vowel (sounds and letters)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

vowels
The vowel letters in the alphabet. The letter y is sometimes a vowel, sometimes a consonant. (mathisworks/Getty Images)

Definition

A vowel is a letter of the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y) that represents a speech sound created by the relatively free passage of breath through the larynx and oral cavity. Vowels are the principal sounds of syllables. Letters that are not vowels are consonants.

Vowels are a major category of phonemes in English speech. As pointed out below, spoken English has approximately 20 distinct vowel sounds, though there are dialectal variations.

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Etymology
From the Latin, "voice"
 

Examples and Observations

  • "Written English has five proper vowel letters, A, E, I, O, and U (Y may substitute for I). Yet spoken English has some 20 shades of vowel sounds. Accordingly, our vowel letters are kept busy, each one symbolizing multiple sounds on any written page. Our letters get some help from rules of spelling, which, for example, can specify the long A of 'rate' versus the short A of 'rat.'"
    (David Sacks, Letter Perfect. Broadway Books, 2004)
     
  • "In all vowels, the mouth passage is unobstructed. If it is obstructed at any time during the production of a speech-sound, the resulting sound will be a consonant."
    (Charles Laurence Barber, The English Language: A Historical Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 2000)
     
  • "In written English, . . . the 26 letters of the alphabet comprise 5 vowels and 21 consonants. In spoken English, there are 20 vowels and 24 consonants. It is this discrepancy, of course, which underlies the complexity of English spelling."
    (David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook Press, 2006)
     
  • Vowels in Dialects
    "How many different vowels does English have? Well, it depends on your dialect. Standard American English makes fewer vowel distinctions than Standard Southern British English. For instance, many Southern British English speakers make a three-way distinction between merry, marry, and Mary, whereas for most Americans these all sound the same. Likewise, I pronounce cot and caught, and coral and choral, differently, but for most Americans these word pairs are spoken identically. In my accent of English, each of the following words is spoken with a different vowel: pit, pet, pat, putt, put, pot, peat, pa, bought, boot, pate, bite, quoit, pout. That's fourteen different vowels. Some English accents use fewer than this, and a few dialects use even more. English, of whatever dialect, is rather extravagant in the vowels it uses. Keeping them all separate is helped considerably by using different features of the possibilities afforded."
    (James R. Hurford, The Origins of Language. Oxford University Press, 2014)
     
  • The Northern Cities Vowel Shift
    "[T]he change which has become known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which is typical of the accents of younger people (except for African Americans . . .), particularly in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, . . . is a kind of circular movement of vowels which represents one of the most dramatic changes ever to have taken place in the history of the pronunciation of English. In this change, the vowel of nought and all similar words (caught, taught, law, fall etc.) is moving downwards to the position of gnat. The /æ/ vowel of gnat has dramatically altered its pronunciation to the kind of /ǀə/ quality described also for New York City . . .. The vowel of net, meanwhile, has moved in the direction of nut, which in turn has got out of the way by moving in the direction of nought, thus completing the circle."
    (Peter Trudgill, Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society, 4th ed. Penguin, 2000)
     
  • Never Trust a Vowel
    "Vowels were something else. He didn't like them and they didn't like him. There were only five of them, but they seemed to be everywhere. Why, you could go through twenty words without bumping into some of the shyer consonants, but it seemed as if you couldn't tiptoe past a syllable without waking up a vowel. Consonants, you knew pretty much where you stood, but you could never trust a vowel."
    (Jerry Spinelli, Maniac Magee. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 1990)
     
  • The Lighter Side of Vowels
    "Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry."
    (Bill Cosby, Fatherhood. Doubleday, 1986)

    "The cow is of the bovine ilk;
    One end is moo, the other, milk."
    (Odgen Nash, "The Cow")

    "A gentleman entered the room of Dr. Barton, Warden of Merton College, and told him that Dr. Vowel was dead. 'What!' said he, 'Dr. Vowel dead! Well, thank heaven it was neither U nor I.'"
    (Gleanings From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, Science and Art: A Melange of Excerpta, Curious, Humorous, and Instructive, ed. by Charles C. Bombaugh. T. Newton Kurtz, 1860)
     

Pronunciation: VOW-ul