I write educational resources about Japanese. In my explanations, I try to avoid using overly technical terms so as to avoid scaring my readers, who tend to be people without a linguistic background.

I think many people who have studied a foreign language have probably heard the term "diphthong" before, but I'd wager that not many casual learners actually understand clearly what it is. For that reason, I've taken to using the term "gliding vowel" and illustrating what it is by using the English "long o" sound.

From my searching online, it appears that "gliding vowel" is an accepted synonym for "diphthong." I prefer the term "gliding vowel" because it is possible for an uninitiated person to instantly imagine what it probably means. The term is clear and memorable.

The possible critique I can see against this term is that it is similar to "glide," which I do understand indicates something different. (And, full disclosure, in the past, I have incorrectly have called gliding vowels glides, an error I am correcting as I revise my materials.)

I am trying to strike a balance between technical accuracy and approachability. Is "gliding vowel" a term that a linguist would take issue with?

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    In my circles, we use gliding vowel to refer to a vowel phone with distinct beginning and ending formant values, and we reserve the term diphthong for a vowel phoneme that comprises two separate vowel phones. So we would call the typical English "long o sound" a gliding vowel and the English phoneme /aj/ (as in high) a diphthong. But this distinction is probably not widely recognized. Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 18:47
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    I would use gliding to refer to an intonation, not a formant or an offglide. You have to be careful searching for linguistic terms online; don't be certain that it's "accepted", except by some people in some meanings in some contexts. There's nothing wrong with diphthong -- it's a name for a vowel cluster of one kind or another. It's no more technical than consonant or vowel, except it's spelled funny. But it's pronounced easily -- /dɪpθɔŋ/ -- so it wouuld only be three syllables in Japanese.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:16
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    Then call them vowel clusters. You certainly have to talk about consonant clusters; there are so many of them in English.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:54
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    To say (as our friend musicallinguist does) that the vowel in "high" is a diphthong, while that in "low" is a mere "gliding vowel" is a totally artificial distinction.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 23:33
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    Maybe I should have been more precise. What I meant was that in my line of work, in the dialect of English that is the object of my study (and probably some others), it is useful to distinguish between the two cases I mentioned because they are subject to different phonetic processes. That said, I'm not sure what kind of distinction @fdb would consider to be a "natural" distinction. Commented Jul 31, 2014 at 5:05


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