What is an overall account of vowels in English?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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In one regard, one might say vowels create phonemes that create meaning. For example, {pit} and {pet} have very different meanings because the vowel phoneme in each, /i/ and /e/, changes the meaning. In another regard, one might talk about the orthographic rules governing vowels when writing English. One of these rules is that when /i/ and /e/ are next to each other in a word, the /i/ comes before the /e/, except when both follow the consonant /c/: achieve, receive, chief, relieve, deceive. Rules change over time so that the /e/ at the end of words, like time, though currently not articulated when spoken, were pronounced in Middle English during Chaucer's time, thus adding a distinct syllable.

English has two major categories of vowels: monophthong vowels and diphthong vowels. The first are vowels with a single phonological sound, as in {pit} and {pet}. The second are vowels with a double, blended phonology (i.e., sound), as in {aisle} and {toil} and {cow}. Monophthongs are the more complex of the two categories because monophthongs are divided into three sub-categories according to placement within the articulatory anatomy: back, central and front. There are further divisions based on the height of the articulatory ceiling, or palette: high, mid, and low.

An example of a back articulated word is {lone}, where articulation occurs at the tongue back. An example of a central articulation is {strut}, where articulation occurs in a central location, involving the center of the tongue, mid-way between a back and a front sound. An example of a front sound is {pass}, where articulation occurs in the forward location of the articulatory anatomy. An example of a high articulation is {eat}, a mid-height articulation is {gate}, and a low articulation is {goth}.

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