The Importance (or not?) of Vowels

Vowels

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Linguist Will Styler has a smart, funny website titled ‘The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Vowels.‘ In the page ‘The Anti-Vowel Agenda,’ he elucidates his gripe:

Yet every day, vowels are bought and sold on national television, subjected to reduction (or even deletion) in unstressed environments and worst of all, in elementary and middle schools, students are systematically taught to deny the existence of more than two thirds of their ranks, focusing instead on five (sometimes six) lies spread by the million-dollar-a-year spelling bee industry.

This is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but Styler does have a point. When I learned to read, I was given a detailed description of the consonants of English. The vowels, on the other hand, were something of an afterthought. I knew what an ‘n,‘ an ‘r,’ and an ‘l‘ were as a child, but I certainly couldn’t identify an ‘ash’ (the vowel in words like ‘cat’ and ‘trap’).  It was only crude a, e, i, o, u, and occasional interloper y.

Much of this discrepancy can be attributed to spelling, as Styler suggests; those 5-6 Latin vowel symbols certainly give laymen the impression we have less vowels than we do. Yet I think there is more to this misperception than orthography.

In some ways, vowels seem to cause native English speakers less trouble than consonants. As I’ve mentioned here before, Scottish children can master their native dialect’s complex vowel lengthening rules quite early in the game, even as they struggle with the same consonants that most English-speaking children do.  Young children are prone to vowel ‘errors,’ of course, but I find they don’t have quite the salience of adorably ill-formed l‘s and r‘s.

So why do we tend to view vowels as less “important” than consonants? Probably because many of our vowels are more than a little disposable. (Not to put too find a point on it.) While we keep the front vowels fairly distinguished, the vowels in ‘book,’ ‘cut,’ ‘caught,’ ‘father’ are all merged with other phonemes in various accents*. That’s a whopping four vowel phonemes the absence of which doesn’t impact intelligibility. So we arguably don’t see vowels as ‘important’ because some of them, objectively speaking, aren’t.

Then, of course, there is the matter of dialects. One phone (IPA a) can be used to express the ‘o‘ in ‘lot,’ the ‘a‘ in ‘father,’ the ‘a‘ in ‘cat,’ or the ‘u‘ in ‘strut’ depending on which regional variant of the language we’re talking about.  I don’t need to repeat the countless ways in which English vowels shift, merge, and neutralize.

And yet, despite vowels being less ‘important’ in terms of comprehension, their sheer instability makes them arguably more ‘important’ culturally. Much of the debate and discussion here centers around vowels, and how vowels reflect class, society, and identity. Consonants are vital to discussions of English dialects as well (note the many posts here about l-vocalization and th-fronting), but they can’t quite compete with the vowels’ near-endless shades of sociolinguistic meaning.

*I’m hardly the first to point this out, but the ‘disposable’ vowels of English are typically the back vowels. Not surprisingly, this part of the vowel space is smaller than the front.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched 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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13 Responses to The Importance (or not?) of Vowels

  1. Eugene says:

    Interestingly, vowels are the nucleus of the syllable and carry the stress and intonation. We hear them more clearly than coda consonants (for sure) and onset consonants (maybe?). Vowels vary a lot individually as well as dialectally, yet we adjust our perception quickly and efficiently. Think about a New Zealand accent and how easily a North American English speaker adjusts to it.
    I think the key is that 1) the vowels are spread out in phonetic space, and we can quickly map one dialect to another, and 2) top down processing of words and phrases helps us interpret what we hear.
    Mark Twain said something about historical linguistics being the science where consonants don’t count for much and vowels count for nothing.

    • trawicks says:

      “Interestingly, vowels are the nucleus of the syllable and carry the stress and intonation …”

      And that’s perhaps why many of us are more enamored with vowels: they carry emotion, intent, and context. Although the higher up a consonant is on the sonority scale, the more its able to fulfill similar functions; I’d argue you can express your state of mind with a single /n/ more easily than you can with a single /k/.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    How could we have language without vowels? Aren’t the words “ideolect,” “dialect,” “pidgin,” “creole” and “language” synonymous with the word “vowel?”

    • CC says:

      It depends on what exactly you mean by that, but in general, I’d answer “no”. In terms of dialect, vowels are not always the main player; for example, Spanish dialects primarily differ phonologically in what consonants they have. Whether you pronounce “ll” as /ʎ/ or /y/, or whether your consonant inventory includes /θ/ or is merged with /s/.
      As for language, while certainly most languages need some vowels in their words, some don’t. The Salishian languages of western Canada oftentimes have words that are simply strings of consonants, like in Nuxalk were they have words like /sxs/ “seal fat” and /xɬpʼχʷɬtʰɬpʰɬɬskʷʰtsʼ/ “He had had a bunchberry plant”.

  3. Chris says:

    I recall learning that French has more reliance on steady-state vowel space than English. I wonder if they are, then, more important to french language comprehension?

    • trawicks says:

      Probably. I’m no Romance linguist, but one can gather from even the most rudimentary class in a Romance language that vowels are important to the word inflection in those languages in a way they just aren’t in English.

      • boynamedsue says:

        Is true, English speakers can very quickly perform an operation in their heads to map any speaker’s vowels to the ones they use in their own dialect with very little exposure to the dialect (or L1 accent) the speaker is using. Romance speakers find it really difficult to do this, with the French being the most obtuse in this respect.

        But if you look at Arabs, they are even better than us at picking up foreigners’ utterances from just consonants, it’s as if they hardly heat the vowels.

    • dw says:

      Probably. French has a large number of monosyllables of the CV type, and generally strongly favors open syllables. The identity of the vowel is much more important in a word of structure CV: than in one of structure CVC where one has two consonant clues to the word’s meaning.

      Despite this, French doesn’t actually have more vowels than English (in the main dialects). While French exploits rounded front vowels and contrastive nasalization, English exploits long-short or tense-lax contrasts (like “bit”-“beet”) than so befuddle French learners of English.

      • Chris says:

        dw, interesting point. My weak memory of phonetics recall that transitions are the key to recognition speech perception, so that would explain why vowels are more important to CV syllables.

  4. Peter S. says:

    Could you argue that British English has too many vowels? The disappearance of ‘r’ in non-rhotic dialects created a bunch of new vowels and diphthongs of which one (the FORCE lexical set) has already disappeared and another (POOR) seems to be on its way out.

  5. Aba says:

    In general, i believe differences in vowel pronunciation are totally irrelevant because, unlike Spanish, English is heavily reliant upon consonants to give meaning to words.

    cn y rd ths sntnce?
    if you can, it proves my point.

    Ironically, The most opposite example of such a language is Arabic, which relies on three letter consonants in a specific order, which convey a general meaning. Q-W-L, signifies “speaking”. Vowels give nuances but CONSONANTS vary wildly from one country to the next, rarely affecting intelligibility.
    For example: “Matha Qultu laki, means “What did I say to you (female)…” in Modern Standard Arabic. The colloquial dialects never use “matha” as what, using a condensed form of the phrase “ay shay’in huwa” (which literally means “what thing is it that”) instead:

    Eish Gultillik? – Jordan
    Eish Ultillik? – Palestine
    Oltellik ih? – Egypt (reverses word order)
    Shu Iltillik – Syria/Lebanon
    Shunu Giltillitch – Iraq

    Yet, I can completely understand all of these accents. There are many words and corruptions of the standard language. The greeting “Ay shay’i huwa lawnuka” has been compressed to “shlonak”. There are massive vowel shifts, and massive consonant shifts as well. Iraqis pronounce the Q sound as a hard G, and pronounce the K sound as a TCH. Egyptians do not pronounce the Q sound, omitting it entirely, and instead pronounce the J sound as a hard G.

    Liturgical pronunciation is very strict, and Arabic orthography can “traditionally” only be read ONE way. In every-day life, the language is highly distorted beyond recognition, but amazingly people revert to the Classical pronunciation when giving speeches, appearing on the news, etc.

    So, am I effectively fluent in like 7 different languages, or does this phenomenon say something about the relative unimportance of vowels and consonants? Maybe it is context, flow, and tone which give true meaning to speech.

  6. Stan says:

    Interesting post, Ben. I hadn’t seen Styler’s website before, and enjoyed a look around.

    A letter on the subject of Neanderthal speech, published in Science in 1975, said:

    the kemplexete ef speech depends en the kensenents, net en the vewels, es ken be seen frem the generel kemprehensebelete ef thes letter

    Re: “consonants don’t count for much and vowels count for nothing”. Maybe Twain said something along these lines, but it’s Voltaire who is more commonly credited with the line that etymology (or philology) is a science in which “consonants count for very little and vowels for nothing at all”.

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    If the correct accent is not important, why so many Americans say ”we can’t understand THAT accent” (THAT = Indian, Geordie, Broad Australian…)