Let’s talk about vowels.
Vowels are sounds made without blocking airflow in your mouth, more or less. The consonant sound [t] involves your tongue touching the area behind your teeth. A vowel, on the other hand, is a sound like [e] or [i], in which your tongue, lips, and mouth parts don’t close together.
Vowels can have a number of different qualities. They can be made with a wide open mouth or a narrow one. They can be made with the tongue near the front of the mouth, near the back, or somewhere in the middle. They can be made with the lips rounded or unrounded. They can be breathy, croaky, or nasal—and in some languages, that actually makes a difference in a word’s meaning. In Hmong, for instance, making a vowel with a croaky voice produces a different tone, which can mean the difference between two different words.
That last set might be a little tough to wrap your head around, but we actually use croaky voice and nasal voice in English, too. For croaky voice, think of the sound that young women make, especially when talking to one another. We call it vocal fry in English, and it’s been the topic of a small bit of controversy recently.
Obviously this woman isn’t a big fan of vocal fry. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just another way of speaking, and kind of vaguely interesting as a linguistic phenomenon. Vocal fry in English sounds a lot like creaky voice in Hmong, but it’s got a different function. Whereas creaky voice defines different vowels and differentiates words, vocal fry is paralinguistic, which means it conveys meaning or emotion beyond the word level. I’m at a bit of a loss to describe in words exactly what it conveys, but it obviously expresses a different feeling on the part of the speaker.
English vowels can mostly be described by their placement (front, back, close, open), and by the lips (round, unrounded). In phonetics, we plot vowel sounds onto a handy diagram, called a vowel quadrilateral. It might help to imagine the diagram along with a mouth, with the person’s nose on the upper left of the diagram.
Sounds near the top are called close vowels, or high vowels if you prefer. I personally like “close” better. It describes the opening in the mouth, which is what changes the shape of the air, and thus the sound that a person makes. Some examples of high vowels from English include the [i] sound, like in geek, leader and party, and the [u] sound, like in food, beautiful and brew. Sounds near the bottom are called open vowels, although you’ll also see the term low vowels. These include the [æ] sound in tambourine and clap, as well as the [ɑ] sound in father and robot.
You’ll notice also that many of these sounds seem to have pairs. In the standard, IPA quadrilateral, sounds on the left are unrounded sounds, and sounds on the right are rounded sounds. If you want to speak French well, for example, you’ll need to practice the close front rounded sound [y]. It’s a lot like the [i] sound I mentioned before (like in key), except that the lips are rounded.
Vowels seem to really bedevil people learning new languages, but they aren’t all that complicated. My pet theory on this is that language teachers could save a lot of time on pronunciation drills just by teaching their students the sort of basic points I’ve put down here. Certainly I’ve found it really helpful for Japanese.
If you’d like to know more about a particular language’s vowel system, leave a comment and let me know!