movements with a tense or lax gesture in the lips or tongue.
Below are three diagrams the illustrate the position of the tongue when vowel sounds are articulated.
High front vowel [i:], as in eatLow front vowel [@], as in patHigh back vowel [u:], as in moo
The body of the tongue is raised toward the palate and forward toward the lips.The body of the tongue is low in the mouth and forward toward the lips.The body of the tongue is raised toward the palate but also back towards the back of the throat.

Describing Vowel Sounds with the Vowel Chart

The following vowel chart can be used for easy reference. The three-part description is given in this order: Voicing - Place - Manner. To find the description of a sound:
  1. Locate the phonetic symbol on the chart. You can click the symbol to hear the sound pronounced, if you wish, as well as sample words containing that sound.
  2. Check the column at the left to see whether the tongue height is high, mid, or low.
  3. Then look at the top of the chart to see where the tongue is in the mouth.
  4. The check that the sound is in to see if the lips are rounded.
  5. Finally, check to see the laxness or tenseness of the vowels. For example, locate [o:]. It is in the row indicating mid tongue height. Now look above the [o:]. It is in the vertical column marked back. Finally, the color of the cell is orange, indicating a tense and lax vowel. Therefore, [o:] is mid back tense round.
The Vowel Chart
(Click the speakers to hear the sound and sample words) Click here for a print-friendly copy of the vowel chart(.pdf)
Tongue Height
Tongue Advancement






 beat, we, believe, people, money
 in, bit, consist, injury, business
 put, foot, butcher, could
 boot, who, sewer, duty, through






 bait, reign, great, they, gauge

 bet, reception, says, guest, bury
 but, tough, another, oven, cinema
 bought, caught, wrong, stalk
 boat, beau, grow, though,over






 bat, laugh,anger, comrade, rally
 pot, father, sergeant, honor, hospital
tense vowels
tense and round
lax and round

In addition, dipthongs are two-part articulations of vowels sounds:  
dipthongmovement of the tongue body from the first sound to the secondsample words


low/back to high/front bite, stein, aisle, choir, island  


low to high bout, brown, doubt, flower, loud  


mid/back to high/front boy, doily, rejoice, annoy  

and . . .


(not a dipthong but a vowel with a consonant pronounced as one sound)  turn, learn, girl, world

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