Vowels are speech which are made on the most open stricture of approximation: there is a wide gap between the highest point of the tongue and the roof of the mouth. As a result, the configuration of the mouth is such that it is ideal to resonate, there is no audible friction.


Phonetically, vowels are classified in terms of the location of the constriction (front vs. back), the degree of opening (close vs. open) and whether there is lip rounding or not (rounded vs. unrounded). Vowels are typically represented on a vowel chart such as the one at the top of this page. There seems to be a natural relationship between the location of the constriction and lip rounding: front vowels are typically produced with spread lips, while the back vowels are typically rounded. This is well-illustrated by the total numbers of these vowels in the languages of the world. 

Apart from these basic distinctions vowel can contrast in duration (short vs. long), their conformational aspect (oral vs. nasal). The vowels in some languages also contrast in voice quality (modal vs. creaky). The videos on this page only demonstrate some of the more basic distinctions.

The total number of vowels in the vowels systems of the world's languages varies considerably. The smallest systems consist of three vowels only, while some vowel systems may have 30 different vowels. The most common vowel system contains 5 vowels, i.e. i, e, a, o and u.





 

Symbols for the phonetic transcription of vowels

Phonetic symbol for the unrounded, close, front vowel.
Phonetic symbol for the close, rounded, front vowel.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
UNROUNDED
CLOSE
ROUNDED
CLOSE
CLOSE
ROUNDED
CLOSE
UNROUNDED
FRONT
BACK
CLOSE - MID
UNROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
CLOSE - MID
ROUNDED
CLOSE - MID
ROUNDED
CLOSE - MID
UNROUNDED
FRONT
BACK
FRONT
BACK
CLOSE
UNROUNDED
CLOSE
ROUNDED
OPEN - MID
UNROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
OPEN - MID
ROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
OPEN - MID
UNROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
OPEN - MID
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
ROUNDED
FRONT
BACK
OPEN
UNROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
OPEN
ROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
OPEN
UNROUNDED
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
OPEN
Phonetic symbol for the voiced alveolar click.
ROUNDED
FRONT
BACK

Nutshell phonetics of vowels

 
 
 
 
 
UNROUNDED
CLOSE
HALF-CLOSE
HALF-OPEN
ROUNDED
UNROUNDED
ROUNDED
CLOSE
HALF-CLOSE
HALF-OPEN
OPEN
OPEN
FRONT
BACK