Vowel length

Last updated

IPA Number 503
Entity (decimal)ː
Unicode (hex)U+02D0
IPA Number 504
Entity (decimal)ˑ
Unicode (hex)U+02D1
IPA Number 505
Entity (decimal)̆
Unicode (hex)U+0306

In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived length of a vowel sound: the corresponding physical measurement is duration. In some languages vowel length is an important phonemic factor, meaning vowel length can change the meaning of the word, for example in: Arabic, Finnish, Fijian, Kannada, Japanese, Latin, Old English, Scottish Gaelic, and Vietnamese. While vowel length alone does not change word meaning in most dialects of English, it is said to do so in a few dialects, such as Australian English, Lunenburg English, New Zealand English, and South African English. It also plays a lesser phonetic role in Cantonese, unlike in other varieties of Chinese.


Many languages do not distinguish vowel length phonemically, meaning that vowel length does not change meaning, and the length of a vowel is affected by other factors such as the values[ clarification needed ] of the sounds around it. Languages that do distinguish vowel length phonemically usually only distinguish between short vowels and long vowels. Very few languages distinguish three phonemic vowel lengths, such as Estonian, Luiseño, and Mixe. However, some languages with two vowel lengths also have words in which long vowels appear adjacent to other short or long vowels of the same type: Japanese hōō "phoenix" or Ancient Greek ἀάατος[a.áː.a.tos] [1] "inviolable". Some languages that do not ordinarily have phonemic vowel length but permit vowel hiatus may similarly exhibit sequences of identical vowel phonemes that yield phonetically long vowels, such as Georgian გააადვილებ [ɡa.a.ad.vil.eb] "you will facilitate it".

Stress is often reinforced by allophonic vowel length, especially when it is lexical. For example, French long vowels are always in stressed syllables. Finnish, a language with two phonemic lengths (i.e. vowel length changes meaning), indicates the stress by adding allophonic length, which gives four distinctive lengths and five physical lengths: short and long stressed vowels, short and long unstressed vowels, and a half-long vowel, which is a short vowel found in a syllable immediately preceded by a stressed short vowel: i-so.

Among the languages with distinctive vowel length, there are some in which it may occur only in stressed syllables, such as in Alemannic German, Scottish Gaelic and Egyptian Arabic. In languages such as Czech, Finnish, some Irish dialects and Classical Latin, vowel length is distinctive also in unstressed syllables.

In some languages, vowel length is sometimes better analyzed as a sequence of two identical vowels. In Finnic languages, such as Finnish, the simplest example follows from consonant gradation: haka → haan. In some cases, it is caused by a following chroneme, which is etymologically a consonant: jää "ice" ← Proto-Uralic *jäŋe. In non-initial syllables, it is ambiguous if long vowels are vowel clusters; poems written in the Kalevala meter often syllabicate between the vowels, and an (etymologically original) intervocalic -h- is seen in that and some modern dialects (taivaan vs. taivahan "of the sky"). Morphological treatment of diphthongs is essentially similar to long vowels. Some old Finnish long vowels have developed into diphthongs, but successive layers of borrowing have introduced the same long vowels again so the diphthong and the long vowel now again contrast (nuotti "musical note" vs. nootti "diplomatic note").

In Japanese, most long vowels are the results of the phonetic change of diphthongs; au and ou became ō, iu became , eu became , and now ei is becoming ē. The change also occurred after the loss of intervocalic phoneme /h/. For example, modern Kyōto (Kyoto) has undergone a shift: /kjauto/ → /kjoːto/. Another example is shōnen (boy): /seuneɴ/ → /sjoːneɴ/ [ɕoːneɴ].

Phonemic vowel length

As noted above, only a relatively few of the world's languages make a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels, this means that saying the word with a long vowel changes the meaning over saying the same word with a short vowel: Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese, Biblical Hebrew, Scottish Gaelic, Finnish, Hungarian, etc.

In Latin and Hungarian, some long vowels are analyzed as separate phonemes from short vowels:

Latin vowels
  Front Central Back
High /ɪ//iː/ /ʊ//uː/
Mid /ɛ//eː/ /ɔ//oː/
Low  /a//aː/ 
Hungarian vowels
Front Central Back
High /i//iː//y//yː//u//uː/
Mid /ɛ//eː//ø//øː//o//oː/
Low /aː//ɒ/

Vowel length contrasts with more than two phonemic levels are rare, and several hypothesized cases of three-level vowel length can be analysed without postulating this typologically unusual configuration. [2] Estonian has three distinctive lengths, but the third is suprasegmental, as it has developed from the allophonic variation caused by now-deleted grammatical markers. For example, half-long 'aa' in saada comes from the agglutination *saata+ka "send+(imperative)", and the overlong 'aa' in saada comes from *saa+ta "get+(infinitive)". As for languages that have three lengths, independent of vowel quality or syllable structure, these include Dinka, Mixe, Yavapai and Wichita. An example from Mixe is [poʃ] "guava", [poˑʃ] "spider", [poːʃ] "knot". In Dinka the longest vowels are three moras long, and so are best analyzed as overlong /oːː/ etc.

Four-way distinctions have been claimed, but these are actually long-short distinctions on adjacent syllables.[ citation needed ] For example, in kiKamba, there is [ko.ko.na], [kóó.ma̋], [ko.óma̋], [nétónubáné.éetɛ̂] "hit", "dry", "bite", "we have chosen for everyone and are still choosing".

In English

Contrastive vowel length

In many accents of English vowels contrast with each other both in length and in quality, and descriptions differ in the relative importance given to these two features. Some descriptions of Received Pronunciation and more widely some descriptions of English phonology group all non-diphthongal vowels into the categories "long" and "short," convenient terms for grouping the many vowels of English. [3] [4] [5] . Daniel Jones proposed that phonetically similar pairs of long and short vowels could be grouped into single phonemes, distinguished by the presence or absence of phonological length (Chroneme) [6] . The usual long-short pairings for RP are /iː + ɪ/, /ɑː + æ/, /ɜ: + ə/, /ɔː + ɒ/, /u + ʊ/, but Jones omits /ɑː + æ/. This approach is not found in present-day descriptions of English. Vowels show allophonic variation in length and also in other features according to the context in which they occur. The terms tense (equivalent to short) and lax (equivalent to long) are alternative terms that do not directly refer to length. [7]

In Australian English, there is contrastive vowel length in closed syllables between long and short /e/ and /ɐ/. The following are minimal pairs of length:


Allophonic vowel length

In most varieties of English, for instance Received Pronunciation and General American, there is allophonic variation in vowel length depending on the value of the consonant that follows it: vowels are shorter before voiceless consonants and are longer when they come before voiced consonants. [8] Thus, the vowel in bad/bæd/ is longer than the vowel in bat/bæt/. Also compare neat /nt/ with need /nd/ . The vowel sound in "beat" is generally pronounced for about 190 milliseconds, but the same vowel in "bead" lasts 350 milliseconds in normal speech, the voiced final consonant influencing vowel length.

Cockney English features short and long varieties of the closing diphthong [ɔʊ]. The short [ɔʊ] corresponds to RP /ɔː/ in morphologically closed syllables (see thought split), whereas the long [ɔʊː] corresponds to the non-prevocalic sequence /ɔːl/ (see l-vocalization). The following are minimal pairs of length:


The difference is lost in running speech, so that fault falls together with fort and fought as [ˈfɔʊʔ] or [ˈfoːʔ]. The contrast between the two diphthongs is phonetic rather than phonemic, as the /l/ can be restored in formal speech: [ˈfoːɫt] etc., which suggests that the underlying form of [ˈfɔʊːʔ] is /ˈfoːlt/ (John Wells says that the vowel is equally correctly transcribed with ɔʊ or , not to be confused with GOAT/ʌʊ/, [ɐɤ]). Furthermore, a vocalized word-final /l/ is often restored before a word-initial vowel, so that fall out[fɔʊl ˈæəʔ] (cf. thaw out[fɔəɹ ˈæəʔ], with an intrusive /r/) is somewhat more likely to contain the lateral [ l ] than fall[fɔʊː]. The distinction between [ɔʊ] and [ɔʊː] exists only word-internally before consonants other than intervocalic /l/. In the morpheme-final position only [ɔʊː] occurs (with the THOUGHT vowel being realized as [ɔə ~ ɔː ~ ɔʊə]), so that all[ɔʊː] is always distinct from or[ɔə]. Before the intervocalic /l/[ɔʊː] is the banned diphthong, though here either of the THOUGHT vowels can occur, depending on morphology (compare falling[ˈfɔʊlɪn] with aweless[ˈɔəlɪs]). [9]

In cockney, the main difference between /ɪ/ and /ɪə/, /e/ and /eə/ as well as /ɒ/ and /ɔə/ is length, not quality, so that his[ɪz], merry[ˈmɛɹɪi] and Polly[ˈpɒlɪi ~ ˈpɔlɪi] differ from here's[ɪəz ~ ɪːz], Mary[ˈmɛəɹɪi ~ ˈmɛːɹɪi] and poorly[ˈpɔəlɪi ~ ˈpɔːlɪi] (see cure-force merger) mainly in length. In broad cockney, the contrast between /æ/ and /æʊ/ is also mainly one of length; compare hat[æʔ] with out[æəʔ ~ æːʔ] (cf. the near-RP form [æʊʔ], with a wide closing diphthong). [9]

"Long" and "short" vowel letters in spelling and the classroom teaching of reading

The vowel sounds (phonetic values) of what are called "long vowels" and "short vowels" (less confusing would be "vowel letters") in the teaching of reading (and therefore in everyday English) are represented in this table:

a/æ//eɪ/mat / mate
e/ɛ//iː/pet / Pete
i/ɪ//aɪ/twin / twine
o/ɒ//oʊ/not / note
oo/ʊ//uː/wood / wooed
u/ʌ//juː/cub / cube

In English, the term "vowel" is often used to refer to vowel letters even though these often represent combinations of vowel sounds (diphthongs), approximants, and even silence, not just single vowel sounds (monophthongs). Most of the present article is concerned with the length of vowel sounds (not vowel letters) in English. Even classroom materials for teaching reading also use the terms "long" and "short" in referring to vowel letters, while confusingly calling them "vowels". For example, in English spelling, vowel letters in words of the form consonant + vowel letter + consonant (CVC) are called "short" and "long" depending on whether or not they are followed by the letter e (CVC vs. CVCe) although those vowel letters called "long" actually represent combinations of two different vowels (diphthongs). Thus a vowel letter is called "long" if it is pronounced the same as the letter's name and "short" if it is not. [10] This is commonly used for educational purposes when teaching children.

In some types of phonetic transcription (e.g. pronunciation respelling), "long" vowel letters may be marked with a macron; for example, ⟨ā⟩ may be used to represent the IPA sound /eɪ/. This is sometimes used in dictionaries, most notably in Merriam-Webster [11] (see Pronunciation respelling for English for more).

Similarly, the short vowel letters are rarely represented in teaching reading of English in the classroom by the symbols ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, o͝o, and ŭ. The long vowels are more often represented by a horizontal line above the vowel: ā, ē, ī, ō, o͞o, and ū. [12]


Vowel length may often be traced to assimilation. In Australian English, the second element [ə] of a diphthong [eə] has assimilated to the preceding vowel, giving the pronunciation of bared as [beːd], creating a contrast with the short vowel in bed[bed].

Another common source is the vocalization of a consonant such as the voiced velar fricative [ɣ] or voiced palatal fricative or even an approximant, as the English 'r'. An historically-important example is the laryngeal theory, which states that long vowels in the Indo-European languages were formed from short vowels, followed by any one of the several "laryngeal" sounds of Proto-Indo-European (conventionally written h1, h2 and h3). When a laryngeal sound followed a vowel, it was later lost in most Indo-European languages, and the preceding vowel became long. However, Proto-Indo-European had long vowels of other origins as well, usually as the result of older sound changes, such as Szemerényi's law and Stang's law.

Vowel length may also have arisen as an allophonic quality of a single vowel phoneme, which may have then become split in two phonemes. For example, the Australian English phoneme /æː/ was created by the incomplete application of a rule extending /æ/ before certain voiced consonants, a phenomenon known as the bad–lad split. An alternative pathway to the phonemicization of allophonic vowel length is the shift of a vowel of a formerly-different quality to become the short counterpart of a vowel pair. That too is exemplified by Australian English, whose contrast between /a/ (as in duck) and /aː/ (as in dark) was brought about by a lowering of the earlier /ʌ/.

Estonian, a Finnic language, has a rare[ citation needed ] phenomenon in which allophonic length variation has become phonemic after the deletion of the suffixes causing the allophony. Estonian had already inherited two vowel lengths from Proto-Finnic, but a third one was then introduced. For example, the Finnic imperative marker *-k caused the preceding vowels to be articulated shorter. After the deletion of the marker, the allophonic length became phonemic, as shown in the example above.

Notations in the Latin alphabet


In the International Phonetic Alphabet the sign ː (not a colon, but two triangles facing each other in an hourglass shape; Unicode U+02D0) is used for both vowel and consonant length. This may be doubled for an extra-long sound, or the top half (ˑ) may be used to indicate that a sound is "half long". A breve is used to mark an extra-short vowel or consonant.

Estonian has a three-way phonemic contrast:

saada[saːːda] "to get" (overlong)
saada[saːda] "send!" (long)
sada[sada] "hundred" (short)

Although not phonemic, a half-long distinction can also be illustrated in certain accents of English:



Additional letters

Consistent use:byta/²byːta/ 'to change' vs bytta/²bʏtːa/ 'tub' and koma/²koːma/ 'coma' vs komma/²kɔma/ 'to come'
Inconsistent use:fält/ˈfɛlt/ 'a field' and kam/ˈkamː/ 'a comb' (but the verb 'to comb' is kamma)

Other signs

No distinction

Some languages make no distinction in writing. This is particularly the case with ancient languages such as Latin and Old English. Modern edited texts often use macrons with long vowels, however. Australian English does not distinguish the vowels /æ/ from /æː/ in spelling, with words like 'span' or 'can' having different pronunciations depending on meaning.

Notations in other writing systems

In non-Latin writing systems, a variety of mechanisms have also evolved.

See also

Related Research Articles

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