I found the following chart (which was taken from Donegan (1976)) on a book and something reminded me of a simple question I always had, but I never came across a definitive answer: why are some open vowels considered [-tense] counterparts of more closed vowels?

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Is it only to distinguish two pairs that are near to each other and are only differentiated by the tension of keeping them more closed than the other?

  • 1
    Not to be too anti-tradition but the best explanation I can give is that tense/lax is bizarre, confusing categorical distinction that is relevant to a few phonologies but is phonetically baseless and could be replaced by a variety of better terms nearly everywhere it’s used in conventional pedagogy and academia.
    – Graham H.
    Aug 29, 2023 at 1:18
  • Yes! I feel the same thing. Aug 29, 2023 at 1:45
  • 1
    Is the point of the question to insult traditional phonological feature theories, or are you actually interested in understanding the theory? It seems to me that if you're unhappy with the analysis, you should just adopt whatever theory you feel makes you happiest.
    – user6726
    Aug 29, 2023 at 4:26
  • 1
    @GrahamH. No, that’s the alta (high) vowel – Tristan was, and I too am, confused about the baixa (low) vowel, second from the right in the bottom row, given as ⟨ɒ⟩ just like the vowel next to it. I would definitely describe /ɒ/ as being tense, though; the IPA doesn’t have a designated symbol for its lax equivalent, but it would be something like /ɐ̱/ or /ʌ̞/. Aug 29, 2023 at 16:08
  • 2
    @Tristan The source for that table is ling.hawaii.edu/faculty/donegan/Papers/… , and there the -palatal +labial -tense is an odd symbol which looks like a lowercase sigma or an o with a hook. It probably stands for /ɑ/ or /ɐ/, it's difficult to tell.
    – Wtrmute
    Aug 29, 2023 at 18:04


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