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Cardinal Vowels

The most clear and independent system of vowel description is that devised by Daniel
Jones and known as the CARDINAL VOWEL SYSTEM.

The basis of the system is physiological:

a) The vertical axis corresponds to the movement of the tongue towards the palate.
By means of this movement, we can distinguish between open, mid-open, mid-
close and close vowels.

b) The horizontal axis corresponds to the part of the tongue affected by the
movement. By means of it, we can distinguish between front, central and back

Front Central Back

i y u close

e ø Ɣ o

ɛ œ ʌ ɔ

a ɶ ɒ ɑ open

[i] = 1 [y] = 9
[e] = 2 [ø] = 10
[ɛ] = 3 Spread lips [œ] = 11 Rounded lips
[a] = 4 [ɶ] = 12
[ɑ] = 5 [ɒ] = 13
[ɔ] = 6 [ʌ] = 14
[o] = 7 Rounded lips [Ɣ] = 15 Spread lips
[u] = 8 [ ] = 16

Primary vowels are the most frequent in languages.

Secondary vowels can be obtained by reversing lip position.


/ɪ/ short, front, high, close, loosely spread lips, oral

/e/ short, front, mid, spread lips, oral
/æ/ short, front, low, open, slightly spread lips, oral
/ɒ/ short, back, low, open, slightly open lip-rounding, oral
/ʊ/ short, back, high, close, rounded, oral
/ʌ/ short, central, low, open, neutral lips, oral
/ə/ very short, central, mid, neutral lips, oral
/i:/ long, front, high, close, spread lips, oral
/ɑ:/ long, back, low, open, neutral lips, oral
/u:/ long, back, high, close, rounded lips, oral
/ɜ:/ long, central, mid, neutral lips, oral
/ɔ:/ long, back, mid, rounded lips, oral

• Pre-fortis clipping:
The first element of the diphthong is shortened before voiceless consonants (plosive,
fricatives, affricates).
• Smoothing:
Affects triphthongs. The vowel in the middle disappears and there is a compensatory
/eɪə/ [eɪə] -> [e:ə]
/aɪə/ [aɪə] -> [ɑ:ə]
/ɔɪə/ [ɔɪə] -> [ɔ:ə]
/aƱə/ [aƱə] -> [ɑ:ə]
/əƱə/ [əƱə] -> [ə:] (only one ə)

Usual spelling forms for vowels

• /i:/ → e, ee complete, these, be, bee, tree

ea leaf, tea, reason, sea
i ski, machine, police
ie piece, field, siege
ei, ey seize, receive, key

• /ɑ:/ → aBach, pass, after, bath, path, branch, father,

morale, aren’t
ar part, car, card, march
ear heart, hearth
er clerk, derby, sergeant
al calm, palm, half
au aunt, laugh
* Note: French –oir in English /w:/ reservoir, repertoire,

• /ɔ:/ → ar, or war, quart, cord, horse, sword, born, for

ore before, more
our court, course, four
oar, oor oar, board, door, floor
au, augh fault, cause, daughter
a all, talk, salt, water
aw saw, lawn, jaw, yawn, awesome
ou bought, ought

• /u:/ → u rude, June, Susan, crucial, rule

oo food, fool, soon, moon, spoon
o do, who, move, lose
ou group, soup, wound, through
ew chew, flew, askew
ue, ui, oe blue, juice, shoe
wo two
* Note: in many cases of spelling u, eu, ew, ue, ui /u:/ is
precede by /j/: music, duke, neuter new, few, hue,
argue, nuisance, beauty
• /ɜ:/ → er, err her, serve, perfect, err
ur, urr turn, church, nurse, cursor, purr
ir, yr sir, bird, first, girl, myrtle, myrrh
ear earth, heard
our journey, journal, courtesy
w + or word, world, work, worse
* Note: colonel /ˈk :nl/, milieu /mi:lˈj :/

• /ɪ/ → i fifth, rich, sit, with

y rhythm, symbol
e pretty, needed, wicket, except, careless, houses
ie ladies
a village, private
* Note: build /b ld/, Sunday / s nd / (the days of week),
business / b zn s/, women / w m n/, minute /
m n t/

• /e/ → ebed, set, went

ea breath, dead, head
a many, Thames
* Note: /e/ in says, said, bury, Geoffrey / d efri/,
Leicester / lest /, friend, ate, again

• /æ/ → ahand, lamp, marry, rash, sat

• /ɒ/ → o dock, bonk, dog, holiday, sorry, gone
a (following w) was, what, swan, want, watch, quality, squash,
ou, ow cough, trough, Gloucester, knowledge
au because, sausage, laurel, Austria, cauliflower
* Note: / / in yatch

• /ʊ/ → u butcher, cellular, cushion, full, put, sugar

oo book, good, wood, wool
o bosom, wolf, woman
ou could, courier, should, would

• /ʌ/ → u cut, drug, dull, sun, yuppie

o son, come, some, among, one, done, month,
monkey, mother, nothing, Monday, onion, London
ou country, southern, couple, enough, young
oo blood, flood
oe does
• /ə/ → may be spelt with most vowel letters and their
combinations (weak form, usually in unstressed syllables)
The sequences of vowels which form a glide within one syllable.

They have a first element (the starting point) and a second element (the point in the
direction of which the glide is made). The direction is marked on the diagram by an
The first element is the most important, most of the length and stress is concentrated on
it, the second element being only lightly sounded.

No diphthong occurs before / /

According to the direction to which the diphthong changes (the tongue moves):
Closing diphthongs /eɪ/ bay /əʊ/ no, low
/aɪ/ pie /aʊ/ now
/ɔɪ/ boy
[ɪ ] [ʊ ]
[ə ]
[e] [ɔ]


Centring diphthongs /ɪə / hear

/eə / bear
/ʊə/ sure [ɪ ] [ʊ ]
[ə ]