Production of vowel sounds in phonetics

This section of the English Phonetics Academy designed to provide guidance and practice in English pronunciation through the use of phonetics. The exercises and drills included will aid in reducing accents and improving overall speech sound production. These lessons are particularly beneficial for non-native speakers looking to improve their English-speaking skills.

6. The vowels of GA

Vowels are difficult to describe in that, unlike consonants, it’s impossible to give an exact position of the speech organs.

For example, the bilabial plosive /p/ is produced by first bringing the lips together (bilabial) to form a complete closure, air pressure is built up behind the lips and then released (plosive). But, if there was a space between the lips (so that air could pass through) during the production of the sound, we would be talking about a fricative and not a plosive anymore.

The point is that a consonant can be a stop or a fricative but not somewhere in between. This is possible, however, when describing vowels.

For example, we can say that to produce /uː/ you arch the back of your tongue toward the soft palate, close but not touching. But for /ʊ/ you do the same, except that the tongue is not as close to the palate as it is for /uː/.

That is to say, the boundaries between vowels are not absolute; rather, they’re on a continuum.

6.1 Modifying the speech tract

We can describe the production of vowels in the following ways (keep in mind that these are relative descriptions and not definitions):

1. Nasalization

A vowel can be nasalized by lowering the velum to allow air to escape through the nasal cavity and the oral cavity at the same time. There are no GA vowels which are phonemically nasalized (as in the case with French or Portuguese). Rather, nasalization is determined by context.

2. Position of the lips

You can also change the quality of the vowel by rounding or spreading your lips. To pronounce /uː/ in GA you round your lips; to produce /iː/ you spread them.

If you say the AN vowels /i/ and /y/ (of (Piet and Ruud) after each other, without putting a [ʔ] in between, you can feel your lips round and unround, while your tongue is virtually immobilized.Notice that vowels can vary in the degree of rounding: GA /uː/ is rounder than /ʊ/, while /iː/ is produced with the lips pulled toward the corners, like a smile.

3. Size of the oral cavity

We can also talk about the size of the oral cavity – or how open or closed it is. An open sound like GA /ɑː/ or /æ/ is made with the jaw low, and the mouth wide open.

In GA, the jaw is generally opener than for AN open vowels like /aˑ, ɑ/. You may find it embarrassing to open your mouth sufficiently wide: the thing to do here, as always, is to watch and see how native speakers do it.

A close sound like /iː/ is made with the mouth almost closed. The vowels /iː/ and /uː/ are both close and one way to distinguish between them is to say that for /iː/ the blade of the tongue is arched toward the front of the mouth and for /uː/ the back of the tongue is raised toward the velum.

6.1.1 The vowel diagram

In the vowel diagram, a number of tongue and lip positions are indicated. Squares stand for unrounded vowels, and circles for rounded ones. The idea is that you try and develop some awareness of these tongue-lip postures by going through these positions.

First, notice that for all vowels, the tongue tip is held behind the lower teeth, while the body of the tongue is bunched. This bunch can vary in a vertical dimension, for which four steps are recognized: close, half-close, half-open, and open. The term mid is also used, to refer to the area from half-open to half-close.

Horizontally, the bunch can go from front to back, with central being used as an in-between value.

Say short versions of the AN vowels /i/ (as in iets), /e./ (as in eer), /ɛ/ (as in ets) and /a./ (as in Aad) quickly after each other and feel how your jaw is lowered four times going from [i] through [ɛ] and [e] to [a].

If you find it difficult to feel these steps you should ‘mouth’ the vowels without making any sound so that you can concentrate better on what your tongue and jaw are doing. Now do the same with the AN vowels /u/ (as in Oek), /o./ (as in oor), /ɔː/ (as in katastrofe) and /ɑ/ (as in ach).

You have now produced the same steps, but this time with the back of the tongue instead of with the front of the tongue.

In addition to feeling what the tongue and jaw are doing, notice how the position of the lips changes from rounded in [u], [o] and [ɔ] to unrounded in [ɑ].

6.2 Tense and lax vowels

GA vowels can be divided into two groups: lax vowels, which can only occur in closed syllables (ending in a consonant), and tense vowels, which have no such restriction. This is shown in the table below.

tense lax closed syllables open syllables
beat bee
ɪ bit
bait bay
 ɛ bet
 æ bat
ɑː hot ah
boat low
 ʊ good
boot boo
 ʌ but
bite buy
bout bough
ɔɪ void boy

There are a number of differences between these two classes of vowels.

First, lax vowels tend to be centralized, i.e. pronounced closer to /ə/ than tense vowels.

Second, lax vowels tend to be monophthongal, while tense vowels tend to be diphthongal. That is, even for GA /iː, uː, eɪ, oʊ/, the tongue tends to move off in a closer direction.
Monophthongs are produced with a more or less stationary tongue and lip position, while diphthongs are produced with a movement of the tongue, with or without a change in lip position.

Thus, in GA /aɪ/ there is a closing movement of the front of the tongue while the lips are kept unrounded, in GA /aʊ/ there’s a closing movement of the back of the tongue with a simultaneous change from unrounded to rounded lips, while in GA /ɔɪ/ the hump of the tongue ‘rolls’ forward from back to front, while at the same time the lip position changes from rounded to unrounded.

Third, lax vowels tend to be shorter, although for open vowels the length distinction has been neutralized. Thus, while GA /ɪ/ is shorter than GA /iː/ in identical contexts as in bid and bead, /ʌ/ in e.g. mud is almost as long as a /ɑː/ in mod.

6.3 Monophthongs

6.3.1 GA /iː/ and /ɪ/, and weak /i/
6.3.2 GA /uː/ and /ʊ/, and weak /u/
6.3.3 /eɪ/
6.3.4 strong /oʊ/ and weak /oʊ/
6.3.5 /ɛ/ and /æ/
6.3.6 /ɑː/
6.3.7 optional section: /ɑː/ or /ɒː/
6.3.8 /ʌ/ and /ə/

6.3.1 GA /iː/ and /ɪ/, and weak /i/

GA /iː/ is a close, front, unrounded vowel. To produce the sound, arch the blade of your tongue as high as you can (without touching) between the alveolar ridge and the hard palate.

You should only lower your jaw slightly, so that your teeth are barely parted. Spread your lips apart and pull them back toward the corners of your mouth. /iː/ is phonemically long.

GA /ɪ/ is a half-close, centralized front, unrounded vowel. The tongue is not quite as high as for /iː/ and the lips are more relaxed, still slightly parted. /ɪ/ is a short vowel occurring in both strong and weak syllables. In weak syllables it can be replaced with /ə/, as explained in Chapter 2.

Weak GA /i/ may be somewhat shorter than /iː/, and will be monophthongal in most occurrences, as in easy, radio, Indiana.

6.3.2 GA /uː/ and /ʊ/, and weak /u/

The GA vowel /uː/ is close, centralized back, rounded. The back of the tongue should be raised toward the soft palate (velum) – higher than for any other vowel in GA. The vowel is considerably more front than AN /u/, and may in fact lie halfway between AN /u/ and /y/ in quality.

GA /ʊ/ is a half-close, centralized back, rounded vowel. The tongue is slightly lower, the back of the tongue is slightly more forward, and the lips should be less round than for /uː/. GA /ʊ/ is short.

Weak GA /u/ may be somewhat shorter that /uː/, and will be monophthongal in most occurrences, as in situation, innuendo.

Learners often confuse /uː/ and /ʊ/, substituting /u/ for /ʊ/, which to GA speakers would sound about the same as /uː/. Remember that hood, stood, soot, foot, good, wood, should, could, and would are /ʊ/, which is pronounced with a vowel similar to the one in the second syllable of AN

Say this word a couple of times, and then cut yourself short just before making the /k/: hold the vowel, and this is as close as you can expect to get to GA /ʊ/ on the basis of a similar native language word. You should have less rounding than for AN /u/.

For GA /uː/ try and produce a quality between AN /y/ and /u/, and then make it diphthongal, like /oˑ/. Round your lips and push them slightly forward (/uː/ is also the most rounded vowel in GA).

/uː/ -Fronting
In some dialects /uː/ is fronted to a quality much like AN /y/, particularly after /j/. So the words use and cute would be pronounced: [jʉːt] and [kjʉːt] or [jyːz] and [kjyːt]. You may wish not to front the vowel quite like this.

6.3.3 GA /eɪ/

GA /eɪ/ begins with a half-close, front, unrounded vowel, in which the blade of the tongue is raised to a point halfway between the hard palate and the bottom of the mouth.

Pull the lips back. As you produce this sound your tongue should glide upward and forward to a point just below the relative tongue height for /ɪ/. Like all tense vowels, /eɪ/ is phonemically long.

Some examples of words containing /eɪ/ (note spellings):
late, ache, nation, potato, patriot, behave
rain, mail, raise, praise, straight
pay, May
steak, break
obey, weigh (unusual spelling)

6.3.4 Strong and weak GA /oʊ/

GA /oʊ/ begins somewhat further back than does AN /oˑ/, and does not end as closed vowel. Also, depending on how you pronounce, the GA vowel may be more open.

Some words containing strong /oʊ/:
go, open, smoke, yolk /joʊk/, comb /koʊm/, envelope, hotel
• coat, toast, road
• show, row, know
• soul, although
• toe, Joe
• sew
(unusual spelling)

Weak GA /oʊ/ tends to be monophthongal, and may shade off toward a central quality ([ə]). On the analogy of the symbols /i/ and /u/, it would have been a good idea to write /o/ for weak /oʊ/, but the LPD does not have it, and we will follow that work here.

Some words with weak /oʊ/:
window, fellow, follow, hollow
• tomato, potato, lotto, motto, Mephisto
• November, notation, momentous

6.3.5 GA /ɛ/ and /æ/

GA /ɛ/ is a half-open, front, unrounded vowel. The jaw is slightly lower than for the first vowel in the diphthong /eɪ/. The tip of the tongue may touch the back of the front bottom teeth. Relax your lips. Recently, this vowel has tended to become more open and central.

/æ/ is an open, front, unrounded vowel. Arch the blade of your tongue forward and let the tip rest against the base of the front bottom teeth. Draw your lips toward the corners of your mouth (as you do when you smile), with the muscles slightly tensed.

A noticeable change in the pronunciation of GA /æ/ has been taking place in the urban speech of the Eastern States. It involves the tensing of lax /æ/. This means that the vowel is becoming longer, and tends to diphthongize.

The first element is very front, while the second element is central. So instead of a centralized [æ] we get [æə]. At the same time, there is a tendency to make the vowel more close, as a result of which we get pronunciations like [ɛə] or even [eə].

Because tensing and raising of the vowel usually goes hand in hand in cities like Philadelphia, Buffalo, New York City, Syracuse, Rochester, etc., we may use the term /æ/-TENSING to refer to both phenomena.

The process is most likely to apply before voiceless fricatives and /m, n/, provided these consonants close the syllable concerned. For other speakers, also voiced plosives may trigger the rule. Notice that in these contexts, it remains distinct from GA /ɛ/, which may be more open than some realizations of /æ/, but would still be more central and lack the diphthongization (in these dialects).

ban Ben gas guess
can’t Kent flash flesh
bad bed tan ten
laugh deaf ham hem
path Beth man men

/æ/-TENSING is least common before voiceless stops: rap, fat, sack [ræp, fæt, sæk].

6.3.6 GA /ɑː/

GA /ɑː/ is an open, back, unrounded vowel. The tongue tip and blade should lie as flat as possible in the mouth. Open your mouth wide (as if a doctor were holding down your tongue with a depressor and asking you to say ah) and let the back raise slightly.

The jaw for GA /ɑː/ and /æ/ tends to be more open than for the open vowels of AN. There is also more muscular tension in the lower jaw, in a way we find difficult to describe. It would appear that the muscles of the tongue and lips, as well as the muscles at the corners of the mouth and just under the chin, are tensed.

6.3.7 Optional section: /ɑː/ or /ɒː/

Some Midwesterners and many speakers in the Eastern States pronounce cot and caught as /kɑːt/ and /kɒːt/. (Pronunciation and spelling information from Handschuh and de Geigel, Improving Oral Communication (1985)) Speakers who pronounce both types of words with the vowel /ɑː/ might not hear a difference and might not know why Midwesterners misunderstand them.

As there is no stigmatization about which is right or wrong (unlike r dropping which is seen as nonstandard in American English), you can choose whether or not to make a distinction. If you want to make the distinction, the following guidelines will be useful.

1. /ɑː/ is represented in writing by:
• a: in most stressed syllables followed by r or r + consonant: far, army, card, farther
• o: as in odd, lock, mob, doll
Note: words in which o is followed by double r may be pronounced /ɑː/ or /ɒː/: sorry, tomorrow
2. The following combination of letters are almost always pronounced /ɒː/ in the Midwestern dialect:
• consonant + o + ss: boss, loss, toss
• consonant + a + ll: ball, call, tall
• consonant + au: sauce
• consonant + aw: lawn
• all other past forms ending in ought, aught, such as fought, cought

6.3.8 GA /ʌ/ and /ə/

GA /ʌ/ is a central, half-open, unrounded vowel. It’s often assumed that the only difference between /ʌ/ and /ə/ is that /ʌ/ occurs in strong syllables and /ə/ in weak syllables. However, /ʌ/ is considerably more open. Although /ʌ/ is a lax vowel, it is quite long.

Advice for learners:
Learners often have difficulty in hearing and making the difference between /ʌ/ and /ɑː/. One thing you must make absolutely sure of is that you know where which phoneme is used. Note that /ʌ/ is usually spelled “u” or “o” as in cup and love, and /ɑː/ usually “a” and “o”. The spelling “o”, therefore, is likely to give you cause to go to the LPD.

For /ʌ/, try and use the quality of the AN /ɑ/ of Adje, and use it in duller.
For /ɑː/ open the mouth wide, and make a really open back vowel. Try it in dollar.

Here are some minimal pairs with /ɑː/ and /ʌ/: Practice saying them.

ɑː ʌ
sock /sɑːk/ suck /sʌk/
hot /hɑːt/ hut /hʌt/
not /nɑːt/ nut /nʌt/
cotton /ˈkɑːt̬ən/ cuttin’ /ˈkʌt̬ɪn/
pot /pɑːt/ putt /pʌt /
dock /dɑːk/ duck /dʌk/
shot /ʃɑːt/ shut /ʃʌt/
robber /ˈrɑːbər/ rubber /ˈrʌbər/

Weak /ə/ is short. lts quality is central unrounded, and ranges from half-close to half-open, depending on context. Before palato-alveolars and velars, it is closish, and, particularly before velars, it can be interpreted as /ɪ/. In word-final position, it is openish, and may be close to the usual quality of /ʌ/, as in villa, Amanda.

6.4 Diphthongs

6.4.1 /aɪ/ and /aʊ/
6.4.2 /ɔɪ/

6.4.1 GA /aɪ/ and /aʊ/

For both /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ you begin with an open, mid-front, unrounded vowel.

GA /aɪ/ ends in a centralized, half-close, front vowel.

GA /aʊ/ ends in a centralized, half-close, rounded, back vowel.

Advice for learners:
The problem for some students is that they usually don’t begin with the first vowel open enough (as is the problem with /ɑː/ and /æ/ as well).

Some words containing /aɪ/:
island, sign, bicycle’
• side, quite, guide
• my, cycle
• high, night
• lie, tie

Some words containing /aʊ/:
how, shower, towel, crowd, sow
out, shout, pronounce, fountain, announce, boundary

In Southern American dialects /aɪ/ is often monophthongized to /aː/, i.e. there is no centering glide. In some dialects /aʊ/ is fronted, so that the words now and loud would be pronounced: [næʊ] and [læʊd], with the tongue positioned as for /æ/.

6.4.2 GA /ɔɪ/

GA /ɔɪ/ begins much like AN /ɔ/, or possibly a little opener if you have a close (western) variety of the AN vowel. The second element may be between GA /ə/ and /ɪ/.

Some words containing /ɔɪ/:
noise, oil, avoid, poison, disappoint
• boy, loyal, royal, annoy

6.5 R-colored vowels

Crudely, rhotacization (or r-colored vowels) means that you pronounce GA /r/ simultaneously with the vowel.

Ladefoged (1975) states that rhotacization may come from different articulatory gestures such as retracting the front of the tongue; a bunching up of the back of the tongue; a retraction of the root of the tongue into the pharynx.

In GA, the vowels /ɜr/ and /ər/ are entirely rhotacized, as in firm, offer, and for many speakers also /ɛr/, /ɔr/, and /ɑr/ are fully rhotacized, as in share, four, star.

In the case of the close vowels, /ɪr/ and /ʊr/, only the second half is rhotacized. The vocalic quality of GA /ɪr/ and /ʊr/ varies between GA /iː/ and /ɪ/, and /uː/ and /ʊ/, respectively. Observe that there is no opposition between tense vowels and lax vowels before /r/, and the choice of symbol therefore is somewhat arbitrary.

Some examples are:
beer, fear, frontier, reindeer, here, nearer, mirror
pure, manure, Europe, moor, tour, Boer

Some speakers use /jɜr/ instead of /jʊr/ in more frequent words. Try it if you like.

For GA /ɛr/ use the vowel quality as for GA /ɛ/.
bear, Eric, vary, parent, pairing, narrow, air, heir

The vocalic quality of GA /ɔr/ is much like that of AN /ɔr/.
bore, for, four, gourd, morning, mourning, cork, orb, Morse, cores

GA /ɜr/ and /ər/ have the same quality, as in bird and honor. They can be produced by bulging the tongue high in the mouth somewhere between the soft and hard palates. The sides of the tongue should touch the upper back teeth, but the center of the tongue should not touch the roof of the mouth. (These vowels could also be transcribed as /r̩/.)

6.6 Pre-fortis clipping

As mentioned earlier, it is misleading to refer to lax vowels as short vowels because some of the opener lax vowels are actually quite long. A more important durational rule is the following:

PRE-FORTIS CLIPPING: Regardless of phonemic classification, vowels (and sonorant consonants) are shortened before fortis obstruents in the same syllable.
That is, the voiced part of the syllable rhyme is short when the coda is fortis. We work out the details below:

1. Vowels in open syllables (this of course only affects tense vowels), e.g. see /siː/ and shoe /ʃuː/ are almost twice as long as vowels before fortis consonants, e.g. seat /siːt/ and shoot /ʃuːt/.

2. Before lenis obstruents, vowels are almost twice as long as when they are before fortis consonants. The lenis obstruents are, of course, /b, d, g, v ð, z, ʒ/. (What are the fortis obstruents?)

As we will see in a following chapter, the lenis obstruents are frequently devoiced, so that to a large extent the distinction between /biːd/ and /biːt/ is phonetically expressed by the fact that vowel in bead is about twice as long as the vowel in beat. In spite of the fact that the rule is given as a ‘clipping’ rule, making the vowels too short in non-clipped contexts is one of the most common mistakes of some students.

Most students assume that they’re exaggerating the length but it’s better to overcompensate and make the vowel too long at first, than to not make any distinction at all. On the other hand, when GA /iː/ and /uː/ occur before fortis codas, some english learners often make these vowels too long, because they replace them with marginal AN /iː/ and /uː/ of analyse and rouge. So be careful to pronounce words like GA geese, goose, meet, moot, belief, aloof, leash, louche, keep, coop, leach, mooch, teak with shortish vowels, perhaps using the duration of AN /y/ as in Truus as a reference.

3. When the vowel is followed by a sonorant (GA /m, n, ŋ; l, r), the rule applies to the combination of vowel+sonorant. That is, /ɛn/ in send is about twice as long as /ɛn/ in cent. Particularly in the case of lax vowels, it is usually better to apply your lengthening efforts to the sonorant rather than the vowel. That is, say [senːːːd] rather than [seːːːnd].

Some minimal pairs are given below. They include cases with just a vowel before the final obstruent and cases with a vowel-plus-sonorant combination before the obstruent. In each case, the vowel (plus sonorant) in the second word is almost twice as long as the vowel (plus sonorant) in the first.

The pairs in the first two lines of each set of four have the ‘clipped’ word first, and the pairs in the second two lines have the ‘clipped’ word in second position.

Listen to the duration of the voiced portions in the four pairs below. Then try pronouncing them in the same way for the other pairs underneath.




Check to the following triplets.

The first two have longish vowels (and sonorants) while the third is clipped.

Now try these yourself.

6.7 Nasalization

A nasal sound is produced by lowering the velum to allow air to pass through the nasal cavity. Nasalization of vowels in English is an assimilatory process. In anticipation of a nasal consonant the soft palate lowers before the production of the nasal (and complete closure of the oral cavity) and the result is that the preceding vowel becomes nasalized as well. So we might transcribe the word soon as [suũn].

The same can also occur after a nasal, so that you might expect news to be transcribed as [nũuz]. The velum may remain lowered for vowels occurring between two nasals as in [mũũn], so that the vowel is completely nasalized.

A common stereotype many people have about American English is that it’s very nasal and when trying to do an American dialect they nasalize all their vowels. This is an exaggeration in that, nasalization is determined contextually, not phonemically, as it is in French (e.g. mais [mɛ] vs. main [mɛ̃]).

Can versus can’t

In GA the only real difference between can and can’t is the vowel quality, and not (as is often assumed by students) whether or not the t is pronounced. In GA they are pronounced as [kən] (or [kn̩]) and kæ̃nʔ or [kæ̃ʔ]). Note that the negative form is nasalized. The only time that unreduced /ae/ is used in the positive form is when there is no chance of misinterpretation as in Yes, I can (do it), or phonetically, [jɛs – aɪ ˈkæn (…)]. i.e. a response to an assumption on the part of the first speaker. Because it is followed by a fortis obstruent, the vowel in the negative form is shorter than the vowel in positive form.

6.8 Some American dialect features

The following are dialectal features affecting vowels. Keep in mind that you are not expected to adopt these features in your own speech.

Southern breaking



6.8.1 Southern breaking

The lax front vowels /ɪ, ɛ, æ/ tend to be pronounced with a glide toward [ə] in some Southern (American) dialects, particularly before nasals, fricatives, and lenis plosives. So as a result of SOUTHERN BREAKING, we get [rɪᵊb, ɪᵊn, bɛᵊd, tɛᵊn, hæᵊm, pæᵊs] for rib, in(n), bed, ten, ham, pass. In addition GA /æ/ may be diphthongized in the South to [æɪ], so that pass may sound like [pʰæᵊs].

This phenomenon should be kept distinct from Eastern æ-TENSING (see above), and PRE-1 BREAKING, to be discussed in the chapter on sonorants. The latter rule gives pronunciations like [miᵊɫ, hiᵊɫ, pʰuᵊɫ, meᵊɫ] for meal, heal, pool, fail, and mail.

6.8.2 Centralization

In some dialects speakers have a tendency to retract or centralize their vowels in all contexts, but especially after /w/. Centralization tends to affect the front lax vowels /ɪ, ɛ/. It is a common feature in the California variety of GA, particularly with younger speakers. So, for some speakers, west and twenty would be pronounced: [wɛ̈st] and [twɛ̈ni], where [ɛ̈] may begin to sound like /ʌ/.

6.8.3 /ʊ/-unrounding

Another dialect feature common with young GA speakers (in both the Midwest and California) is pronouncing /ʊ/ without lip rounding. We would transcribe the words good and book in those dialects as: [gɨd, bɨk].