Paired vowels are: unrounded • rounded
Manners of articulation
No audible release
Place of articulation
Vowels form one of the two principal classes of speech sound, the
other being that of consonants. Vowels vary in quality, in loudness
and also in quantity (length). They are usually voiced, and are
closely involved in prosodic variation such as tone, intonation and
Vowel sounds are produced with an open vocal tract. The word
vowel comes from the
Latin word vocalis, meaning "vocal" (i.e.
relating to the voice). In English, the word vowel is commonly used
to refer both to vowel sounds and to the written symbols that
2.3 Front, raised and retracted
2.7 Tongue root retraction
2.8 Secondary narrowings in the vocal tract
2.8.1 Rhotic vowels
2.9 Tenseness/checked vowels versus free vowels
4 Prosody and intonation
5 Monophthongs, diphthongs, triphthongs
6 Written vowels
7 Audio samples
8.1 Words without vowels
8.2 Words consisting of only vowels
9 See also
12 External links
There are two complementary definitions of vowel, one phonetic and the
In the phonetic definition, a vowel is a sound, such as the English
"ah" /ɑː/ or "oh" /oʊ/, produced with an open vocal tract; it is
median (the air escapes along the middle of the tongue), oral (at
least some of the airflow must escape through the mouth), frictionless
and continuant. There is no significant build-up of air pressure at
any point above the glottis. This contrasts with consonants, such as
the English "sh" [ʃ], which have a constriction or closure at some
point along the vocal tract.
In the phonological definition, a vowel is defined as syllabic, the
sound that forms the peak of a syllable. A phonetically equivalent
but non-syllabic sound is a semivowel. In oral languages, phonetic
vowels normally form the peak (nucleus) of many or all syllables,
whereas consonants form the onset and (in languages that have them)
coda. Some languages allow other sounds to form the nucleus of a
syllable, such as the syllabic (i.e., vocalic) l in the English word
table [ˈtʰeɪ.bl̩] (when not considered to have a weak vowel sound:
[ˈtʰeɪ.bəl]) or the syllabic r in the
Serbo-Croatian word vrt
The phonetic definition of "vowel" (i.e. a sound produced with no
constriction in the vocal tract) does not always match the
phonological definition (i.e. a sound that forms the peak of a
syllable). The approximants [j] and [w] illustrate this: both are
without much of a constriction in the vocal tract (so phonetically
they seem to be vowel-like), but they occur at the onset of syllables
(e.g. in "yet" and "wet") which suggests that phonologically they are
consonants. A similar debate arises over whether a word like bird in a
rhotic dialect has an r-colored vowel /ɝ/ or a syllabic consonant
/ɹ̩/. The American linguist
Kenneth Pike (1943) suggested the terms
"vocoid" for a phonetic vowel and "vowel" for a phonological vowel,
so using this terminology, [j] and [w] are classified as vocoids but
not vowels. However, Maddieson and Emmory (1985) demonstrated from a
range of languages that semivowels are produced with a narrower
constriction of the vocal tract than vowels, and so may be considered
consonants on that basis. Nonetheless, the phonetic and phonemic
definitions would still conflict for the syllabic /l/ in table, or the
syllabic nasals in button and rhythm.
X-rays of Daniel Jones' [i, u, a, ɑ].
The original vowel quadrilateral, from Jones' articulation. The vowel
trapezoid of the modern IPA, and at the top of this article, is a
simplified rendition of this diagram. The bullets are the cardinal
vowel points. (A parallel diagram covers the front and central rounded
and back unrounded vowels.) The cells indicate the ranges of
articulation that could reasonably be transcribed with those cardinal
vowel letters, [i, e, ɛ, a, ɑ, ɔ, o, u, ɨ], and non-cardinal [ə].
If a language distinguishes fewer than these vowel qualities, [e, ɛ]
could be merged to [e], [o, ɔ] to [o], [a, ɑ] to [a], etc. If a
language distinguishes more, [ɪ] could be added where the ranges of
[i, e, ɨ, ə] intersect, [ʊ] where [u, o, ɨ, ə] intersect, and
[ɐ] where [ɛ, ɔ, a, ɑ, ə] intersect.
The traditional view of vowel production, reflected for example in the
terminology and presentation of the International
is one of articulatory features that determine a vowel's quality as
distinguishing it from other vowels. Daniel Jones developed the
cardinal vowel system to describe vowels in terms of the features of
tongue height (vertical dimension), tongue backness (horizontal
dimension) and roundedness (lip articulation). These three parameters
are indicated in the schematic quadrilateral IPA vowel diagram on the
right. There are additional features of vowel quality, such as the
velum position (nasality), type of vocal fold vibration (phonation),
and tongue root position.
This conception of vowel articulation has been known to be inaccurate
Peter Ladefoged has said that "early phoneticians...
thought they were describing the highest point of the tongue, but they
were not. They were actually describing formant frequencies." (See
below.) The IPA Handbook concedes that "the vowel quadrilateral must
be regarded as an abstraction and not a direct mapping of tongue
Nonetheless, the concept that vowel qualities are determined primarily
by tongue position and lip rounding continues to be used in pedagogy,
as it provides an intuitive explanation of how vowels are
Vowel height is named for the vertical position of the tongue relative
to either the roof of the mouth or the aperture of the jaw. However,
it actually refers to the first formant (lowest resonance of the
voice), abbreviated F1, which is associated with the height of the
tongue. In close /kloʊs/ vowels, also known as high vowels, such as
[i] and [u], the first formant is consistent with the tongue being
positioned close to the palate, high in the mouth, whereas in open
vowels, also known as low vowels, such as [a], F1 is consistent with
the jaw being open and the tongue being positioned low in the mouth.
Height is defined by the inverse of the F1 value: The higher the
frequency of the first formant, the lower (more open) the vowel.
International Phonetic Alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet defines seven degrees of vowel
height, but no language is known to distinguish all of them:
The letters [e, ø, ɤ, o] are typically used for either close-mid or
true-mid vowels. However, if more precision is required, true-mid
vowels may be written with a lowering diacritic [e̞, ø̞, ɤ̞,
o̞]. The Kensiu language, spoken in Malaysia and Thailand, is highly
unusual in that it contrasts true-mid with close-mid and open-mid
vowels, without any difference in other parameters like backness or
Although English contrasts six heights in its vowels, they are
interdependent with differences in backness, and many are parts of
diphthongs. It appears that some varieties of German have five vowel
heights that contrast independently of length or other parameters. The
Bavarian dialect of Amstetten has thirteen long vowels, which are
reported to distinguish five heights (close, close-mid, mid, open-mid
and open) each among the front unrounded, front rounded, and back
rounded vowels as well as an open central vowel, for a total of five
vowel heights: /i e ɛ̝ ɛ/, /y ø œ̝ œ/, /u o ɔ̝ ɔ/, /ä/.
Otherwise, no language is known to contrast more than four degrees of
The parameter of vowel height appears to be the primary
cross-linguistic feature of vowels in that all spoken languages use
height as a contrastive feature. No other parameter, even backness or
rounding (see below), is used in all languages. Some languages have
vertical vowel systems in which at least at a phonemic level, only
height is used to distinguish vowels.
Idealistic tongue positions of cardinal front vowels with highest
Vowel backness is named for the position of the tongue during the
articulation of a vowel relative to the back of the mouth. As with
vowel height, however, it is defined by a formant of the voice, in
this case the second, F2, not by the position of the tongue. In front
vowels, such as [i], the frequency of F2 is relatively high, which
generally corresponds to a position of the tongue forward in the
mouth, whereas in back vowels, such as [u], F2 is low, consistent with
the tongue being positioned towards the back of the mouth.
International Phonetic Alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet defines five degrees of vowel
To them may be added front-central and back-central, corresponding to
the vertical lines separating central from front and back vowel spaces
in several IPA diagrams.
Although English has vowels at five degrees of backness, there is no
known language that distinguishes five degrees of backness without
additional differences in height or rounding.
Front, raised and retracted
Front, raised and retracted are the three articulatory dimensions of
The conception of the tongue moving in two directions, high–low and
front–back, is not supported by articulatory evidence and does not
clarify how articulation affects vowel quality. Vowels may instead be
characterized by the three directions of movement of the tongue from
its neutral position: front, raised, and retracted. Front vowels ([i,
e, ɛ] and, to a lesser extent [a, ɨ, ɘ, ɜ], etc.), can be
secondarily qualified as close or open, as in the traditional
conception, but rather than there being a unitary category of back
vowels, the regrouping posits raised vowels, where the body of the
tongue approaches the velum ([u, o, ɨ], etc.), and retracted vowels,
where the root of the tongue approaches the pharynx ([ɑ, ɔ], etc.):
Membership in these categories is scalar, with the mid-central vowels
being marginal to any category.
Main article: Roundedness
Roundedness is named after the rounding of the lips in some vowels.
Because lip rounding is easily visible, vowels may be commonly
identified as rounded based on the articulation of the lips.
Acoustically, rounded vowels are identified chiefly by a decrease in
F2, although F1 is also slightly decreased.
In most languages, roundedness is a reinforcing feature of mid to high
back vowels rather than a distinctive feature. Usually, the higher a
back vowel, the more intense is the rounding. However, in some
languages, roundedness is independent from backness, such as French
and German (with front rounded vowels), most Uralic languages
(Estonian has a rounding contrast for /o/ and front vowels), Turkic
languages (with a rounding distinction for front vowels and /u/), and
Vietnamese with back unrounded vowels.
Nonetheless, even in those languages there is usually some phonetic
correlation between rounding and backness: front rounded vowels tend
to be more front-central than front, and back unrounded vowels tend to
be more back-central than back. Thus, the placement of unrounded
vowels to the left of rounded vowels on the IPA vowel chart is
reflective of their position in formant space.
Different kinds of labialization are possible. In mid to high rounded
back vowels the lips are generally protruded ("pursed") outward, a
phenomenon known as exolabial rounding because the insides of the lips
are visible, whereas in mid to high rounded front vowels the lips are
generally "compressed" with the margins of the lips pulled in and
drawn towards each other, a phenomenon known as endolabial rounding.
However, not all languages follow that pattern. Japanese /u/, for
example, is an endolabial (compressed) back vowel, and sounds quite
different from an English exolabial /u/. Swedish and Norwegian are the
only two known languages in which the feature is contrastive; they
have both endo- and exo-labial close front vowels and close central
vowels, respectively. In many phonetic treatments, both are considered
types of rounding, but some phoneticians do not believe that these are
subsets of a single phenomenon and posit instead three independent
features of rounded (exolabial) and compressed (endolabial) and
unrounded. The lip position of unrounded vowels may also be classified
separately as spread and neutral (neither rounded nor spread).
Others distinguish compressed rounded vowels, in which the corners of
the mouth are drawn together, from compressed unrounded vowels, in
which the lips are compressed but the corners remain apart as in
Nasal vowel and Nasalization
Nasalization refers to whether some of the air escapes through the
nose. In nasal vowels, the velum is lowered, and some air travels
through the nasal cavity as well as the mouth. An oral vowel is a
vowel in which all air escapes through the mouth. French, Polish and
Portuguese contrast nasal and oral vowels.
Main article: Phonation
Voicing describes whether the vocal cords are vibrating during the
articulation of a vowel. Most languages have only voiced vowels, but
several Native American languages, such as Cheyenne and Totonac,
contrast voiced and devoiced vowels. Vowels are devoiced in whispered
speech. In Japanese and in Quebec French, vowels that are between
voiceless consonants are often devoiced.
Modal voice, creaky voice, and breathy voice (murmured vowels) are
phonation types that are used contrastively in some languages. Often,
they co-occur with tone or stress distinctions; in the Mon language,
vowels pronounced in the high tone are also produced with creaky
voice. In such cases, it can be unclear whether it is the tone, the
voicing type, or the pairing of the two that is being used for
phonemic contrast. The combination of phonetic cues (phonation, tone,
stress) is known as register or register complex.
Tongue root retraction
Main article: Advanced and retracted tongue root
Advanced tongue root (ATR) is a feature common across much of Africa,
the Pacific Northwest, and scattered other languages such as Modern
Mongolian. The contrast between advanced and retracted tongue root
resembles the tense/lax contrast acoustically, but they are
articulated differently. Those vowels involve noticeable tension in
the vocal tract.
Secondary narrowings in the vocal tract
Main article: Pharyngealization
Pharyngealized vowels occur in some languages like Sedang and the
Pharyngealisation is similar in articulation to
retracted tongue root but is acoustically distinct.
A stronger degree of pharyngealisation occurs in the Northeast
Caucasian languages and the Khoisan languages. They might be called
epiglottalized since the primary constriction is at the tip of the
The greatest degree of pharyngealisation is found in the strident
vowels of the Khoisan languages, where the larynx is raised, and the
pharynx constricted, so that either the epiglottis or the arytenoid
cartilages vibrate instead of the vocal cords.
Note that the terms pharyngealized, epiglottalized, strident, and
sphincteric are sometimes used interchangeably.
Main article: R-colored vowel
Rhotic vowels are the "R-colored vowels" of American English and a few
Tenseness/checked vowels versus free vowels
Main article: Tenseness
Tenseness is used to describe the opposition of tense vowels as in
leap, suit vs. lax vowels as in lip, soot. This opposition has
traditionally been thought to be a result of greater muscular tension,
though phonetic experiments have repeatedly failed to show this.
Unlike the other features of vowel quality, tenseness is only
applicable to the few languages that have this opposition (mainly
Germanic languages, e.g. English), whereas the vowels of the other
languages (e.g. Spanish) cannot be described with respect to tenseness
in any meaningful way. In discourse about the English language, "tense
and lax" are often used interchangeably with "long and short",
respectively, because the features are concomitant in the common
varieties of English. This cannot be applied to all English dialects
or other languages.
In most Germanic languages, lax vowels can only occur in closed
syllables. Therefore, they are also known as checked vowels, whereas
the tense vowels are called free vowels since they can occur in any
kind of syllable.
Related article: Phonetics
Spectrogram of vowels [i, u, ɑ]. [ɑ] is a low vowel, so its F1 value
is higher than that of [i] and [u], which are high vowels. [i] is a
front vowel, so its F2 is substantially higher than that of [u] and
[ɑ], which are back vowels.
An idealized schematic of vowel space, based on the formants of Daniel
Jones and John Wells pronouncing the cardinal vowels of the IPA. The
scale is logarithmic. The grey range is where F2 would be less than
F1, which by definition is impossible. [a] is an extra-low central
vowel. Phonemically it may be front or back, depending on the
language. Rounded vowels that are front in tongue position are
front-central in formant space, while unrounded vowels that are back
in articulation are back-central in formant space. Thus [y ɯ] have
perhaps similar F1 and F2 values to the high central vowels [ɨ ʉ];
similarly [ø ɤ] vs central [ɘ ɵ] and [œ ʌ] vs central [ɜ ɞ].
The same chart, with a few intermediate vowels. Low front [æ] is
intermediate between [a] and [ɛ], while [ɒ] is intermediate between
[ɑ] and [ɔ]. The back vowels change gradually in rounding, from
unrounded [ɑ] and slightly rounded [ɒ] to tightly rounded [u];
similarly slightly rounded [œ] to tightly rounded [y]. With [a] seen
as an (extra-)low central vowel, the vowels [æ ɐ ɑ] can be
redefined as front, central and back (near-)low vowels.
The acoustics of vowels are fairly well understood. The different
vowel qualities are realized in acoustic analyses of vowels by the
relative values of the formants, acoustic resonances of the vocal
tract which show up as dark bands on a spectrogram. The vocal tract
acts as a resonant cavity, and the position of the jaw, lips, and
tongue affect the parameters of the resonant cavity, resulting in
different formant values. The acoustics of vowels can be visualized
using spectrograms, which display the acoustic energy at each
frequency, and how this changes with time.
The first formant, abbreviated "F1", corresponds to vowel openness
(vowel height). Open vowels have high F1 frequencies, while close
vowels have low F1 frequencies, as can be seen in the accompanying
spectrogram: The [i] and [u] have similar low first formants, whereas
[ɑ] has a higher formant.
The second formant, F2, corresponds to vowel frontness. Back vowels
have low F2 frequencies, while front vowels have high F2 frequencies.
This is very clear in the spectrogram, where the front vowel [i] has a
much higher F2 frequency than the other two vowels. However, in open
vowels, the high F1 frequency forces a rise in the F2 frequency as
well, so an alternative measure of frontness is the difference between
the first and second formants. For this reason, some people prefer to
plot as F1 vs. F2 – F1. (This dimension is usually called
'backness' rather than 'frontness', but the term 'backness' can be
counterintuitive when discussing formants.)
In the third edition of his textbook,
Peter Ladefoged recommended
using plots of F1 against F2 – F1 to represent vowel
quality. However, in the fourth edition, he changed to adopt a
simple plot of F1 against F2, and this simple plot of F1 against
F2 was maintained for the fifth (and final) edition of the book.
Katrina Hayward compares the two types of plots and concludes that
plotting of F1 against F2 – F1 "is not very satisfactory
because of its effect on the placing of the central vowels", so
she also recommends use of a simple plot of F1 against F2. In fact,
this kind of plot of F1 against F2 has been used by analysts to show
the quality of the vowels in a wide range of languages, including
RP, the Queen's English, American English, Singapore
English, Brunei English, North Frisian, Turkish
Kabardian, and various indigenous Australian languages.
R-colored vowels are characterized by lowered F3 values.
Rounding is generally realized by a decrease of F2 that tends to
reinforce vowel backness. One effect of this is that back vowels are
most commonly rounded while front vowels are most commonly unrounded;
another is that rounded vowels tend to plot to the right of unrounded
vowels in vowel charts. That is, there is a reason for plotting vowel
pairs the way they are.
Prosody and intonation
Main articles: Prosody and Intonation
The features of vowel prosody are often described independently from
vowel quality. In non-linear phonetics, they are located on parallel
layers. The features of vowel prosody are usually considered not to
apply to the vowel itself, but to the syllable, as some languages do
not contrast vowel length separately from syllable length.
Intonation encompasses the changes in pitch, intensity, and speed of
an utterance over time. In tonal languages, in most cases the tone of
a syllable is carried by the vowel, meaning that the relative pitch or
the pitch contour that marks the tone is superimposed on the vowel. If
a syllable has a high tone, for example, the pitch of the vowel will
be high. If the syllable has a falling tone, then the pitch of the
vowel will fall from high to low over the course of uttering the
Length or quantity refers to the abstracted duration of the vowel. In
some analyses this feature is described as a feature of the vowel
quality, not of the prosody. Japanese, Finnish, Hungarian, Arabic and
Latin have a two-way phonemic contrast between short and long vowels.
Mixe language has a three-way contrast among short, half-long, and
long vowels, and this has been reported for a few other languages,
though not always as a phonemic distinction. Long vowels are written
in the IPA with a triangular colon, which has two equilateral
triangles pointing at each other in place of dots ([iː]). The IPA
symbol for half-long vowels is the top half of this ([iˑ]). Longer
vowels are sometimes claimed, but these are always divided between two
The length of the vowel is a grammatical abstraction, and there may be
more phonologically distinctive lengths. For example, in Finnish,
there are five different physical lengths, because stress is marked
with length on both grammatically long and short vowels. However,
Finnish stress is not lexical and is always on the first two moras,
thus this variation serves to separate words from each other.
In non-tonal languages, like English, intonation encompasses lexical
stress. A stressed syllable will typically be pronounced with a higher
pitch, intensity, and length than unstressed syllables. For example,
in the word intensity, the vowel represented by the letter ⟨e⟩ is
stressed, so it is longer and pronounced with a higher pitch and
intensity than the other vowels.
Monophthongs, diphthongs, triphthongs
Main articles: Monophthong, Diphthong, Triphthong, and Semivowel
A vowel sound whose quality does not change over the duration of the
vowel is called a monophthong. Monophthongs are sometimes called
"pure" or "stable" vowels. A vowel sound that glides from one quality
to another is called a diphthong, and a vowel sound that glides
successively through three qualities is a triphthong.
All languages have monophthongs and many languages have diphthongs,
but triphthongs or vowel sounds with even more target qualities are
relatively rare cross-linguistically. English has all three types: the
vowel sound in hit is a monophthong /ɪ/, the vowel sound in boy is in
most dialects a diphthong /ɔɪ/, and the vowel sounds of flower,
/aʊər/, form a triphthong or disyllable, depending on dialect.
In phonology, diphthongs and triphthongs are distinguished from
sequences of monophthongs by whether the vowel sound may be analyzed
into different phonemes or not. For example, the vowel sounds in a
two-syllable pronunciation of the word flower (/ˈflaʊər/)
phonetically form a disyllabic triphthong, but are phonologically a
sequence of a diphthong (represented by the letters ⟨ow⟩) and a
monophthong (represented by the letters ⟨er⟩). Some linguists use
the terms diphthong and triphthong only in this phonemic sense.
Main article: Writing system
The name "vowel" is often used for the symbols that represent vowel
sounds in a language's writing system, particularly if the language
uses an alphabet. In writing systems based on the
Latin alphabet, the
letters A, E, I, O, U, Y, W and sometimes others can all be used to
represent vowels. However, not all of these letters represent vowels
in all languages, or even consistently within one language (some of
them, especially W and Y, are also used to represent approximants).
Moreover, a vowel might be represented by a letter usually reserved
for consonants, or a combination of letters, particularly where one
letter represents several sounds at once, or vice versa; examples from
English include igh in "thigh" and x in "x-ray". In addition,
extensions of the
Latin alphabet have such independent vowel letters
as Ä, Ö, Ü, Å, Æ, and Ø.
The phonetic values vary considerably by language, and some languages
use I and Y for the consonant [j], e.g., initial I in Italian or
Romanian and initial Y in English. In the original
there was no written distinction between V and U, and the letter
represented the approximant [w] and the vowels [u] and [ʊ]. In Modern
Welsh, the letter aW represents these same sounds. Similarly, in
Creek, the letter V stands for [ə]. There is not necessarily a direct
one-to-one correspondence between the vowel sounds of a language and
the vowel letters. Many languages that use a form of the Latin
alphabet have more vowel sounds than can be represented by the
standard set of five vowel letters. In English spelling, the five
letters A E I O and U can represent a variety of vowel sounds, while
the letter Y frequently represents vowels (as in e.g., "gym", "happy",
or the diphthongs in "cry", "thyme"); W is used in representing
some diphthongs (as in "cow") and to represent a monophthong in the
borrowed words "cwm" and "crwth" (sometimes cruth).
Other languages cope with the limitation in the number of
letters in similar ways. Many languages make extensive use of
combinations of letters to represent various sounds. Other languages
use vowel letters with modifications, such as ä in Swedish, or add
diacritical marks, like umlauts, to vowels to represent the variety of
possible vowel sounds. Some languages have also constructed additional
vowel letters by modifying the standard
Latin vowels in other ways,
such as æ or ø that are found in some of the Scandinavian languages.
International Phonetic Alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet has a set of 28 symbols to
represent the range of basic vowel qualities, and a further set of
diacritics to denote variations from the basic vowel.
The writing systems used for some languages, such as the Hebrew
alphabet and the Arabic alphabet, do not ordinarily mark all the
vowels, since they are frequently unnecessary in identifying a
word. Technically, these are called abjads rather
than alphabets. Although it is possible to construct simple English
sentences that can be understood without written vowels (cn y rd
ths?), extended passages of English lacking written vowels can be
difficult to understand; consider dd, which could be any of dad, dada,
dado, dead, deed, did, died, diode, dodo, dud, dude, odd, add, or
aided. (But note that abjads generally express some word-internal
vowels and all word-initial and word-final vowels, whereby the
ambiguity will be much reduced.) The
Masoretes devised a vowel
notation system for Hebrew
Jewish scripture that is still widely used,
as well as the trope symbols used for its cantillation; both are part
of oral tradition and still the basis for many bible
translations—Jewish and Christian.
The differences in pronunciation of vowel letters between English and
its related languages can be accounted for by the Great
After printing was introduced to England, and therefore after spelling
was more or less standardized, a series of dramatic changes in the
pronunciation of the vowel phonemes did occur, and continued into
recent centuries, but were not reflected in the spelling system. This
has led to numerous inconsistencies in the spelling of English vowel
sounds and the pronunciation of English vowel letters (and to the
mispronunciation of foreign words and names by speakers of English).
The existence of vowel shifts should serve as a caution flag to anyone
who is trying to pronounce an ancient language or, indeed, any poetry
(in any language) from two centuries ago or earlier.
IPA vowel chart with audio
Paired vowels are: unrounded–rounded
This table contains phonetic symbols, which may not display correctly
in some browsers. [Help]
help • English IPA • help (audio) •
image • template
The importance of vowels in distinguishing one word from another
varies from language to language. Nearly all languages have at least
three phonemic vowels, usually /i/, /a/, /u/ as in Classical Arabic
and Inuktitut, though Adyghe and many
Sepik languages have a vertical
vowel system of /ɨ/, /ə/, /a/. Very few languages have fewer, though
some Arrernte, Circassian,
Ndu languages have been argued to have just
two, /ə/ and /a/, with [ɨ] being epenthetic.
It is not straightforward to say which language has the most vowels,
since that depends on how they are counted. For example, long vowels,
nasal vowels, and various phonations may or may not be counted
separately; indeed, it may sometimes be unclear if phonation belongs
to the vowels or the consonants of a language. If such things are
ignored and only vowels with dedicated IPA letters ('vowel qualities')
are considered, then very few languages have more than ten. The
Germanic languages have some of the largest inventories: Standard
Danish has 11 to 13 short vowels (/(a) ɑ (ɐ) e ə ɛ i o ɔ u ø œ
y/), while the Amstetten dialect of Bavarian has been reported to have
thirteen long vowels: /iː yː eː øː ɛː œː æː ɶː aː ɒː
ɔː oː uː/. The situation can be quite disparate
within a same family language: Spanish and French are two closely
Romance languages but Spanish has only five vowel qualities,
/a, e, i, o, u/, while classical French has eleven: /a, ɑ, e, ɛ, i,
o, ɔ, u, y, œ, ø/. The
Mon–Khmer languages of Southeast Asia also
have some large inventories, such as the eleven vowels of Vietnamese:
/i e ɛ ɐ a ə ɔ ɤ o ɯ u/. Wu dialects have the largest
inventories of Chinese; the
Jinhui dialect of Wu has also been
reported to have eleven vowels: ten basic vowels, /i y e ø ɛ ɑ ɔ o
u ɯ/, plus restricted /ɨ/; this does not count the seven nasal
One of the most common vowels is [a̠]; it is nearly universal for a
language to have at least one open vowel, though most dialects of
English have an [æ] and a [ɑ]—and often an [ɒ], all open
vowels—but no central [a]. Some Tagalog and Cebuano speakers have
[ɐ] rather than [a], and Dhangu Yolngu is described as having /ɪ ɐ
ʊ/, without any peripheral vowels. [i] is also extremely common,
though Tehuelche has just the vowels /e a o/ with no close vowels. The
third vowel of Arabic-type three-vowel system, /u/, is considerably
less common. A large fraction of the languages of North America happen
to have a four-vowel system without /u/: /i, e, a, o/; Nahuatl is an
In most languages, vowels serve mainly to distinguish separate
lexemes, rather than different inflectional forms of the same lexeme
as they commonly do in the Semitic languages. For example, while
English man becomes men in the plural, moon is not a different form of
the same word.
Words without vowels
See also: English words without vowels
In rhotic dialects of English, as in Canada and the United States,
there are many words such as bird, learn, girl, church, worst, wyrm,
myrrh that some phoneticians analyze as having no vowels, only a
syllabic consonant /ɹ̩/. However, others analyze these words instead
as having a rhotic vowel, /ɝː/. The difference may be partially one
There are a few such words that are disyllabic, like cursor, curtain,
and turtle: [ˈkɹ̩sɹ̩], [ˈkɹ̩tn̩] and [ˈtɹ̩tl̩] (or
[ˈkɝːsɚ], [ˈkɝːtən], and [ˈtɝːtəl]), and even a few that
are trisyllabic, at least in some accents, such as purpler
[ˈpɹ̩.pl̩.ɹ̩], hurdler [ˈhɹ̩.dl̩.ɹ̩], gurgler
[ˈɡɹ̩.ɡl̩.ɹ̩], and certainer [ˈsɹ̩.tn̩.ɹ̩].
The word and frequently contracts to a simple nasal ’n, as in lock
'n key [ˌlɒk ŋ ˈkiː]. Words such as will, have, and is regularly
contract to ’ll [l], ’ve [v], and 's [z]. However, none of them
are pronounced alone without vowels, so they are not phonological
words. Onomatopoeic words that can be pronounced alone, and that have
no vowels or ars, include hmm, pst!, shh!, tsk!, and zzz. As in other
languages, onomatopoeiae stand outside the normal phonotactics of
There are other languages that form lexical words without vowel
sounds. In Serbo-Croatian, for example, the consonants [r] and [rː]
(the difference is not written) can act as a syllable nucleus and
carry rising or falling tone; examples include the tongue-twister na
vrh brda vrba mrda and geographic names such as Krk. In Czech and
Slovak, either [l] or [r] can stand in for vowels: vlk [vl̩k] "wolf",
krk [kr̩k] "neck". A particularly long word without vowels is
čtvrthrst, meaning "quarter-handful", with two syllables (one for
each R). Whole sentences can be made from such words, such as Strč
prst skrz krk, meaning "stick a finger through your neck" (follow the
link for a sound file), and Smrž pln skvrn zvlhl z mlh "A morel full
of spots wetted from fogs". (Here zvlhl has two syllables based on L;
note that the preposition z consists of a single consonant. Only
prepositions do this in Czech, and they normally link phonetically to
the following noun, so do not really behave as vowelless words.) In
Russian, there are also prepositions that consist of a single
consonant letter, like k "to", v "in", and s "with". However, these
forms are actually contractions of ko, vo, and so respectively, and
these forms are still used in modern Russian before words with certain
consonant clusters for ease of pronunciation.
In Kazakh and certain other Turkic languages, words without vowel
sounds may occur due to reduction of weak vowels. A common example is
the Kazakh word for one: bir, pronounced [br]. Among careful speakers,
however, the original vowel may be preserved, and the vowels are
always preserved in the orthography.
In Southern varieties of Chinese, such as
Cantonese and Minnan, some
monosyllabic words are made of exclusively nasals, such as [m̩˨˩]
"no" and [ŋ̩˩˧] "five".
So far, all of these syllabic consonants, at least in the lexical
words, have been sonorants, such as [r], [l], [m], and [n], which have
a voiced quality similar to vowels. (They can carry tone, for
example.) However, there are languages with lexical words that not
only contain no vowels, but contain no sonorants at all, like
(non-lexical) shh! in English. These include some
Berber languages and
some languages of the American Pacific Northwest, such as Nuxalk. An
example from the latter is scs "seal fat" (pronounced [sxs], as
spelled), and a longer one is clhp'xwlhtlhplhhskwts' (pronounced
[xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰt͡sʼ]) "he had had in his possession
a bunchberry plant". (Follow the Nuxalk link for other examples.)
Berber examples include /tkkststt/ "you took it off" and /tfktstt/
"you gave it". Some words may contain one or two consonants only: /ɡ/
"be", /ks/ "feed on". (In Mandarin Chinese, words and syllables
such as sī and zhī are sometimes described as being syllabic
fricatives and affricates phonemically, /ś/ and /tʂ́/, but these do
have a voiced segment that carries the tone.) In the Japonic language
Miyako, there are words with no voiced sounds, such as ss 'dust', kss
'breast/milk', pss 'day', ff 'a comb', kff 'to make', fks 'to build',
ksks 'month', sks 'to cut', psks 'to pull'.
Words consisting of only vowels
It is not uncommon for short grammatical words to consist of only
vowels, such as a and I in English.
Lexical words are somewhat rarer
in English and are generally restricted to a single syllable: eye,
awe, owe, and in non-rhotic accents air, ore, err. Vowel-only words of
more than one syllable are generally foreign loans, such as ai (two
syllables: /ˈɑːi/) for the maned sloth, or proper names, such as
Iowa (in some accents: /ˈaɪ.oʊ.ə/).
However, vowel sequences in hiatus are more freely allowed in some
other languages, most famously perhaps in Bantu and Polynesian
languages, but also in Japanese and Finnish. In such languages there
tends to be a larger variety of vowel-only words. In Swahili (Bantu),
for example, there is aua 'to survey' and eua 'to purify' (both three
syllables); in Japanese, aoi 青い 'blue/green' and oioi 追々
'gradually' (three and four syllables); and in Finnish, aie
'intention' and auo 'open!' (both two syllables), although some
dialects pronounce them as aije and auvo. Hawaiian, and the Polynesian
languages generally, have unusually large numbers of such words, such
as aeāea (a small green fish), which is three syllables: ae.āe.a.
Most long words involve reduplication, which is quite productive in
Polynesian: ioio 'grooves', eaea 'breath', uaua 'tough' (all four
syllables), auēuē 'crying' (five syllables, from uē (uwē) 'to
weep'), uoa or uouoa 'false mullet' (sp. fish, three or five
syllables). The longest continuous vowel sequence is in Finnish word
hääyöaie ("wedding night intention").
List of phonetics topics
Scale of vowels
Table of vowels
Words without vowels
Words without consonants
^ "Vowel". Online Etymology dictionary. Retrieved 12 April 2012.
^ Cruttenden, Alan (2014). Gimson's Pronunciation of English (Eighth
ed.). Routledge. p. 27. ISBN 9781444183092.
^ Cruttenden, Alan (2014). Gimson's Pronunciation of English (Eighth
ed.). Routledge. p. 53. ISBN 9781444183092.
^ Laver, John (1994) Principles of Phonetics, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, p. 269.
^ Crystal, David (2005) A Dictionary of Linguistics & Phonetics
(Fifth Edition), Maldern, MA/Oxford: Blackwell, p. 494.
^ Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's
Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. p. 323.
^ Ladefoged & Disner (2012) Vowels and Consonants, 3rd ed., p.
^ IPA (1999) Handbook of the IPA, p. 12.
^ According to Peter Ladefoged, traditional articulatory descriptions
such as height and backness "are not entirely satisfactory", and when
phoneticians describe a vowel as high or low, they are in fact
describing an acoustic quality rather than the actual position of the
tongue. Ladefoged, Peter (2006) A Course in
Phonetics (Fifth Edition),
Boston, MA: Thomson Wadsworth, p. 189.
^ John Esling (2005) "There Are No Back Vowels: The Laryngeal
Articulator Model", The Canadian Journal of Linguistics
^ IPA (1999), p. 13.
^ Ladefoged, Peter (1993) A Course in
Phonetics (Third Edition), Fort
Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 197.
^ Ladefoged, Peter (2001) A Course in
Phonetics (Fourth Edition), Fort
Worth: Harcourt, p. 177.
^ Ladefoged, Peter (2006) A Course in
Phonetics (Fifth Edition),
Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, p. 189.
^ Hayward, Katrina (2000) Experimental Phonetics, Harlow, UK: Pearson,
^ Deterding, David (1997). "The formants of monophthong vowels in
Standard Southern British English Pronunciation". Journal of the
Phonetic Association. 27: 47–55.
^ Hawkins, Sarah and Jonathan Midgley (2005). "
Formant frequencies of
RP monophthongs in four age groups of speakers". Journal of the
Phonetic Association. 35 (2): 183–199.
^ Harrington, Jonathan, Sallyanne Palethorpe and Catherine Watson
(2005) Deepening or lessening the divide between diphthongs: an
analysis of the Queen's annual Christmas broadcasts. In William J.
Hardcastle and Janet Mackenzie Beck (eds.) A Figure of Speech: A
Festschrift for John Laver, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 227-261.
^ Flemming, Edward and Stephanie Johnson (2007). "Rosa's roses:
reduced vowels in American English" (PDF). Journal of the
Phonetic Association. 37: 83–96.
^ Deterding, David (2003). "An instrumental study of the monophthong
vowels of Singapore English". English World-Wide. 24: 1–16.
^ Salbrina, Sharbawi (2006). "The vowels of Brunei English: an
acoustic investigation". English World-Wide. 27 (3): 247–264.
^ Bohn, Ocke-Schwen (2004). "How to organize a fairly large vowel
inventory: the vowels of Fering (North Frisian)" (PDF). Journal of the
Phonetic Association. 34 (2): 161–173.
^ Gordon, Matthew and Ayla Applebaum (2006). "
Phonetic structures of
Turkish Kabardian" (PDF). Journal of the International Phonetic
Association. 36 (2): 159–186. doi:10.1017/S0025100306002532.
^ Fletcher, Janet (2006) Exploring the phonetics of spoken narratives
in Australian indigenous languages. In William J. Hardcastle and Janet
Mackenzie Beck (eds.) A Figure of Speech: A Festschrift for John
Laver, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 201-226.
^ In wyrm and myrrh, there is neither a vowel letter nor, in rhotic
dialects, a vowel sound.
^ Values in open oral syllables Archived 2012-05-18 at WebCite
^ Audio recordings of selected words without vowels can be downloaded
from "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-03-20.
Retrieved 2009-06-19. .
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Johnson, Keith, Acoustic & Auditory Phonetics, second edition,
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Korhonen, Mikko. Koltansaamen opas, 1973. Castreanum
Ladefoged, Peter, A Course in Phonetics, fifth edition, 2006. Boston,
MA: Thomson Wadsworth ISBN 978-1-4130-2079-3
Ladefoged, Peter, Elements of Acoustic Phonetics, 1995. University of
Chicago ISBN 978-0-226-46764-1
Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's
Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8.
Ladefoged, Peter, Vowels and Consonants: An Introduction to the Sounds
of Languages, 2000. Blackwell ISBN 978-0-631-21412-0.
Lindau, Mona. (1978). "
Vowel features". Language. 54 (3): 541–563.
doi:10.2307/412786. JSTOR 412786.
Stevens, Kenneth N. (1998). Acoustic phonetics. Current studies in
linguistics (No. 30). Cambridge, MA: MIT. ISBN 978-0-262-19404-4.
Stevens, Kenneth N. (2000). "Toward a model for lexical access based
on acoustic landmarks and distinctive features". The Journal of the
Acoustical Society of America. 111 (4): 1872–1891.
doi:10.1121/1.1458026. PMID 12002871.
Watt, D. and Tillotson, J. (2001). A spectrographic analysis of vowel
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More spoken articles
Look up vowel in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
IPA chart with
MP3 sound files
IPA vowel chart with
AIFF sound files
Vowel charts for several different languages and dialects measuring F1
Materials for measuring and plotting vowel formants
Vowels and Consonants Online examples from Ladefoged's Vowels and
Consonants, referenced above.
International Phonetic Alphabet
International Phonetic Alphabet (chart)
History of the IPA
Extensions to the IPA (extIPA)
Voice Quality Symbols (VoQS)
Journal of the IPA (JIPA)
Place of articulation
Manner of articulation
Obsolete and nonstandard symbols
IPA chart for English dialects
Phonetic symbols in Unicode
Symbols to the right in a cell are voiced, to the left are voiceless.
Shaded areas denote articulations judged to be impossible.
Labialized velar (voiceless)
Labialized velar (voiced)
Velarized alveolar (lateral)
Labialized palatal (voiceless)
Labialized palatal (voiced)
Paired vowels are: unrounded • rounded
BNF: cb11976160w (data)