Lax Vowels for English Learners

Letter UA bit of phonetics humor made its way into a recent episode of the TV show Modern Family. Gloria, a Spanish-accented character from Colombia, consistently confuses her nephew’s name, ‘Luke,’ with the word ‘look.’ The misunderstanding stems from ‘look’ using a ‘lax vowel’ that the Spanish language lacks (no pun intended). But do native Spanish speakers actually hear ‘Luke’ as ‘look?’

Lax vowels in English are difficult to explain. The two most important of these are the aforementioned ‘oo’ in ‘look’ and the ‘i’ in ‘kit.’* On a very theoretical level, the lax ‘oo’ is pronounced like the ‘oo’ in ‘goose’ but with the tongue slightly more front and lower, while lax ‘i’ is pronounced like the ‘ee’ in ‘fleece,’ with the tongue slightly more back and lower. I use the word ‘theoretical’ because in reality the two vowels cover a large spectrum of possible realizations. (More on that later).

English learners can struggle with the lax vowels, since relatively languages have them. I’ve always wondered, then, what non-English speakers make of this unique vowel category. Does the ‘i’ in ‘kit’ sound more like an ‘ee’ sound or an ‘e’ sound to an Italian, for example? And what about the ‘oo’ in ‘look’ and ‘book?’

A 2008 study published by the Acoustical Society of America** found that Russian and Spanish speakers actually can process the distinction between ‘Luke’ and ‘look,’ but do so differently from natives. Speakers of these two languages use the distinction between the relative length of the ‘u’ in ‘Luke’ compared to the relative shortness of the ‘oo’ in ‘look.’ Quite fascinating, since neither Russian nor Spanish uses length as a way of making distinctions. (Vowel length in both languages is exists primarily on the allophonic level.)

Then there is the question of languages that feature vowels similar to the lax vowels in English, but whose intrinsic ‘meaning’ is somewhat different. Take, for example, standard Italian. The short ‘e’ is arguably quite close to the ‘i’ in American ‘kit.’ (This is why, if you’ve ever watched Giada DeLaurentiis on the Food Network, her meticulously authentic Italian pronunciation of ‘Spaghetti’ sounds awfully close to ‘Spaghitti.’)  Would an Italian hear the American pronunciation of ‘bit’ as something more like ‘bet?’

There are indeed accents of English that either lack one of the lax vowels, or else use a vowel that is considerably less ‘lax.’ Such is the case with Scottish and Northern Irish English, which merge the ‘oo’ in ‘look’ with the ‘oo’ in ‘Luke.’ I can’t think of any native English dialects that outright lack the ‘i’ in ‘kit,’ on the other hand. Although in both the British Midlands and Australia one finds accents where this vowel is close to being a short version of the ‘ee’ in ‘fleece.’

And speaking of accents, it strikes me that non-English speakers would logically perceive the lax vowels as different depending on the accent they’re listening to.  Linguist Penelope Eckert has posited, for example, that in Northern California English, the ‘oo’ in ‘look’ shifts toward the ‘u’ in ‘luck.’ I can’t see, then, that a Spanish speaker listening to a strongly-accented Californian would immediately see a connection between ‘look’ and ‘Luke.’

Anyone out there whose native accent/dialect lacks short vowels? If so, how do these vowels ‘sound’ to you?

*You’ll read about other vowels being ‘lax’ in English, but this is much more of a grey area.

**Kondaurova, M. V. (2008). The relationship between native allophonic experience with vowel duration and perception of the English tense/lax vowel contrast by Spanish and Russian listeners. J Acoust Soc Am, 124, 3959–3971.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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38 Responses to Lax Vowels for English Learners

  1. Oscar says:

    English learners can struggle with the lax vowels, since relatively languages have them.

    Don’t you mean relatively few languages have them?

  2. Marcus Lira says:

    Anyone out there whose native accent/dialect lacks short vowels? If so, how do these vowels ‘sound’ to you?

    I’m Brazilian, and I can relate to what you said about Italian: “bit” sounds like our /bet/, whereas “beat” sounds like our /bit/. In case you’re wondering, “bet” and “bat” sound the same to our ears… but this is a different topic altogether.

    • Claudia says:

      Yes! And quite an interesting topic indeed!
      I work as a conference interpreter (English Spanish), and get the chills when a Brazilian speaker will be using English for his/her presentation. You have to always keeps in mind this switch of vowels, plus the intruding /i/.

    • boynamedsue says:

      Romanians are the same.

  3. Gianluca says:

    I was born in Italy, I live in Italy but my girlfriend is american, so I go the U.S. often and I know Giada DeLaurentis. Let me tell you, the way she says “spaghetti”, “pancetta” and other words with the letter e, is not “meticulously authentic Italian”, and, to be honest, quite ridiculous to my italian ears. I would say her pronunciation is quite stilted. The “e” is too close to the way italians say the “i”, and it sounds quite odd.

  4. Alfredo says:

    Giada’s Italian pronunciation is very far from authentic. No real Italian would ever mistake her for a native speaker. The way she pronounces ‘Spaghitti’ is wrong, wrong, wrong! I’m not sure why she pretends to be a native speaker of Italian. It is quite cringeworthy.

    • trawicks says:

      Oh, trust me, I’m not defending Laurentiis’ odd habit of inserting ‘native Italian’ pronunciations into her English discourse! (I almost considered putting the word ‘authentic’ in quotation marks). Not really sure why she started doing that; according to my wife, who watched her during her earlier days on PBS, it’s more of a recent phenomenon.

    • boynamedsue says:

      Could she be using a dialect pron? Very few Italian-Americans have ancestors who ever spoke Italian.

      • boynamedsue says:

        OK just listened, it’s not dialect, pancetta never had a schwa. Anywhere. Ever.

      • gaelsano says:

        I can attest that it’s not due to any southern dialect I’m aware of. My great-aunt spoke heavily Sicilian-influenced Italian and I remember her /e/ and /o/ were middle vowels. Many Sicilians have/had a hard time distinguishing the tense Italian /e/ and /o/ and it maps onto a /ɛ~e/ /ɔ~o/ or /i/ /u/. (Maybe the woman from TV is doing a hyper-correction?) The other notable feature was pronouncing “LL” like an American’s flapped “t” in atom.

        And dropping and devoicing final vowels. That’s one of the first things other people notice about Southern Italians. They’re the opposite of the stereotypical “Spicy meat-a-ball-a.” Hence, “mozzaredd(a)”

        • gaelsano says:

          upon further reading, it seems that many Latin vowels which got mapped onto Italian /e/ were mapped onto Sicilian /i/. I see my mistake. While Sicilian people might hear both Italian /e/ and /ɛ/ as their /ɛ/, the original vocabulary of Sicilian the distinct language mapped many of the Latin or Italian /e/ onto /i/ and likewise for the back vowels.

          Maybe Sicilians have had a local word for spaghetti as spaghitti??

  5. AL says:

    Could the connection between look and Luke be coming from the spelling, since “oo” is actually pronounced like the vowel in Luke in words like moon? (Or, at least to me moon and Luke sound the same.)

    • Danny Ryan says:

      No, it’s just that historically English has really mixed up its u/oo/ou-vowels… “Luke” originally had a vowel like “duke”, but the /l/ caused the y-sound to drop. “Look” had the “moon”-vowel, and still does in some conservative varieties in northern England. My grandmother said “look” and “book” with the “moon”-vowel. I’m sure the spelling only had marginal influence on the pronunciation, unlike the word “room” where I think the pronunciation with the “moon”-vowel is either a constriction of the great vowel shift /u:/ > /aU/ before /m/, or simply a spelling pronunciation because of ‹oo›. By the way, I say “room” /rUm/ with the “put”-vowel.

      • Ellen K. says:

        For some of us (and in particular the U.S.) Luke and duke still have the same vowel; no y-sound in “duke” either, like with Luke.

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    The Spanish short I is close to final Y in Happy (with happy tensing included).
    The Luke/dude vowel, as pronounced in California is absent from Spanish, in the West this vowel is fronted and partially unrounded, so it sounds like lewk, dewd…very different than the Spanish [u].
    In Spanish all vowels are short, except in Argentina and Uruguay which have been influenced by Italian immigrants.

    In Argentina, some vowels are long as in ”negativo” [nega'ti:vo], some are short, as in ”casa” ['kasa]. The difference is not phonemic, but it’s essential for the correct/authentic Argentinian accent (this was inherited/imported from Italian).

    • m.m. says:

      Yeah, spanish has [i], which can lead to the commonly mocked bitch-beach like merger in speakers who have trouble approximating [ɪ] and where it is used.

      It is curious how a spanish learner with [u] would try to approximate an english [u] like that of california, which is commonly very [ɪʊ] like.

      I know in A Longitudinal Study of the Acquisition of American Vowels, Andrea Vergun looked at a spanish speakers acquisition of portland english vowels, in which [u] has recently begun to front. unfortunately, there was lack of data for that vowel, so there was no full analysis for it.

      @trawicks: Theres lots of quoting to J.E. Flege in regards to new vowel acquisition. Stuff that has to do with production and perception stuff.

    • Claudia says:

      Thank you so much, I didn’t know I did that with negativo! This will help me out with teaching, and truth be told, it wasn’t always easy to differentiate beach/bitch.
      ps. Your comment on the italian influence of it also reminded me this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1TnzCiUSI0

  7. boynamedsue says:

    I’ve certainly found that a lot of Spanish speakers claim not to be able to distinguish kits/Keates (let’s raise the tone a bit :). Working the other way, it took me 2-3 years of constant exposure to hear the difference between ano/anno in Italian (let’s lower that tone right back down :).

    Luke/look is something Spaniards tend to hear, but not produce, though in some cases they invent vowels for Luke that don’t match anything in English or Spanish.

  8. Eugene says:

    Lax vowels are less common than tense vowels in the world’s languages. Consequently, the lax vowels are a (relatively minor) problem for English language learners.
    An interesting question suggested in the post is whether the lax vowels are more easily perceived than produced. In other words, is this primarily a perception problem or a production problem. Do native Spanish speakers, for example, hear /i/ vs. /ɪ/ more accurately than they produce it?
    As a teacher, I suspect that the perception precedes the production, so it’s always possible that language learners can hear distinctions that they cannot produce.
    I think it’s a given that they cannot produce distinctions that they cannot hear.

  9. BeyondSea says:

    I can’t think of any native English dialects that outright lack the ‘i’ in ‘kit,’ on the other hand.

    I grew up in an area of Devon (SW England), where in the local accent the vowels in ‘bit’ and ‘bet’ are merged to ‘bet’ (and ‘beat’ and ‘bait’ merged to ‘bait’) in all cases (the ‘bet’ and ‘bait’ vowels are slightly different from their values in RP but I’m afraid I haven’t the technical knowledge to describe precisely how). I still often can’t accurately distinguish between the sounds even though I’ve lived for several years in the Midlands now, relying usually on context. E.g., until I saw his name written down, I thought ‘Milton Jones’ was ‘Melton Jones’, and it wasn’t until very recently that I realised that ‘pretty’ isn’t phonetically spelt for most speakers of English.

  10. Sooryan FM says:

    /i/ vs. /ɪ/
    1. Australian /ɪ/ can sound almost like an [i] (so bitch and beach might differ in the vowel length only: [i] vs [i:]).
    2. In US English, /ɪ/ changes to [i] before an r: miracle, near, rear…
    3. In Californian English /ɪ/ changes to [i] before NG: king
    4. In some words the merger of vowels won’t be catastrophic, as in the case of sleek vs slick ;)

    • Ellen K. says:

      I don’t agree with number 2. I don’t think the vowel of miracle, near, and rear is a proper [i]. If I try to say “near” with that sound, it comes out, instead, as kneer (that is, one who knees, as in hits someone with a knee). It’s got that not very well defined (that I’ve seen) r-coloring.

      And number 3, it’s not just California.

      • Sooryan FM says:

        From Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:

        miracle /ˈmirɪkəl/
        near /ˈniɚ/
        knee /ˈni:/

        This is what I hear, and the dictionary got it right.

        • Bryn S. says:

          From Meriam Webster’s Dictionary:

          kit /ˈkit/
          ship /ˈship/
          slip /ˈslip/

          As you can see, Meriam Webster uses the symbol /i/ to mean /ɪ/ (also the slashes were facing the wrong way, so I had to fix that).

      • Peter S. says:

        I think in General American, the r-influenced vowels have come “loose” from the non-r-influenced vowels and are there own phonemes. That is, you can say near with either [i] or [ɪ] or somewhere in-between, and Americans won’t notice the difference unless they’re paying attention.

    • Bryn S. says:

      @ Sooryan:

      1. I don’t think that’s true. You must be thinking of pairs like piss and pierce, which may differ only in vowel length, but piece is a diphthong in Australian English with a starting point ranging from [ɪ] to [ə] and ending near [i].

      2. Like Ellen, I don’t agree with this.

      3. Like Ellen, I’m not so sure that is restricted to California.

      • Sooryan FM says:

        From the Harvard dialect study, the 1st vowel in miracle:

        a. [i:] as in “near” (26.21%)
        b. [ɪ] as in “knit” (52.13%)
        c. [ɛ] as in “net” (2.35%)
        d. I say something in between [ɪ] and [ɛ] (15.38%)
        e. other (3.94%)
        (11284 respondents)

        Some states where General American is spoken:

        California:
        the 1st vowel in miracle:

        a. [i:] as in “near” (63.97%)
        b. [ɪ] as in “knit” (25.50%)
        c. [ɛ] as in “net” (1.46%)
        d. I say something in between [ɪ] and [ɛ] (7.22%)
        e. other (1.85%)

        Arizona:
        the 1st vowel in miracle:

        a. [i:] as in “near” (66.14%)
        b. [ɪ] as in “knit” (23.28%)
        c. [ɛ] as in “net” (2.12%)
        d. I say something in between [ɪ] and [ɛ] (6.88%)
        e. other (1.59%)

        Colorado:
        the 1st vowel in miracle:

        a. [i:] as in “near” (70.11%)
        b. [ɪ] as in “knit” (22.01%)
        c. [ɛ] as in “net” (1.09%)
        d. I say something in between [ɪ] and [ɛ] (5.71%)
        e. other (5.71%)

        Washington
        the 1st vowel in miracle:
        a. [i:] as in “near” (75.77%)
        b. [ɪ] as in “knit” (15.79%)
        c. [ɛ] as in “net” (1.66%)
        d. I say something in between [ɪ] and [ɛ] (5.60%)
        e. other (1.18%)

        • m.m. says:

          I like how your general american list is all western cot-caught merged areas. Nevermind the fact that california is stereotyped with its valley and surfer speak xD

        • Frank says:

          You must be from that region. I wouldn’t consider cot-caught merged areas to be “General American”.

        • gaelsano says:

          The words “Syracuse” and “miracle” are not good tests for lax-tense neutralization. For me, growing up knowing people from Syracuse (my mother) I pronounce it as they do, as if it were Seracuse or Sare-a-cuse. For some reason, “miracle” gets caught up in that mess, too, though I have never ever heard anybody do that for “mirror” or “Sirius”.

          I think “miracle” might be influenced by people from New York State referring to the “Miracle on Ice” and having that pronunciation spread far and wide.

          Likewise, Caribbean, at least in my home area of capital region New York, was always “Ca-RIB-be-an” but due to that Johnny Depp movie by now many people say “CAR-i-bbe-an”.

          I am fascinated by the American tendency to loosen lax r-controlled vowels from non-r forms. I want the dictionaries to stay simple, but in honesty, GenAm has never said START with the same vowel as PALM. There has always been a clipping of the vowel plus a rhoticized schwa. It also helps to explain why the cot-caught merger doesn’t affect NORTH words (though my theory is that NORTH has moved into the FORCE set). All the tense r-vowels have always been unique anyway. NURSE is also unique (if you’re going to merge it with the “er” in “halberd” and treat them as identical in all but stress, then you might as well also merge STRUT and COMMA.)

        • Peter S. says:

          gaelsano: I don’t understand your comment. I merge NURSE and halberd ( except for stress) but not STRUT and COMMA. For me, the word just is COMMA in its week form and STRUT in its strong form, and the vowel quality is quite different.

        • Ellen K. says:

          For me, the vowel in “just” depends on meaning. “Right and just” = STRUT. “Just go!” = FOOT. “Just now” = STRUT or FOOT. For me, schwa has the same quality as STRUT, so the strut vowel may come from it’s frequent use in reduced form.

  11. Baron says:

    This is fantastic- I do accent reduction for actors in NY, and these same issues arise all the time. And the Modern Family bit caught me when I first saw it! It is a perfect example of a very basic issue of vowel clarity/distinction that I find myself examining with students and private clients. The discussion of acoustics is something I have always wondered to myself.
    Great blog!

  12. Tom says:

    Two comments:

    One is that this reminds me of the Rush Limbaugh contraception controversy: it seems that this woman Sandra Fluke’s last name is pronounced to rhyme with “book” instead of “kook”.

    I also think of the accent (dialect?) of George Harrison, whose accent seemed to differ from the other Beatles’ (“I don’t cuhhh” instead of “I don’t care” or “I don’t caehh”). He seemed to shorten the vowel sounds referred to in the example (listen to his pronunciation of “put”—”putt”—in “Pisces Fish”, for example: “His mad cows are being put to sleep.”) instead of lengthening them.

    • dw says:

      @Tom:

      The classic Liverpool accent merges SQUARE and NURSE, so pairs such as “care” and “cur” would be homophonous.

  13. Italian Guy says:

    For my italian ears the “kit” vowel sounds more like an “ee” than the italian “e” (even if the second vowel is closer in quality) but is different is more or less the same vowel I use to say the word “si” when I’m not pronuncing it carefully.

    My realization of the word “si” varies from IPA Si to Sɪ but it never sounds like the word “se”.

    I have no problem hearing that these two sounds are different now, the only problem I have is that my second formant is too high sometimes (not yet approaching an italian “e”) when I try to pronunce it , I think the main problem for an italian speaker is the spelling used in english, the length and the second formant of the vowel.

    For example I didn’t know that the “Kit” vowel existed so every time a word was written using an “i” I did hear an “i” sound, but it doesn’t happen when I listen to german because I’ve never studied german in school for years hearing a teacher with a bad accent speaking to me for 2-3 hours every week.

    My father can’t write or speak in english but he can distinguish between the “ee” and “kit” vowel without any kind of problems (is very very easy for him) the only thing I had to say to him was “listen carefully”.

    Luke and look sound completely different to me and the same goes for bet and bat the schwa has never created any kind of problems either because almost every dialect in italy has it even if we don’t speak any dialect at home.

    Sorry for my bad english I wasn’t very good at school.

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