B07 Sound patterns in Human Language: Vowels I: Cardinal vowels

There are several ways to describe vowels. The first descriptor we will encounter refers to the position of the tongue. We first provide some reference points with which we hope to describe any vowel. We later turn our attention to the vowels of American English, and some conventions for their description.

Only two vowels have clear articulatory definitions: /i/ and //
Cardinal vowel I:
An extreme form of the vowel in English bean, team or seed. The tongue is high and front. Lips are spread.
Cardinal vowel V:
Enunciate the vowel of hot, cot or olive with the tongue as low and as for back as possible.
In each of the preceding, the tongue should be in an extreme position such that if it were any more high (low) or front (back), turbulent noise would be produced.

Now consider the series // - // - /o/ - /u/. These correspond roughly (I said roughly!) to the vowels in the words cot - caught - coat - coot. These are Cardinal Vowels V, VI, VII and VIII. You can listen to examples by clicking on the buttons to the right.

For some American speakers, there may not be a difference between the vowels in cot and caught. For all American speakers, the vowel of coat is a poor approximation to /o/. The American vowel moves from about /o/ to about //

VIII: high, back, rounded

VII: mid-high, back, rounded

VI: mid-low, back, rounded

V: low, back, unrounded


Try gliding from // to /u/ and back. Notice that your lips get more and more rounded as you move up the series. Can you feel your tongue rising as your jaw closes? For /u/, the tongue should be high - as high as for /i/, just further back in the mouth.

All these are back vowels. Practice gliding from one end to the other and back again. Do this silently too, so you can better feel the position of your tongue.

The front series passes through /i/ - /e/ - // - /a/ - //. These are roughly the vowels of deed - days - bet - bat - hot. There are no good examples of Cardinal vowels II or IV in English. CV II /e/ is like the vowel sound at the start of the diphthong in bait. CV IV, /a/ is the vowel in some dialects (mine included) in words like hat and cat. For most American speakers, however the vowels in these words are more like the vowel //, or even //. Examples of these sounds are given on the right.
I: high, front, unrounded

II: mid-high, front, unrounded

III: mid-low, front, unrounded

IV: low, front, unrounded

V: low, back, unrounded
Make sure you know the sound quality associated with all of these primary cardinal vowels. Further examples of all these vowels can be found at...(URL to follow).

Secondary cardinal vowels
Tongue position and lip roundedness are independent, so we can form a second set of cardinal vowels by making rounded vowels unrounded and vice versa. These all occur, but are less common than the primary series.
IX: high, front, rounded

X: mid-high, front, rounded

XI: mid-low, front, rounded

XII: low, front, rounded

XVI: high, back, unrounded

XV: mid-high, back, unrounded

XIV: mid-low, back, unrounded

XIII: low, back, rounded

This page has been developed by Fred Cummins, Department of Linguistics, 2016 Sheridan Road, to whom all questions should be referred.
Copyright (1998) Northwestern University

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