Teaching Vowels in Practical Phonetics: The Auditory or Articulatory Route?

Martin J. Ball

University of Ulster

1. Introduction

Vowel description has traditionally differed from consonant description. This means that teaching the production of vowels and consonants in practical phonetics requires different techniques. Unfortunately, this means that students have to master both approaches to their studies.

Consonants are described and classified according to their production: manner of articulation (e.g. stop, fricative); place of articulation (e.g. alveolar, palatal, velar, uvular); and voicing. Students, therefore, can use these labels to aid in learning the articulation of consonants.

Vowels, on the other hand, have traditionally been taught via the Cardinal Vowel System. This system is based on a set of auditory reference points, and vowels are described in terms of how close they are to these reference points. Cardinal Vowels, therefore, have to be learnt by students auditorily: through imitating models, not by learning their articulation.

Figure 1: IPA Vowel Diagram

In the most recent revision of the International Phonetic Alphabet (1993), the vowel diagram was re-arranged (see Figure 1). All unrounded vowels are displayed on the left of each point. All rounded vowels are displayed on the right. A full set of central vowels is provided, and symbols for lax vowels are added to the diagram.


2. The Vowel Area and Cardinal Vowels

The vowel quadrilateral is, in fact, quite divergent from the actual shape of the vowel area (see Figure 2). Catford (1977), among others, has suggested a diagram closer to physical reality could be adopted. This could allow articulatory descriptions of vowels, similar to those used for consonants. In order to produce a diagram closer to the vowel area, the angled corners of the Cardinal Vowel diagram need to be abandoned, and a chart nearer to the ellipse shape in Figure 2 created.



Figure 2: Vowel Area

3. An Articulatory System

Vowels are the next most open articulation type after approximants and fricatives. This means that close vowels can easily be linked to the palatal, velar, uvular and pharyngeal places of articulation. Students learn their production by moving the tongue slightly between consonantal and vocalic versions at each place.

An articulatory system follows the vowel area more closely, and this means that [i, i, u, o, a, a] are all located on the upper periphery. Other vowels are labelled as being close-mid, open-mid or open in relation to one of the places of articulation. Due to the shape of the diagram, the lower left corner vowel [a] is both an open palatal and an open pharyngeal vowel.


Figure 3: Polar Co-ordinate Vowel Diagram


4. Advantages and Disadvantages to an Articulatory System

Only one set of articulatory labels need to be learnt, and the same method of learning sound production can be applied to consonants and vowels. Further, the vowel diagram is closer to the vowel area.

However, only production of the upper periphery vowels is easy to learn, as it is unclear how one learns the values of close-mid, open-mid and open. An articulatory system aids learning vowel production, but not description: description of both consonants and vowels is an auditory task - as is using Cardinal Vowels.

Phonologically, three-vowel systems ([i, a, ul) plot better on the CV system, as they appear clearly as 'extreme' vowels. Languages having high, mid, and low vowel phonologies group their vowels as in the CV system rather Um the polar co-ordinate system. Also it is difficult to arrange central vowels on the polar co-ordinate diagram, and show their relation to peripheral vowels.

Catford (1977) points out reasons why the CV system appears more natural: if we plot vowels acoustically (FI by F2), the resultant diagram closely resembles the CV chart. He also notes that the muscle systems used to move the tongue within the vowel area give us proprioceptive feedback that high versus low, and front versus back are natural classes: as shown in CV diagrams.

5. Conclusion

An articulatory system certainly could make the learning of vowel production easier. The system also brings consistency between vowels and consonants. However, it does not help in vowel description; and has phonological problems. It is doubtful, therefore, whether a switch in teaching vowels in practical phonetics is warranted.


Catford, I. (1977) Fundamental Problems in Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

IPA (1993) Council actions on the revisions of the IPA. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 23, 32-34.