I am learning a Tigrinya for the last couple of months, and find it difficult to grasp and produce the central vowels of the language (see picture). I want to know if there are other languages which have this three way distinction regarding backness, the only other language I found was Norwegian.

enter image description here

  • 6
    English, for one. There's 4 nonlow front vowels and 4 nonlow back vowels, plus one central vowel (/ə/), which ranges all over the nonlow spectrum because there are no contrasts with it.
    – jlawler
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 20:41
  • see Lindau's (1978) paper "vowel features"
    – user483
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 0:03

3 Answers 3


If you're looking for an list of languages, you're probably going to have to do some research yourself. I looked at WALS, but it doesn't seem to have a chapter specifically related to backness. But you could have a look at languages with many vowel phonemes The more vowels, the more likely that there's a 3-way backness distinction.

If you're looking for familiar vowel sounds to help you pronounce the Tigrinya vowels or other central vowels, I suggest you find the vowels on Wikipedia, which usually has a list of languages with a specific vowel. Scanning through that list might give you an idea of how the sound should be pronounced. E.g. start with close central rounded vowel and jump to other central vowels using the IPA vowel chart.


In general, vowel backness (as well as all the other attributes) is not the property of a certain language. It's because of the nature of the human vocal tract.

This way, each vowel sound produced has a certain backness (as well as the other features).

However, languages use different mappings of phones to phonemes. In other words, each point on a vowel diagram is not a point, but rather an area. Everything that falls into that area is mapped to a certain phoneme.
There are plenty of languages that do not distinct backness (on IPA vowel diagram, it looks like an area occupying the whole width of the diagram).

For example:
Polish "mysz" (mouse) [mɘ̟ʂ]. Different speakers may actually say [mɪʂ] or [mʊʂ], but a listener would map it to an existing phoneme, ɘ̟.
German "bitte" (please) [ˈbɪ-tə]
Greek "ακακία" (acacia) [ɐ-kɐ-ˈci.-ɐ]

There is yet another consideration. Although some languages lack cardinal central vowels, those vowel appear in a spoken language due to various phonetic phenomenons (of course, individual for every language). For instance, it's a common effect of centralization/reduction of unstressed vowels in Russian:

"молоко" (milk) [mə-ɫʌ-'kɔ]
Note that this word contains three "o", the last one in stressed, and two unstressed ones are reduced in different ways.

"этот" (this) [ˈɛ-tət]
Note that ɛ (front mid) in this word, regardless of stress, is often pronounced ɜ (central mid).

  • Are you suggesting that all languages have contrasting vowel backness? There are a number of languages that have been analysed as having no backness contrast, eg Arrernte. Commented May 4, 2013 at 1:48
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    @GastonÜmlaut: no, each vowel produced by any human in any language has a certain backness (as well as the other features). Different backness may or may not map to different cardinal vowels, as jlawler noticed. Commented May 4, 2013 at 3:43
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    @bytebuster certainly, but there's a difference between phonetic variation in backness and the need for contrastive backness in an analysis. I was merely seeking clarification as to whether you're claiming that all languages have contrastive backness. And this has little to do with cardinal vowels (which are not specific to each language)--these are just a set of convenient (but arbitrary) reference vowels. Commented May 4, 2013 at 11:22
  • 1
    You seem to be using "cardinal vowel" to mean some representative or underlying allophone of a vowel phoneme (which would only make sense in a specific language), but the page you link to explains it as a language-independent reference vowel. That makes your answer a bit confusing.
    – dainichi
    Commented May 5, 2013 at 15:10
  • 1
    I think you mean to say: 'Everything that falls into that area is mapped to a certain phoneme.' Commented May 6, 2013 at 2:53

The realisation of Tigrinya vowels, especially the 'sixth-row' vowel (marked as central in your table) differs and depends on the environment. Please do contact me though if you're still learning Tigrinya, let's share resources for this under-documented languages. cheers

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