In elementary school, we all learned the vowels of the English language: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. Or, at least how we write them out, that is. What makes a vowel a vowel?
Vowels and consonants are two different categories of sounds that linguists use to better understand how speech sounds work. The study of the sounds that human beings can produce is called phonetics. It’s a branch of linguistics.
First, where does the word vowel come from?
What is the difference between a vowel and a consonant?
How we spell vowels doesn’t always correspond to the sound we are actually making. Consider the words beet and beat, which feature different spellings for the same sound (homographs). Then consider bat and bait. Their spellings are similar, but their vowel sounds are quite different.
To get around the limitations of written systems, linguists use what is known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a set of symbols used to represent the sounds in all the world’s languages regardless of how they are written. Bat is [bæt] and bait is [bet], for instance.
According to phoneticians, a vowel is a speech sound that is made without significant constriction of the flow of air from the lungs. The tongue can be at various heights in the mouth (e.g., high, mid, or low) and at various positions (front, central, or back). The lips can be variously rounded (cf. a long O and E). Vowels can vary in pitch and loudness, too.
Here’s the part where you get to act like kid. Say “ahh,” but then flick your tongue all around your mouth, wriggle your lips and jaws around, let out the noise at different volumes, but don’t ever fully stop that airflow. You are vowel-ing!
If you do restrict or close your airflow in a significant way, you’re in consonant territory. Where that restriction or closure occurs in your vocal tract determine what consonants you are making. B sounds are produced by bringing the lips together, for instance (bilabials). K sounds are produced by bringing the back of the tongue up to your soft palate (velars). Th sounds are made when the tongue goes between the teeth (interdentals).
Now, try to sing just a B sound, K sound, or th sound? You can’t, really. Properly holding out a B sounds like you’re imitating a trumpet. Grinding out a K sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Th, prolonged, has more a pleasant, wind-in-the grass feel. But, if your singing Baah! or Kee! or Thy!, you’re starting off with a consonant but sustaining it with a vowel—because you need airflow, you need breath, to do so, and consonants are all about obstructing it in some way.
Does every language have vowels?
Every language has vowels, but languages vary in the number of vowel sounds they use. While we learn A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y, English, depending on speaker and dialect, is generally considered to have at least 14 vowels. (Yeah, our spelling is a delightful hot mess.) Castilian Spanish and Japanese, meanwhile, are generally considered to have five vowel sounds.
Languages also vary in the number of consonants they have. English has at least 24 consonant sounds. Hawaiian, around eight, and Lithuanian 45—still nothing on some languages in southern Africa!
How vowels and consonants are distributed and patterned together in a language is called phonology.
Are there any words with no vowels?
Slavic languages, such as Czech, are famous for the long strings of consonants their languages allow, like this Czech tongue-twister: strč prst skrz krk (“stick a finger down your throat”). This will twist English-speaking tongues (and heads), but it’s perfectly normal in Slavic languages, where a certain articulation of R can behave as a syllable all on its own.
This can called be a syllabic consonant, which can fill the vowel slot in a syllable. English can have them in the final syllables of words like bottle and button, among other environments. To put it simply, L, R, M, N, and the –ng in sing can have vowel-like properties and be syllabic.
Now, English does have a number of interjections it spells without vowels (and vocalizes without true vowels) that are considered words, such as: brrr, hmm, shh, tsk, pfft, or psst. These are considered onomatopoeia, and imitate sounds we make to perform different actions, such as indicating we’re cold (brr) or demanding quiet (shh).
Generally, however, English words are said and written with at least one vowel. But, play zzz next time in Scrabble for some big-time points.