On 2022-08-10, Lynn McGuire <lynnmc...@gmail.com
> We need Dorothy to explain this !
The starting point is the standard vowel quadrilateral that describes
two main characteristics of vowel sounds: closeness (height) and
The doctor tells you to say "aaahhh" when they want to look into
your mouth. That's because when you pronounce the vowel in PALM,
your mouth is fully open. So this is an open vowel. By contrast,
when you say FLEECE, your mouth is mostly closed. This defines one
axis of the vowel diagram: from close at the top to open at the
The other axis describes the position of your tongue. When you say
FLEECE, your tongue is towards the front of your mouth. When you
say GOOSE, it is further back. Front vowels are to the left, back
vowels to the right.
When you look at, say, Wikipedia articles about the phonology of
major languages, you'll frequently see such a vowel diagram, with
dots marking the position of the vowels of the language in question.
The vowel space is contiguous. Different languages distinguish an
arbitrary number of vowels in that space. The International Phonetic
Alphabet has predefined a number of points in the vowel space and
assigned symbols to those vowels. Those symbols are then used to
refer to the nearest vowels a particular language distinguishes.
See the diagram at the start of this article:
Now, besides closeness and backness, languages may distinguish
vowels according to additional characteristics that could be modeled
as additional dimensions. The standard IPA vowel diagram already
has _two_ symbols for each position, effectively adding a third
dimension: roundedness. When you say FLEECE, your lips are unrounded.
When you say GOOSE, they are rounded. English does not have a pair
of vowels that are differentiated only by rounding, but for instance
the vowels in French "si" and "lu" are both close front vowels, but
the former is unrounded and the latter is rounded.
Another potential dimension is nasalization. A nasal(ized) vowel
is one where part of the air escapes through the nose. Well-known
Western languages that distinguish oral and nasal vowels are French
and Portuguese. You can also find such things as murmured vowels
and devoiced vowels in the world's languages.
Various languages can distinguish vowels along several of those
axes. In xkcd #2657, Randall combines the basic vowel quadrilateral
with complex numbers to suggest adding an "imaginary" dimension to
the vowel space.
Christian "naddy" Weisgerber na...@mips.inka.de