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Ok, here is the English vowel chart:

enter image description here

I'm really confused, what do "front" "central", "back", "close(high)", "close-mid", "open-mid", "open (low)" mean?

Ok, Here is what I understood, please correct me if I am wrong.

Ok, let's look at the vowel /i/ which is in the position of "front" & "close (high)". In this position, the tip of the tongue still touches the bottom teeth, but the front of the tongue will be placed high and touch the very front roof of the mouth. The lips are very spread out when saying /i/. See the picture:

enter image description here

Now, look at the /ɪ/ which is in the position of between "font" & "central". It is also in "close-mid" position. In this position, the tip of the tongue still touches the bottom teeth, but the front of the tongue is placed high and in the position between the front & the central roof of the mouth. However, the front of the tongue does not touch the roof of the mouth. The lips are still spread out but less so than with /i/. See the pic below:

enter image description here

Ok, now, consider the /u/ which is in the position of "back" & "close (high)". In this position, the tip of the tongue still touches the bottom teeth, but the back of the tongue is raised very high and touches the very far back of the roof of the mouth. The lips are very rounded in this position. See the pic below:

enter image description here

Ok, now, look at the /ʊ/ which is in the position somehow between "central" & "back". It is also in the position "close-mid". In this position, the tip of the tongue still touches the bottom teeth, but the back of the tongue is raised high and somehow between the middle and the back of the roof of the mouth. The lips are rounded in this case but less rounded than /u/. See the picture below:

enter image description here

Ok, now take a look at the /ə/ which is in the "central" position. It is also in between "close-mid" & "open-mid". In this position, the tip of the tongue still touches the bottom teeth, but the middle of the tongue is raised right to the middle of the mouth. Of course, the tongue does not touch the middle of the roof of the mouth. The lips are neutral in this position. See picture below:

enter image description here

Ok, consider /æ/ which is in the middle of "open-mid" & "open (low)". It also stays between "front" and "central". Technically, if the distance between "front" & "central" is 10, then /æ/ will stay in the distance of 7 which means it will have 7 units to the "front" and 3 units to the "central".

In this position, the tip of the tongue still touches the bottom teeth, but the whole tongue is low but not really low like /a/. The front of the tongue somehow stays in the position between the front and the middle of the roof of the mouth, but the front of the tongue is closer to the middle of the roof of the mouth than to the front of the roof of the mouth. The lips are spread out in this case. See the picture below :

enter image description here

Am I wrong about anything?

Could you clarify and explain how to read the vowel diagram?

  • 6
    Basically right, though the tongue tip touching the bottom of the teeth isn't essential, it's more a balloon-squish consequence of pushing the tongue forward. – user6726 Jul 17 '15 at 1:46
  • Here is a good introduction video by the Virtual Linguistics Campus. It shows how rounded and unrounded vowels are distributed on the chart and how they map on both primary and secondary sets of vowels. – Alain Pannetier Jul 17 '15 at 6:52
  • I'm not sure I fully understand what you're asking. Are you just asking if your descriptions for the individual vowels below the vowel chart are correct (a yes-no question; which @user6726 answered in the above comment), or do you not understand how those descriptions correspond to the placement of the vowels in the chart (a how/why question)? – musicallinguist Jul 17 '15 at 13:36
  • What happened to /e/ on the chart? /o/ is there, even though it's diphthongized, but /e/ isn't. Say is not pronounced /ɛɪ/; it's diphthongized but it's tense, not lax. As for resources, get a copy of J.C. Catford's A Practical Introduction to Phonetics, which is designed for autodidacts like you. – jlawler Jul 17 '15 at 15:40
  • The height differences among the front vowels can be produced either by lowering the tongue or lowering the jaw. – Greg Lee Dec 20 '16 at 15:01
1

You are trying to reconcile the traditional high-mid-low/front-central-back classification of vowels, based on acoustics and perception, with an articulatory theory, based on tongue and jaw position. It's difficult -- maybe not possible.

You can see the difference between the two approaches pretty clearly if you compare Preliminaries to Speech Analysis by Jacobson, Fant, and Halle, with The Sound Pattern of English by Chomsky and Halle. Or, if you like, early Halle with late Halle. Although some ritual bows to acoustics are made in SPE, the early acoustic theory has pretty much given way to a purely articulatory theory. For instance, the SPE feature "high" does not have anything to do with low F1 and high F2, but instead means that the body of the tongue is raised above its speech neutral position. There is some relationship, of course, between the articulations and their acoustic effects, but it is often not obvious. And various articulations can have similar acoustic effects.

So instead of starting from the traditional F1 versus F2 classification, you might reasonably start from the SPE vowel classification, based on how we can manipulate the tongue body -- the SPE features high/low/back give an 8 way classification of vowels. (Maybe less than 8 way if [+high,+low] is taken to be impossible.)

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