The Origins of Vowel Systems (Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language)

Ferdinand de Saussure

Part III is about the prehistory of language, and in particular askes: When and why did language evolve? The text presents current interpretations of the selective events that may have led to the evolution of language. Part IV, is on launching language and looks especially at the development of a linguistic species, and it presents articles dealing with central properties to be accounted for in language evolution, and issues surrounding the forces that shaped the language faculty.

Visual signals are also widespread, including those most associated with humans and other primates: Visual signalling with feelers or other body parts occurs in many species. Colouration is a common type of visual signalling: Often, changes in colour occur according to context, for instance in some fish, in octopuses, and in chameleons; social cephalopods, such as squid and cuttlefish, deploy changes in skin colour and pattern to signal messages such as readiness to mate. Tactile signals are widely employed, such as touching with legs, trunks, or feelers.

Communication via chemical signals is widespread; for example, moths use pheromones to attract conspecifics in the dark. Animal communication systems are thus immensely varied in form. Moreover, symbiotic relationships sometimes produce communication across unrelated species. The honey guide bird Indicator indicator leads honey badgers to bees' nests by making a sound that attracts the badger, which then breaks into the nest, allowing both animals to reap the rewards. Mammals employ extensive vocal communication with conspecifics, often in addition to using visual display, chemical messages, and tactile communication.

With a very small amount of cultural diversity, these signals are human universals. In fact, they generally do not combine signals at all. For language, though, this property is fundamental. The combinatorial principle, exploited at different levels of organization, is a crucial, distinctive attribute of language.

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In phonology , diphthongs and triphthongs are distinguished from sequences of monophthongs by whether the vowel sound may be analyzed into different phonemes or not. First, when did the language faculty emerge? Were there some rational connection between signified and signifier, it would allow speakers of the language to intervene either to prevent inevitable change, or to initiate changes of their own. Immutability has a social dimension as well. The Cours was experienced as modern on account of some of its more venerable doctrines, such as the arbitrariness of the sign and the concept of value as pure difference well established in midth-century British philosophy , which had fallen by the wayside in the period of single-minded focus on historical phonology. It is also widely argued that texts in discourse e.

In every meaningful sense, language is an autapomorphy, i. We also have no definitive evidence that any species other than Homo sapiens ever had language. Moreover, language crucially draws on aspects of cognition that are long established in the primate lineage, such as memory: We anticipate that both animal communication and animal cognition will shed light on the evolution of language, but in exactly what ways is hotly debated.

Another established methodology is to search for examples of convergent evolution: Unfortunately, for language such features are not easily detected. For specific traits, there are indeed both analogues unrelated but superficially similar features and homologues features with a shared common ancestry in other animal systems. These include such common features as vocalization and cultural transmission. In fact, language is exceptional in almost all aspects. Language obtains its unique expressive power by exploiting a few distinct formal principles that operate over numerous subsystems and at different levels of organization.

These tools have little or no parallel in the animal kingdom. First, and perhaps most critically, language combines elements at all levels. Starting with sound systems MacNeilage, Chapter 46 , each language combines elements from an individual set of digitized sounds known as phonemes: Second, elements are ordered in predictable ways.

Words are also sequenced predictably, for instance by having a usual order of heads and complements across phrasal categories, though languages are not always dogmatic about this. Third, language exploits hierarchical structure at several levels. Hierarchical structure also operates at the level of morpheme combinations: Syntax exploits hierarchical structure by combining words into phrases, and phrases into larger phrases and clauses Tallerman, Chapter It is also widely argued that texts in discourse e.

In addition to these organizational principles, mappings occur between all linguistic levels, including most broadly between sound and meaning. This, then, is the formal basis of language. Even at the lowest levels of organization, there are strikingly few parallels in animal communication systems.

In human phonological systems, a relatively small, closed set of meaningless elements sound segments and their visual equivalents in sign languages combine to produce meaningful elements. There is no productivity in the combinations. Bee dances display a limited compositionality Kirby, Chapter 61 but again, no productivity.

As we move up the levels of linguistic organization, we find fewer parallels still in animal systems. Hierarchical structure exists in some bird song and some whale song Janik, Chapter 9 , but it is always limited Hurford A priori, we might expect that the natural communication systems of our closest living relatives, the great apes, would be nearest to language—perhaps rather like language, but with a smaller vocabulary and a simpler grammar. But this is absolutely not the case. Even at the most fundamental level, that of sound production, we have a different morphology of the supralaryngeal vocal tract from that of chimpanzees, with humans showing clear specializations for speech production MacLarnon, Chapter Moreover, humans have evolved far greater neurological control over their vocalizations than other primates.

Although much is still unknown about the subtleties of communication systems in other primates, it is clear that there is really nothing analogous to human sound systems, lexicon, semantics, or grammar. Some call combinations do seem to occur in wild chimpanzees Slocombe, Chapter 7 but as yet there is no evidence that these acquire a compositional meaning; see Tallerman, Chapters 48 and Certain animal systems have something that at first glance seems to resemble a primitive vocabulary.

These have attracted much interest in the language evolution literature, doubtless because of the relatively close relationship between p. It should be noted, though, that domestic chickens also have distinct alarm calls for different predators, a system as sophisticated as those of monkeys, and, additionally, have referential food calls; moreover, prairie dogs which are rodents employ perhaps the most highly sophisticated systems of animal alarm calls Gibson, Chapter Are alarm calls or food calls parallel to words? They share one property—arbitrariness—with human vocabulary: Alarm calls are often described as having functional reference; that is, they are prompted by external events such as the appearance of a leopard rather than merely conveying an animal's internal state, such as fear or aggression.

Alarm calls differ from words in all other respects; see Tallerman, Chapter They are not formed from different permutations of a discrete set of sounds, but rather, are holistic. Both the calls themselves and the broad contexts that provoke them are innate.

Conversely, words, both forms and meanings, are learned by human infants, and crucially, new words are learned by each speaker throughout life. Monkey alarm calls are primarily used when the particular predator is present, and sometimes to deceive conspecifics into thinking a predator is around. Alarm calls are indexical, meaning that they have a causal link to what they represent—normally, the presence of the predator induces the appropriate alarm call. Alarm calls thus also lack the property of displacement that is crucial in language: Words are thus true symbols, whereas animal calls, even if functionally referential, are not; symbolic reference, which must be acquired by learning, is explored in detail by Deacon, Chapter 43 , and by Harnad, Chapter Critically, word meanings are established between a community of speakers and agreed by convention.

Part of what this entails is that the meaning of a word can change very quickly, providing other members of the language community adopt the new meaning think of net , web , or drive. Alarm calls, in contrast, have a fixed meaning and essentially form a closed set. The total repertoire of calls in any animal species is tiny, numbering no more than a few dozen distinct calls, whereas the vocabulary of all human languages numbers tens of thousands of items Tallerman, Chapter This is no mere matter of degree—in p.

John E. Joseph

The evolution of a massive, learned vocabulary store Tallerman is just one of the unique aspects of language. Only in language do we find the extensive categorization that, for instance, divides the lexicon into discrete categories such as noun, verb, adjective, each category with its own distinctive behaviour.

The categories themselves are unlikely to be innate, since they differ from language to language, but the ability to categorize in this way, and on the basis of little data, appears to be uniquely human. Evidence of children's abilities in generalizing over categories has been well known at least since Berko Only language displays the property of duality of patterning see Tallerman, Chapter 51 , with combinations on two levels of organization: Other highly distinctive properties arise on each level of linguistic organization; even the speech signal itself displays significant adaptations both in production and perception see Pinker and Jackendoff for an overview.

Given the limited nature of the evidence obtainable from studying animal communication systems, how do researchers hope to break into the evolutionary puzzle that is language? The previous section introduced the major novelties of the language faculty, which includes notable discontinuities with animal communication systems.

This gives rise to a fundamental dilemma in the field of language evolution. Language seems to display many features with no precursors, yet general evolutionary principles suggest that a complex trait like language, which is not under the control of any single gene or related group of genes, must have evolved in large part from simpler p. Frustratingly, we have no direct evidence for any aspect of language evolution, and no uncontroversial indirect evidence. Moreover, what is considered possible evidence differs from discipline to discipline, as we now discuss.

The comparative method is an obvious place to start; see chapters in Part I , also Fitch a. There are two ways in which this method can be employed. The first involves comparing similar traits within a clade. For humans, the set of primates as a whole or the smaller set of great apes would be most relevant; for instance, tool use by other great apes is an established trait, so it seems likely that the last common ancestor of all great apes, including humans, was able to use simple tools.

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This trait is thus a homologue, involving a shared common ancestry. See Wood and Bauernfeind, Chapter 25 , for discussion of likely features of the last common ancestor between panins, i. The alternative way of employing the comparative method involves comparing the convergent evolution of similar traits across a number of unrelated lineages. For instance, bipedal locomotion in humans, kangaroos, and birds is not due to common ancestry, so is an analogous trait across the three lineages.

Analogues are useful because they may have evolved in different lineages under comparable selection pressures, such as a similar habitat, diet, or predation pattern. The problem, as noted above, is that homologues and analogues to essential properties of language are not easily established in animal systems, and no other species has a language faculty, so the comparative method is difficult to apply straightforwardly. The discipline of palaeoanthropology examines the fossil record, and from skull endocasts may uncover anatomical evidence of brain structure of potential relevance to language, including brain size, external cortical reorganization, and hemispheric asymmetries Wilkins, Chapter Unfortunately, we cannot study past stages of brain evolution in any depth, since endocasts provide no evidence of internal brain structure.

Similarly, with the exception of an occasional hyoid bone, we have no fossilized remains of the vocal tract see MacLarnon, Chapter 22 ; Wood and Bauernfeind, Chapter However, even if we had clear evidence of the emergence of modern vocal tract structure, we would not necessarily know how to interpret it. In that case, speech capabilities could still have been lacking if neural adaptations had not yet occurred.

Even if we were certain that a modern vocal tract provided full speech capabilities, this would not p. Recently, molecular biology has provided another possible source of physical evidence: Again, however, these methods are fraught with difficulties and controversies. This is as yet a young field, and new discoveries and constant developments in technology should provide more answers in future decades.

Introduction: The evolution of language

Another line of enquiry looks not at hominin fossil remains themselves, but at the artefacts left by our ancestors. Archaeologists have argued that inferences can be made about the development of symbolic communication and linguistic complexity by looking at tools and other implements, or personal ornaments such as beads, thus assuming some link between linguistic skills and cognitive sophistication, as evidenced in the material record.

Moreover, if a certain level of cultural complexity is attested both in known societies and in prehistoric societies, it seems reasonable to assume that a similar level of complexity occurs in cognition too. In this volume, the chapters by Boeckx 52 ; Botha 30 ; d'Errico and Vanhaeren 29 ; Donald 17 ; Mann 26 ; Mithen 28 ; and Wynn 27 discuss the relevance of the archaeological record and the difficulties inherent in interpreting it; see also Cann, Chapter There are many possible drawbacks to using technological advances to infer the presence of the language faculty, not least because crucial artefacts made of degradable materials may be absent from the record: We only have to think of the exponential increase in the complexity of our own artefacts between and to realize that there is no simple chain of inference between sophistication in the archaeological record and the presence of language see also Botha, Chapter Moreover, new archaeological findings readily overturn previous conclusions.

We now know that beads, other putative forms of symbolism, and advanced flaking techniques long predate the Upper Palaeolithic Brown et al. And until quite recently, tools comprising more than one component—such as harpoons or bows and arrows—were thought to have originated only within the last 20, years Coolidge and Wynn b ; Wynn, Chapter 27 but a recent find suggests that arrows were being produced as much as 64 kya thousand years ago Lombard and Phillipson However, the danger of confusing ontogenetic and phylogenetic processes must always be guarded against here. There is no reason to think that any specific evidence concerning the origins of language can be gained from studying the acquisition of modern languages.

Moreover, infants learning language today have a full language faculty, which clearly is not the case for the earliest hominins. A very strong line of linguistic research and one of the few areas widely considered to provide good evidence by practitioners of disparate linguistic theories involves the study of grammaticalization.

It is widely argued that putative prehistoric stages of language can be reconstructed by studying known linguistic trajectories of change—specifically, the ways in which grammatical elements are formed from lexical elements. The importance of grammaticalization is also emphasized by Bickerton, Chapter 49 ; Corballis, Chapter 41 ; and Chater and Christiansen, Chapter There are also, however, applications of reverse engineering in spheres other than the narrowly linguistic.

In the field of cognition, Coolidge and Wynn Chapter 21 investigate the evolution of modern thinking, specifically the emergence of indirect speech acts. Diller and Cann, Chapter 15 , evaluate the evidence concerning genetic correlates for language, and conclude that language is highly unlikely to be associated with any single genetic mutation; see also Cann, Chapter Formal models allow the predictions of theories of language evolution to be tested empirically, by building in the assumptions to be tested and seeing if they indeed result from the model: As both Kirby and Smith discuss, results and predictions obtained from the formal models can further be tested on human subjects in the laboratory.

In the next section we consider in more detail the properties of language as a biological system. We start by examining the uniqueness of language in biological terms, in comparison with other animal communication systems. Language is a complex amalgam of lifelong learning nonetheless including a critical period and innateness; see Fitch, Chapter Most researchers agree that both aspects are crucial to language, but many controversies arise over where the line should be drawn see the following section.

The aspects uncontroversially considered to be learned are, of course, vocabularies and idiosyncratic lexical properties of distinct languages, transmitted from generation to generation a trait known as traditional transmission. Vocabulary is added beyond the critical period for language acquisition, a feature with few clear analogues in other animal communication systems.

Simple communication systems which combine vocal learning and innateness are found in some animals notably, songbirds , but the contributions made by each aspect are easier to tease apart, since experiments can be performed which would be impossible with human subjects. Among vocal learning birds, there are certain parallels to language learning: Moreover, young birds raised without an appropriate adult model e.

This shows that there is an innate stratum, some basis for the song which is not entirely learned. In the case of language, the child undoubtedly brings crucial cognitive contributions to the learning process, yet without linguistic input, full language does not develop.

A clear example comes from the deaf children of hearing parents: This is not language, but has indisputable linguistic properties. It is also well documented throughout the world that when contact occurs between groups with no shared language, restricted linguistic systems develop, known as pidgins Roberge, Chapter 56 , and these may in due course become full languages, learned natively by children.

Given such evidence, it is difficult to conclude that language has no genetic component. We will assume, then, that there have been significant adaptations in our species with respect to a language faculty. The superficial diversity of language systems has no discernible consequences for language learning; infants seem equally capable of learning any ambient language or indeed, learning half a dozen or more languages in their environment , and take around the same amount of time to get to the same stages, whatever language they are learning.

This fact alone suggests the presence of an innate predisposition for language learning. Another biologically distinctive property of language concerns its function see also below. The function of animal communication systems, on the other hand, typically revolves around reproduction, including mate attraction, pair bonding, and defence of territory. Even learned animal systems thus have a very limited message.

There is a biological imperative for songbirds to learn their songs: Song is, thus, an honest signal Zahavi and Zahavi , in a way that language is not. Conversely, producing language requires virtually no calorific expenditure above and beyond that needed for overall brain growth and maintenance; it doesn't take up valuable time that could be used to forage and it doesn't require that the speaker be in good condition.

The first of these is biological evolution: Language in its earlier forms can therefore be assumed to have been adaptive, i. At the very least, whatever neurological, physical, or other changes accompanied an evolving language faculty had to have no negative impact on selection. For the speech modality, these prerequisites include full vocal control the ability both to vocalize and to suppress vocalization at will , vocal imitation, and vocal learning; see MacLarnon, Chapter 22 ; MacNeilage, Chapter It is now also known that some primates can both vocalize volitionally and suppress vocalization under certain circumstances.

But even before those traits emerged, our ancestors must have developed the ability to understand that conspecifics are communicating deliberately; to infer the mental states of other p. These traits are all expressed to some extent in modern apes, so probably existed in the last common ancestor of apes and humans. Language placed a premium on these abilities.

For a protolanguage to emerge, hominins needed to develop expanded abilities in such domains, leading ultimately to the ability to learn, store, and retrieve a vast intersecting network of arbitrary symbols words; Deacon, Chapter 43 , and the crucial property of displacement the ability to refer to entities remote in time or space; Hurford, Chapter 40 ; see also Tallerman Using these conventional symbols relies in turn on the capacity to imitate, rehearse, and refine the practical skills required Burling, Chapter 44 ; Corballis, Chapter 41 ; Donald, Chapter For full language, more is needed—the major development being the compositional syntactic abilities which are the main impetus in generative grammar for assuming an innate language capacity; see Bickerton, Chapter 49 ; Tallerman, Chapter 48 , for an outline of syntactic processes.

The second timescale involves cultural transmission: This has led to proposals that languages themselves adapt to become more learnable Christiansen and Chater ; Chater and Christiansen, Chapter Many developments on this timescale are known from attested language change, in particular the processes known as grammaticalization, whereby lexical items evolve into functional items auxiliaries, complementizers, demonstratives, determiners, and so on. Most linguists assume that similar processes were operative in the evolution of the full language faculty, so that the earliest protolanguages—simpler precursors to language—may well have distinguished no categories other than protonouns and protoverbs Hurford a ; Heine and Kuteva , Chapter 54 ; Tallerman, Chapter Cultural transmission involves not only vertical transmission, between parents and children, but also horizontal transmission of various kinds, both within and across communities.

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This includes transmission between speakers of different languages, in cases of language contact: Such contact can lead to interesting mismatches between the genetic and linguistic heritage in a population, as Pakendorf outlines. Since population contact is likely to have been extensive throughout our evolution, language contact between linguistic groups has very likely contributed much to language evolution itself Nichols, Chapter The third timescale is that of individual learning—the growth of language in children.

Even prelinguistic infants possess impressive statistical learning abilities which provide cues for segmentation, enabling the internal structure of words and phrases to be detected in the continuous stream of speech Graf Estes, Chapter As mentioned above, the complexity of the language faculty precludes any simple account of language evolution relying on a few, recent genetic mutations.

The sequencing of the human genome International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium revealed, rather surprisingly, that humans only have around 20,—25, genes—far fewer than was anticipated. A microscopic roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans , has over 19, genes. Two factors may account for this.

First, most genes are pleiotropic, which means that they have control over more than one trait. Second, many genes such as FOXP2 are also regulatory in nature; that is, they serve as switches that turn multiple downstream genes on or off. Regulatory genes that are active early in development can have profound effects on developing phenotypes.

Given the small number of genetic differences between panins and humans, it is likely that many of the phenotypic i. The small number of total genes in the human genome—coupled with the small number of probable genetic differences between other apes and humans—also argues against views that each aspect of distinctively human neurology, behaviour, or language is controlled by a distinct gene Gibson ; Diller and Cann, Chapter We do not doubt that cultural transmission has shaped the language faculty to some extent; since the earliest forms of protolanguage must have been culturally transmitted Nichols, Chapter 58 , just as languages themselves are, then learnability seems likely to have played an important role in evolution.

But we also see an evolving language faculty itself as clearly adaptive. Genes interact with their environment, so that the same genotype i. A simple example is height. The ultimate height reached by any individual is a product of interacting genetic and environmental effects, including intrauterine environment, postnatal diet, and overall health. This suggests that language, as opposed to most animal calls, is a specific adaptation for communicating about highly variable events.

Do we even agree what language is? We therefore need to consider how various terms have been defined and used in the field. For evolutionary linguistics, the relevance lies in the distinction between the evolution of language as a human faculty, and the subsequent development of various languages linguistic systems over historical time, which is generally not thought to involve evolution in a biological sense. Whether or not these analyses shed light on the language faculty itself is often a matter of interpretation and of theoretical assumptions. For instance, it is likely that traditional transmission is involved in forming vowel systems that keep segments as far apart as possible within the acoustic space available de Boer, Chapter 63 , and also involved in linearizing words and phrases in ways that aid processing Hawkins , The very fact of having to be learnable by human brains may determine structural properties of language Anderson, Chapter 39 ; Chater and Christiansen, Chapter A second distinction Hauser et al.

FLB contains many additional capacities, including memory, respiration, and the auditory system; traits that are used in language but are not necessarily uniquely human. Jackendoff usefully refines this distinction. Some aspects of the broader language faculty are uniquely human, but have a wider function than the purely linguistic, such as a full theory of mind.

Other aspects of the language faculty are both uniquely human and uniquely linguistic, yet have evolved directly from existing primate features; a clear instance is the specialized human vocal tract MacLarnon, Chapter In FLN remains whatever is radically new in the primate lineage—aspects of the language faculty that are so specialized or distinctive that they appear to have no primate precursors. From a biological perspective, as little as possible should be ascribed to this last category. To step back a little, these distinctions also raise questions.

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What do we mean by a language faculty? Does it even exist? Most linguists, psychologists, and biologists p. Linguists often refer to this biological endowment as universal grammar UG. The concept of UG itself is frequently misunderstood see Jackendoff Although not everyone who uses the term UG has exactly the same conception of it, various aspects should be clear.

Nor is it an abstract semantic structure common to all languages.

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Under this conception, UG provides a set of tools, or basic principles, for building languages, which each language customizes in specific ways; see also Culicover and Jackendoff for more details on the Toolkit Hypothesis. If a UG of this nature does exist, what aspects of the language faculty does it contribute to? Does it contain linguistically specific principles? As an alternative, can we do away with UG, so that every aspect of language learning is subsumed under more general learning mechanisms?

There are probably two polarized extremes in this area. Both Anderson and Lightfoot stress that it is extremely unlikely that natural selection accounts for every aspect of the language faculty. Although UG is still a central concept in more recent Minimalist theorizing in linguistics, its role and hypothesized content is much reduced. The bulk of the machinery associated with the heyday of the Principles and Parameters framework is no longer considered part of UG Hauser et al.

The Origins of Vowel Systems The Origins of Vowel Systems (Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language) (): Bart de Boer: Books. The Origins of Vowel Systems. Bart de Boer. Oxford Studies in the Evolution of Language. This book addresses universal tendencies of human.

As with vowel height, however, it is defined by a formant of the voice, in this case the second, F2, not by the position of the tongue. In front vowels, such as [i] , the frequency of F2 is relatively high, which generally corresponds to a position of the tongue forward in the mouth, whereas in back vowels, such as [u] , F2 is low, consistent with the tongue being positioned towards the back of the mouth. The International Phonetic Alphabet defines five degrees of vowel backness:. To them may be added front-central and back-central, corresponding to the vertical lines separating central from front and back vowel spaces in several IPA diagrams.

However, front-central and back-central may also be used as terms synonymous with near-front and near-back. No language is known to contrast more than three degrees of backness nor there is a language that contrasts front with near-front vowels nor back with near-back ones. Although some English dialects have vowels at five degrees of backness, there is no known language that distinguishes five degrees of backness without additional differences in height or rounding. The conception of the tongue moving in two directions, high—low and front—back, is not supported by articulatory evidence and does not clarify how articulation affects vowel quality.

Vowels may instead be characterized by the three directions of movement of the tongue from its neutral position: Membership in these categories is scalar, with the mid-central vowels being marginal to any category. Roundedness is named after the rounding of the lips in some vowels. Because lip rounding is easily visible, vowels may be commonly identified as rounded based on the articulation of the lips.

Acoustically, rounded vowels are identified chiefly by a decrease in F2, although F1 is also slightly decreased. In most languages, roundedness is a reinforcing feature of mid to high back vowels rather than a distinctive feature. Usually, the higher a back vowel, the more intense is the rounding.

Nonetheless, even in those languages there is usually some phonetic correlation between rounding and backness: Thus, the placement of unrounded vowels to the left of rounded vowels on the IPA vowel chart is reflective of their position in formant space. Different kinds of labialization are possible. In mid to high rounded back vowels the lips are generally protruded "pursed" outward, a phenomenon known as exolabial rounding because the insides of the lips are visible, whereas in mid to high rounded front vowels the lips are generally "compressed" with the margins of the lips pulled in and drawn towards each other, a phenomenon known as endolabial rounding.

However, not all languages follow that pattern. Swedish and Norwegian are the only two known languages in which the feature is contrastive; they have both endo- and exo-labial close front vowels and close central vowels , respectively. In many phonetic treatments, both are considered types of rounding, but some phoneticians do not believe that these are subsets of a single phenomenon and posit instead three independent features of rounded exolabial and compressed endolabial and unrounded.

The lip position of unrounded vowels may also be classified separately as spread and neutral neither rounded nor spread. Nasalization refers to whether some of the air escapes through the nose. In nasal vowels , the velum is lowered, and some air travels through the nasal cavity as well as the mouth. An oral vowel is a vowel in which all air escapes through the mouth. French , Polish and Portuguese contrast nasal and oral vowels.

Voicing describes whether the vocal cords are vibrating during the articulation of a vowel. Most languages have only voiced vowels, but several Native American languages , such as Cheyenne and Totonac , contrast voiced and devoiced vowels. Vowels are devoiced in whispered speech. In Japanese and in Quebec French , vowels that are between voiceless consonants are often devoiced. Modal voice, creaky voice , and breathy voice murmured vowels are phonation types that are used contrastively in some languages. Often, they co-occur with tone or stress distinctions; in the Mon language , vowels pronounced in the high tone are also produced with creaky voice.

In such cases, it can be unclear whether it is the tone, the voicing type, or the pairing of the two that is being used for phonemic contrast. The combination of phonetic cues phonation, tone, stress is known as register or register complex. Those vowels involve noticeable tension in the vocal tract. Pharyngealized vowels occur in some languages like Sedang and the Tungusic languages. Pharyngealisation is similar in articulation to retracted tongue root but is acoustically distinct. A stronger degree of pharyngealisation occurs in the Northeast Caucasian languages and the Khoisan languages.

They might be called epiglottalized since the primary constriction is at the tip of the epiglottis. The greatest degree of pharyngealisation is found in the strident vowels of the Khoisan languages, where the larynx is raised, and the pharynx constricted, so that either the epiglottis or the arytenoid cartilages vibrate instead of the vocal cords. Note that the terms pharyngealized , epiglottalized , strident , and sphincteric are sometimes used interchangeably.

Rhotic vowels are the "R-colored vowels" of American English and a few other languages. Tenseness is used to describe the opposition of tense vowels as in leap , suit vs. This opposition has traditionally been thought to be a result of greater muscular tension, though phonetic experiments have repeatedly failed to show this. Unlike the other features of vowel quality, tenseness is only applicable to the few languages that have this opposition mainly Germanic languages , e.

English , whereas the vowels of the other languages e. Spanish cannot be described with respect to tenseness in any meaningful way. In discourse about the English language, "tense and lax" are often used interchangeably with "long and short", respectively, because the features are concomitant in the common varieties of English.

This cannot be applied to all English dialects or other languages. In most Germanic languages , lax vowels can only occur in closed syllables. Therefore, they are also known as checked vowels , whereas the tense vowels are called free vowels since they can occur in any kind of syllable. The acoustics of vowels are fairly well understood. The different vowel qualities are realized in acoustic analyses of vowels by the relative values of the formants , acoustic resonances of the vocal tract which show up as dark bands on a spectrogram.

The vocal tract acts as a resonant cavity , and the position of the jaw, lips, and tongue affect the parameters of the resonant cavity, resulting in different formant values. The acoustics of vowels can be visualized using spectrograms, which display the acoustic energy at each frequency, and how this changes with time. The first formant, abbreviated "F1", corresponds to vowel openness vowel height. Open vowels have high F1 frequencies, while close vowels have low F1 frequencies, as can be seen in the accompanying spectrogram: The second formant, F2, corresponds to vowel frontness.

Back vowels have low F2 frequencies, while front vowels have high F2 frequencies. This is very clear in the spectrogram, where the front vowel [i] has a much higher F2 frequency than the other two vowels. However, in open vowels, the high F1 frequency forces a rise in the F2 frequency as well, so an alternative measure of frontness is the difference between the first and second formants.

For this reason, some people prefer to plot as F1 vs. This dimension is usually called 'backness' rather than 'frontness', but the term 'backness' can be counterintuitive when discussing formants. In fact, this kind of plot of F1 against F2 has been used by analysts to show the quality of the vowels in a wide range of languages, including RP, [16] [17] the Queen's English, [18] American English, [19] Singapore English, [20] Brunei English, [21] North Frisian, [22] Turkish Kabardian, [23] and various indigenous Australian languages.

R-colored vowels are characterized by lowered F3 values. Rounding is generally realized by a decrease of F2 that tends to reinforce vowel backness. One effect of this is that back vowels are most commonly rounded while front vowels are most commonly unrounded; another is that rounded vowels tend to plot to the right of unrounded vowels in vowel charts.

That is, there is a reason for plotting vowel pairs the way they are. In addition to variation in vowel quality as described above, vowels vary as a result of differences in prosody. The most important prosodic variables are pitch fundamental frequency , loudness intensity and length duration However, the features of prosody are usually considered to apply not to the vowel itself, but to the syllable in which the vowel occurs.

In other words, the domain of prosody is the syllable, not the segment vowel or consonant. A vowel sound whose quality does not change over the duration of the vowel is called a monophthong. Monophthongs are sometimes called "pure" or "stable" vowels. A vowel sound that glides from one quality to another is called a diphthong , and a vowel sound that glides successively through three qualities is a triphthong. All languages have monophthongs and many languages have diphthongs, but triphthongs or vowel sounds with even more target qualities are relatively rare cross-linguistically.

English has all three types: In phonology , diphthongs and triphthongs are distinguished from sequences of monophthongs by whether the vowel sound may be analyzed into different phonemes or not. Some linguists use the terms diphthong and triphthong only in this phonemic sense. The name "vowel" is often used for the symbols that represent vowel sounds in a language's writing system , particularly if the language uses an alphabet.

However, not all of these letters represent vowels in all languages, or even consistently within one language some of them, especially W and Y , are also used to represent approximants. Moreover, a vowel might be represented by a letter usually reserved for consonants, or a combination of letters, particularly where one letter represents several sounds at once, or vice versa; examples from English include igh in "thigh" and x in "x-ray". The phonetic values vary considerably by language, and some languages use I and Y for the consonant [j] , e.

In Modern Welsh , the letter a W represents these same sounds. There is not necessarily a direct one-to-one correspondence between the vowel sounds of a language and the vowel letters. Many languages that use a form of the Latin alphabet have more vowel sounds than can be represented by the standard set of five vowel letters. In English spelling, the five letters A E I O and U can represent a variety of vowel sounds, while the letter Y frequently represents vowels as in e. Other languages cope with the limitation in the number of Latin vowel letters in similar ways. Many languages make extensive use of combinations of letters to represent various sounds.

The International Phonetic Alphabet has a set of 28 symbols to represent the range of basic vowel qualities, and a further set of diacritics to denote variations from the basic vowel. The writing systems used for some languages, such as the Hebrew alphabet and the Arabic alphabet , do not ordinarily mark all the vowels, since they are frequently unnecessary in identifying a word [ citation needed ].

Technically, these are called abjads rather than alphabets. Although it is possible to construct simple English sentences that can be understood without written vowels cn y rd ths? But note that abjads generally express some word-internal vowels and all word-initial and word-final vowels, whereby the ambiguity will be much reduced.

The Masoretes devised a vowel notation system for Hebrew Jewish scripture that is still widely used, as well as the trope symbols used for its cantillation ; both are part of oral tradition and still the basis for many bible translations—Jewish and Christian. The differences in pronunciation of vowel letters between English and its related languages can be accounted for by the Great Vowel Shift.

After printing was introduced to England, and therefore after spelling was more or less standardized, a series of dramatic changes in the pronunciation of the vowel phonemes did occur, and continued into recent centuries, but were not reflected in the spelling system. This has led to numerous inconsistencies in the spelling of English vowel sounds and the pronunciation of English vowel letters and to the mispronunciation of foreign words and names by speakers of English.

The existence of vowel shifts should serve as a caution flag to anyone who is trying to pronounce an ancient language or, indeed, any poetry in any language from two centuries ago or earlier. The importance of vowels in distinguishing one word from another varies from language to language. It is not straightforward to say which language has the most vowels, since that depends on how they are counted.