Vowel Phonemes are not absolute

We have tried to be as consistent as possible regarding how we use the International Phonetic Alphabet but a few irregularities may appear when we use or refer to other sources or miss an inconsistency in our own writing. The fact is, although the IPA was developed to be both as comprehensive and as purely descriptive as possible, there are some differences of opinion about how to use things, as well sometimes about how something is heard or said! Here a brief overview of some of the ways in which our use of the International Phonetic Alphabet and corresponding diacritics may differ from what you see elsewhere.

Length marks: vowels are often distinguished by how long they are in pronounciation, which is often connected to both tension and position in mouth. In IPA length is sometimes (largely by British speakers/linguists) identified with the help of a length diacritic that looks rather like a colon, as here: /iː/. Because our digital format make that more complicated than necessary, and in fact the existence of separate phonemic symbols is already a distinction — for example — between the short /ɪ/ and the long /i/, we have decided to do without those in this blog. Just be aware that other sources may look slightly different for that reason.

Vowel phonemes: as vowels are mostly relative, there is a variety of ways in which each one is pronounced, and indeed, as time goes on, pronunciation may change or even become more uniform, so that some sounds become less distinct. For example, the once clearer difference between the more British higher, tenser /e/ and the more American /ɛ/ is beginning to merge, so that this vowel is no longer a helpful marker of a speaker’s origins. This, together with the limited possibilities of regular keyboards, means that sometimes more than one symbol is used to represent a sound. Here are a few that look or sound similar. For our purposes, we chose the phonemes you see here on the right, but you might have seen the ones on the left elsewhere.

ɒ ɔ

Schwa: The distinction between /ə/ and /ʌ/ is not really noticeable for the most part. They are simply used to establish if the phoneme/ syllable is stressed or not, but the pronunciation is the same: try the classic word above, which contains both: /əbʌv/ . Many linguists and even some transcribers in fact employ only the phoneme /ə/ unless they are particularly interested in the use of stress in the recorded language. We have decided to use both due to the importance of rhythm and word stress to intelligibility.