American english vowel chart

A vowel is a voiced sound produced in the mouth with no obstruction to the air stream. The air stream is weak. The tongue and the vocal cords are tense.

If we want to investigate the functions of vowels and consonants in speech, we first need to think about at which ‘positions’ they can occur in the speech chain and how the two classes of sounds can be combined with one another.



  • Vowels are classified by how high or low the tongue is, if the tongue is in the front or back of the mouth, and whether or not the lips are rounded
  • High vowels: [i] [ɪ] [u] [ʊ]
  • Mid vowels: [e] [ɛ] [o] [ə] [ʌ] [ɔ]
  • Low vowels: [æ] [a]
  • Front vowels: [i] [ɪ] [e] [ɛ] [æ]
  • Central vowels: [ə] [ʌ]
  • Back vowels: [u] [ɔ] [o] [æ] [a]
  • Round vowels: [u] [ʊ] [o] [ɔ]
    • Produced by rounding the lips
    • English has only back round vowels, but other languages such as French and Swedish have front round vowels
  • Diphthongs: [aɪ] [aʊ] [ɔɪ]
    • A sequence of two vowel sounds (as opposed to the monophthongs we have looked at so far)
  • Nasalization:
    • Vowels can also be pronounced with a lowered velum, allowing air to pass through the nose
    • In English, speakers nasalize vowels before a nasal sound, such as in the words

beam, bean, and bingo

  • The nasalization is represented by a diacritic, an extra mark placed with the symbol: bean [bîn]
  • Tense vowels:
    • Are produced with greater tension in the tongue
    • May occur at the end of words
  • Lax vowels:
    • Are produced with less tongue tension
    • May not occur at the end of words