Update: 2012-12-01 11:32 AM +0630


English Phonetics and Phonology for Burmese-Myanmar speakers


by U Kyaw Tun (UKT), M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A), Tun Institute of Learning (TIL),  Not for sale. Prepared for staff and students of TIL.
http://www.tuninst.net , http://www.softguide.net.mm , http://www.romabama.blogspot.com

based on Peter Roach. English Phonetics and Phonology, a practical course. 2nd ed., 4th printing 1993, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-40718-4. pp 262 . For my reference, the printed book was digitized (type-copied) by Daw Khin Wutyi, B.Sc., TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, Myanmar. 2009. Page references to the original book are shown in my text for easy reference.

index.htm |Top

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02.01 Articulators above the larynx :
1. The pharynx 2. The velum 3. The hard palate 4. The alveolar ridge
5. The tongue 6. The teeth 7. The lips

Sound or speech, and the way we represent it graphically
The two-three tone problem

Note-worthy passages in this file:
The correspondence between two tones of English and three tones of Burmese is a problem (as far as I know), and lacks a concise name, because of which I will refer to it as the Two-Three Tone problem.

UKT notes
perceived length of a sound vowel length vowel triangle

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The production of speech sounds

02.01 Articulators above the larynx

 All the sounds we make when we speak are the result of muscles contracting. The muscles in the chest that we use for breathing is alternately used to produce speech sounds. The muscles in the larynx produce many different modifications in the flow of air from the lungs to the mouth. After passing through the larynx {a.n-o:}, the air goes through what we call the vocal tract, which ends at the mouth and nostrils. The air then escapes into the atmosphere carrying the sound waves.

We have a large and complex set of muscles that can produce changes in the shape of the vocal tract. The vocal tract is not rigid and its shape can change because of the muscles connected to it. In order to learn how the sounds of speech are produced it is necessary to become familiar with the different parts of the vocal tract. These different parts are called articulators, and the study of them is called articulatory phonetics.

UKT: It is common to describe the articulators and the place where each is located. Roach names seven articulators. They are also known as POA (Points of Articulation):
  1. The pharynx - {l-hkyaung:wa.} / {l-hkyaung:prwun}
  2. The velum - {a-hkaung pyau.}
  3. The hard palate - {a-hkaung ma}
  4. The alveolar ridge - {wa:ring:ro:}
  5. The tongue - {lhya}
  6. The teeth - {wa:}
  7. The lips - {nhoat-hkm:}
Note: I am very careful on giving the correct Bur-Myan spellings. However, whenever, I cannot find a term I need in any of the dictionaries mentioned as my references, I have to coin it. The reader is requested to check it with the disciplines concerned and to inform me.

The figure on the right is a diagram that is used frequently in the study of phonetics. It represents the human head, seen from the side, displayed as though it had been cut in half. You will need to look at it carefully as the articulators are described, and you will often find it useful to have a mirror and a good light placed so that you can look at the inside of your mouth. [{p008end}]

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1. The pharynx

pharynx - {l-hkyaung:wa.} - EMD2004-1014
The translation given by MLC English-Myanmar-Dictionary, 2004, is a bit misleading because the pharynx is a flexible tube extending downwards, not only its opening.

The pharynx {l-hkyaung:prwun} is a flexible tube which begins just above the larynx {a.n-o:}. It is about 7 cm long in women and about 8 cm in men, and its top end it is divided into two parts. One part opens into the mouth. It is the dark area behind the uvula {lhya-hking}. The upper part opens into the nose cavity. 

UKT: The uvula /ˈjuːvjʊlə/ {yu:byu-la} is a small, mucosa-covered set of muscles, musculus uvulae, hanging down from the soft palate, near the back of the throat. The word is derived from the diminutive of uva, the Latin word for "grape", due to the uvula's grape-like shape. Because, the uvula is quite prominent when a person opens his mouth, cartoons often feature the uvula when characters are shown with gaping mouths. In Bur-Myan, uvula is known as {lhya-hking} (MEDict468).

In the cartoon we see the opening of the pharynx into the mouth as the dark area behind the uvula. See also a graphical representation of the POA (Places of Articulation) in my note on POA-pictorial in Introduction POA-pix-note in the previous file.


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2. The velum

The "velum" is not entered in EMD2004, instead "velar" is given.
velar - {a-hkaung pyau. n} - EMD2004-1543
palate - {a-hkaung} - EMD2004-0978

The The velum /'viː.ləm/ {vi:lm} or soft palate is seen in the diagram in a position that allows air to pass through the nose and through the mouth. Yours is probably in that position now, but often in speech it is raised so that air cannot escape through the nose. The other important thing about the velum is that it is one of the articulators that can be touched by the tongue-body, but not by the tongue-tip. When we make the sounds <k> {ka.} and <g> {ga.} the tongue is in contact with the lower side of the velum. This position where sounds <k> {ka.} and <g> {ga.} are produced is known as the   {kaN~hta.za. htaan}, 'the velar point of articulation', and we call these constants the velar consonants.

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Sound or speech, and the way we represent it graphically

UKT: The study of speech sounds and the rules governing them are described in Bur-Myan as {d~da}.

{d~da} - n 1. meaningful speech sound; word; term. 2. grammar. (Pali: {d~da.} ) - MED2010-517

Humans have invented many ways to record these speech sounds graphically on various media such as palm leaves, papyrus, paper, clay, stone, metals (copper, silver, gold) and their alloys, etc. since ancient times. It is only recently that the human speech sound have been recorded electronically. And so, no one living has ever heard of how the sounds of an ancient language, Magadhi (Pali), had actually sounded. When people say such and such is the Pali sound, what they actually mean is that they know how that is represented graphically. We have to make the distinction between speech (as sound waves) and script (as graphical representation on paper) . The smallest unit of speech is a phoneme and the smallest unit of script is the grapheme.

Remember, Eng-Lat <k> and <g> are graphemes. The phonemes they represent are /k/ and /g/. Since they are not syllables they cannot be pronounced. The corresponding graphemes in Bur-Myan (Burmese-Myanmar), and Pal-Myan (Pali-Myanmar) are {ka.} and {ga.} which can be pronounced because they represent the sounds of /ka/ and /ga/ . /ka/ and /ga/ are syllables and can be pronounced. The Bur-Myan graphemes have names:
  {kaa.kri:} 'the big {ka.}' for {ka.},
  {hkaa.kw:} 'the rolled-up {hka.}' for {hka.},
  {gaa.ng} 'the small {ga.}' for {ga.},
  {gaa.kri:} 'the big {ga.}' for {Ga.}.

The name of the second grapheme {hka.} is given by MLC as {hka.hkw:} literally meaning 'hka.dog'. See MED-2010-051 (Myanmar-English Dictionary, 2010, p.51). But I always spell it as {hka.kw:} because it looks like a rolled-up centipede.

Eng-Lat system of writing is known as an alphabet, whereas that of Bur-Myan is an abugida. The consonantal grapheme of an alphabet cannot be pronounced by itself, but the consonantal grapheme of an abugida can be pronounced because it contains an inherent vowel {a.}. Hence the abugida is sometimes known as an alphasyllabic system of writing. The difference between an alphabet and an abugida is best explained by the following example:

<k> - non-pronounceable
<k> + <a> --> <ka> - pronounceable

{ka.} + {ka.} --> {ka.ka.} - disyllabic word, pronounceable 
{ka.} + {ka.} + {a.t} --> {kak} - monosyllabic word, pronounceable

In all abugida scripts, exemplified by Devanagari and Myanmar, the vowel graphemes are in two forms: the vowel-letter and the vowel-sign. Examples are:

IPA /i/ /u/
  short vowel long vowel short vowel long vowel
Myanmar (letter/sign) {I.} / {i.} {I} / {i} {U.} / {u.} {U} / {u}
Devanagari (letter/sign) इ / ि ई / ी उ / ु ऊ / ू

Note: there are two versions of vowel-letter {U} : and - the second version is used as prefix for honourific title {U:} by Bur-Myan Buddhist monks of some religious orders.

The terms "short vowel"  and "long vowel" implies the length of the vowel or vowel length . See my notes on perceived length of a sound and vowel-length . As a material scientist, I do not go in for "human perception". "Length" or "duration" can be measured by modern instruments on sound waves. For this read my note on vowel triangle .


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The two-three tone problem


Our task of comparing Eng-Lat to Bur-Myan is not easy because English have only two "tones" for vowels the short and the long, whereas Burmese has three, the creak, the modal, and the emphatic. The one way to reconcile them is to think in terms of 5 registers:

creak, short, modal, long, emphatic

The Bur-Myan "creak" register is strictly not a vowel, because it could not be sung continuously like regular vowels. It may be looked on as a "semi-consonant".

The English short vowel is sometimes close to creak and sometimes to modal. Similarly the English long vowel is between modal and emphatic. For the vowel /a/, we have

{aa.}, {a}, {/ə/}, {aa}, {aa:}
-- the short-a // and the long-a /a/ are transcribed as a and ā in Pal-Lat. Since both Bur-Myan and Eng-Lat do not have dedicated graphemes to represent the central vowel, schwa /ə/, I have to use {/ə/} for the modal. The Bur-Myan schwa is found in words like {a.ni} meaning the "colour red" in which schwa is represented by {a.} or {a}. [In Romabama the "middle dot " is reserved for schwa.] In some Bur-Myan words {a.} stands for the sound of {aa.}, but in others as schwa {/ə/} or {a}.  The following example is provided by my colleague, Saya Kalasan, a noted Manipuri-Burmese {poaN~Na:} author on Astrology-Astronomy, who speaks and writes Sanskrit and Hindi in addition to Burmese and English:

{am/ am/ am. a: ha/ a. ko a. lwun: t//}

Now which is the "consonant" {a.} and which is the "vowel"?

The correspondence between two tones of English and three tones of Burmese is a problem (as far as I know), and lacks a concise name, because of which I will refer to it as the Two-Three Tone problem.


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3. The hard palate

The hard palate is often called the "roof of the mouth". You can feel its smooth curved surface with your tongue.

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4. The alveolar ridge

The "alveolar ridge" is not entered in EMD2004, instead "alveolar" is given.
alveolar - {wa:ring: by:} - EMD2004-0039

The alveolar ridge is between the top front teeth and the hard palate. You can feel its shape with your tongue. Its surface is really much rougher than it feels, and is covered with little ridges. You can only see these if you have a mirror small enough to go inside your mouth (such as those used by dentists). Sounds made with the tongue touching here (such as <t > and <d>) are called alveolar.

UKT: The English graphemes <t> and <d> represent the phonemes /t/ and /d/. Their correspondents in Bur-Myan are {ta.} and {da.} representing /ta/ and /da/. Note the difference between the Myanmar and Latin: the former is an abugida with an intrinsic vowel likened to an "English short a" and the latter an alphabet which does not contain any vowel.


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5. The tongue

tongue - {lhya} - EMD2004-1470

UKT: It is significant that though Bur-Myan word for <tongue> is spelled with a lateral medial, {lhya.}, it is pronounced by the majority of Bur-Myanmar (the population of the Irrawaddy river - speakers of the dorminant dialect) the as a sibilant fricative {hya.} and pronounced as /ʃ/ . There are three registers each for the lateral medial, sibilant medial and rhotic medial:
   {lhya.} / {lhya} / {lhya:}
   {hya.} / {hya} / {hya:}
   {rha.} / {rha} / {rha:}
A comparative study of these nine and how they are pronounced across the dialects of Bur-Myan (Burmese, Rakhine, Tavoy, Yaw , Inl {ing:l:}, Danu, Mindoan, etc.) as they occur in Bur-Myan words would be highly interesting.

The tongue is, of course, a very important articulator and it can move into many different places and can have different shapes. It is like a bag of jelly and its "shape" is beyond description. However, it is usual to divide the tongue into different parts, though there are no clear dividing lines within the tongue. Fig.02 shows the tongue on a larger scale with these parts shown: tip, blade, front, back and root. (This use of the word 'front' often seems rather strange at first.)

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6. The teeth

tooth - {wa:} - EMD2004-1433

The teeth (upper and lower) are usually shown in diagrams like Fig.01 only at the front of the mouth, immediately behind the lips. This is for the sake of a simple diagram, and you should remember that most speakers have teeth to the sides of their mouths, back almost to the soft palate. The tongue is in contact with the upper side teeth for many speech sounds. Sounds made with the tongue touching the front teeth are called dental. [{p009end}]

UKT: In articulating the phoneme /θ/ represented in English by the digraph <th> in words like <thin> and in Burmese by {a.}, the tip of the tongue is held lightly between the upper front teeth and the lower. This type of articulation is very noticeable when Canadian TV anchors, particularly the women, articulate this phoneme. If you are an instructor teaching English to Bur-Myan speakers, let them practice the three sounds, {sa.} /s/, {a.} /θ/, and {ta.} /t/. In {sa.} the tip of the tongue is touching the lower front teeth. Because in {a.} the tongue is between the upper and lower front teeth, it is known as the interdental fricative. In {ta.} the tip of the tongue is touching the root of the upper front teeth.


In Romabama the Eng-Lat digraph <th> is substituted with the "thorn" character <> which was used in Old English for the phoneme /θ/. Thus, <thin> would be spelled <in>. Do not confuse this with <pin>.

Hindi and Sanskrit speakers, and even the speakers of some dialects of Burmese like those from the Inl region in the Shan State cannot reproduce the  {a.} /θ/ sound. Instead, they would reproduce only the {sa.} /s/ sound. Even though you may not be able to articulate these two sounds distinctly, it is a good policy to listen closely to the sounds. Eventually you will be able to articulate these two sounds distinctly. Here I am emphasising listening and not trying to articulate them in the beginning.

UKT note to TIL editors: I have found Introduction to English Language and Linguistics, University of Dsseldorf, http://www.phil-fak.uni-duesseldorf.de/anglistik3/companion-to-english-linguistics/ 110221, to be an excellent source.
   Secondly, alt0223 - small letter Sharp S is commonly used in German. Can it be used in Romabama?

Teaching the sound of Bur-Myan medial {kya.} (which incidentally is the onset consonant of my Burmese name) to a North American is almost an impossibility. Their best effort can produce only /ʧ / represented by Latin small letter Tesh digraph as in the English <church> /ʧɜːʧ/ (US) /ʧɝːʧ/ . The sound /ʧ/ is represented in Bur-Myan as {hkya.}. It is known as an affricate. I have been wondering why it is so difficult to teach my North American friends to pronounce my Burmese name properly. Probably, it is the way in the method of producing the /ʃ/ - a part of the affricate. The following is from
http://www.phil-fak.uni-duesseldorf.de/anglistik3/companion-to-english-linguistics/ch-2-phonetics-phonology/ 110221 [with a change in the brackets to suit the TIL bracket convention]:

"Affricates are sounds that are similar to both plosives and fricatives: The tip of the tongue touches the back part of the teeth ridge [presumably the upper teeth ridge], the front part of the tongue is raised towards the hard palate. The air is trapped for a short time because of a complete obstruction between the tip of the tongue and the teeth ridge, then the obstruction is released slowly and the friction is heard. The voiceless affricate is /tʃ/ as in <chain>, whereas /dʒ/, as in <jelly>, is voiced".

When I pronounce the Bur-Myan /ʃ/ - {hya.}, I found the tip of my tongue actually touching the root of the lower teeth whereas according to Fig.9, the tip does not even touch the lower teeth. The same is found for {kya.} and {hkya.} - the tip of my tongue touching the root of the lower teeth continually. Therefore, {hkya.} is not actually /ʧ/ but something else. However for a practical purpose as finding the commonality in BEPS, we will say {hkya.} has the sound /ʧ /.

Contrary to my expectation, the velar group of consonants, known as the Guttural {l-hkyaung: n} (MED-2004-0623) in the Bur-Myan, Pal-Myan and Skt-Dev, seems to be the most complicated. This is because it is between the uvula group which is well into the interior of the mouth cavity, and the palatal group which is more to the front. Uvular plosives are unknown in Bur-Myan, but occurs in Arabic. And whether Eng-Lat and Bur-Myan have the palatal plosives is debatable. When I pronounce the Bur-Myan {ka.} /k/, {ga.} /g/ and {nga.} /ŋ/, I find my tongue-tip to be touching the root of the lower front teeth. I find the same tongue-tip touching in {hka.} and {Ga.}. However, as before for the sake of commonality within the BEPS, we will say {ka.} has the sound of /k/, {hka.} the /kʰ/, {ga.} /g/, {Ga.} /gˀ/ , and {nga.} /ŋ/ . Note that the usual way is to represent {Ga.} /gʰ/ which I believe is a gross error.


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7. The lips

lip - {nhoat-hkm:} - EMD2004-0804

The lips are important in speech. They can be pressed together (when we produce the sounds p, b) , brought into contact with the teeth (as in f, v) , or rounded to produce the lip-shape for vowels like u:. Sounds in which the lips are in contact with each other are called bilabial, while those with lip-to-teeth contact are called labiodental.

UKT: The lips (as seen from the front) play quite an important part in production of human speech particularly the back vowels. The following is from The Phonetic Description of Voice quality - by John Laver, University of Edinburgh. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, first published 1980, p.035.

" Labial Settings : A description of the habitual muscular settings of the lips in voice quality entails a discussion of the well-established but somewhat under-differentiated phonetic concept of labialisation. However, a consideration of the concept of labialization does not exhaust the field of potential settings of the lips, and it may lead to a clearer exposition, therefore, if we initially approach the area of labial settings without reference to labialization as such."

UKT: Labialization is {wa.hsw:}-formation, and as such is of interest to us. It involves lip-rounding (with or without lip-protrusion), when the lip-opening or rima labiorum becomes rounded. J. Laver (see immediately below) calls rima labiorum 'interlabial space'.

The seven articulators described above are the main ones used in speech, but there are three other things to remember. Firstly, the larynx (which will be studied in Chapter 4) could also be described as an articulator - a very complex and independent one. Secondly, the jaws are sometimes called articulators; certainly we move the lower jaw a lot in speaking. But the jaws are articulators in the same way as the others, because they cannot themselves make contact with other articulators. Finally, although there is practically nothing that we can do with the nose and the nasal cavity, they are a very important part of our equipment for making sounds (what is sometimes called our vocal apparatus) , particularly nasal consonants such as m, n. Again , we cannot really describe the nose and the nasal cavity as articulators in the same sense as (1) to (7) above.

UKT: Though Roach has mentioned only two nasals m and n in English, there are in fact three. The third is represented by the digraph <ng> standing for the phoneme /ŋ/ - the Latin small letter Eng. This consonant is realized only in the coda of the English syllables in words such as <king> /kɪŋ/.

However, in Burmese-Myanmar there are five: {ma.}, {na.}, {Na.}, {a}, {nga.}.


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UKT notes

perceived length of a sound

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Length_phonetics 110226

In phonetics, length or quantity is a feature of sounds that are distinctively longer than other sounds. There are long vowels as well as long consonants (the latter are often called geminates).

UKT: "Most languages (including also English) do not have distinctive long consonants. Vowel length is distinctive in more languages than consonant length." -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonant_length 110226

Whenever the word "consonant" is mentioned, we need to know whether it is an onset consonant or a coda consonant. In written form of the syllable of Eng-Lat, CVC, both the onset consonant and the coda consonant are represented by C . But this is not so in Bur-Myan and Skt-Dev. The coda-consonant is a "killed" consonant and is represented by an {a.t} or virama (viram - for short). Thus, I usually give the form of Bur-Myan syllable as CV to distinguish the onset-consonant from the coda-consonant.

The Wikipedia article continues (I have removed the quote marks):

In English phonology, consonant length is not distinctive within root words. For instance, <baggage> is pronounced /ˈbɡɪdʒ/, not */bɡːɪdʒ/. Phonetic gemination occurs marginally.

However, gemination does occur across words and across morphemes when the last consonant in a given word [coda of the last syllable] and the first consonant in the following word [onset of the first syllable] are the same fricative, nasal, or plosive [something similar to a conjunct in Bur-Myan, Pal-Myan, and Indic languages]. For instance [I have additionally shown what would happen if the two words were to be spoken individually with a pause in between with /.../):

<calm man> [kɑːˈmːn]
  <calm> /kɑːm/ , <man> /mn/

Remember, the consonant < l > {la.} is an a-wag consonant and is not readily definable like <p> {pa.}. It is an approximant and can be looked on as a semiconsonant-cum-semivowel. Unlike <p> {pa.}, its ability to check a vowel like /ɑ/ {AU:} is very limited. Because it is a semivowel, <al> can be looked on as a complex vowel with a lateral sound. So, <alm> can be pronounced as /ɑːm/ {aa:m} dropping the lateral sound. -- I am waiting for comments from my peers. UKT110228.

<this saddle> [ɪˈsːdəl]
  <this> /ɪs/ , <saddle> /sdl/

<black coat> [blˈkːoʊt]
  <black> /blk/ , <coat> /koʊt/

<back kick> [ˈbkːɪk]
  <back> /bk/ ,  <kick> /kɪk/

<crack cocaine> [ˌkrkːoˈkeɪn]
  <crack> /krk/ <cocaine> /kəʊˈkeɪn/

<cattail> (compare consonant length in <catfish>)

UKT: The above examples should be compared to Pal-Myan/ Pal-Lat changing into Skt-Dev below:
See Online Sanskrit Dictionary , February 12, 2003 . http://sanskritdocuments.org/dict/dictall.pdf  090907
read together with Pali-English Dictionary by U Pe Maung Tin, British Burma Press, Rangoon, 1920 and
Pali Myanmar Dictionary by U Hoke Sein, 1954. Note that
the coda consonant of the first syllable of Pal-Lat is changed into repha in Skt-Dev:
  kakkaṭī  --> कर्कटी karkaṭī  'cucumber
  kaṇa --> कर्ण  karṇa  'ear'
  kamma --> कर्म  karma 'action'
Or, you can refer to my BEPS Sanskrit-English Dictionary , CD#03 of A Study Burmese-English-Pali-Sanskrit Four Languages in Three Scripts , 2011, TIL Myanmar .

With affricates, however, this does not occur. For instance:

<orange juice> /ˈɒrɪndʒ dʒuːs/

A minimal pair demonstrating gemination in English is <night train> versus <night rain>.

UKT personal note: One of my personal friends, a Sino-Burmese, a retired professor of RIT (Rangoon Institute of Technology) told a joke on his own Chinese sounding name "Kyit-in". He said it was a purely Bur-Myan name "Kyi Tin", but when he was sent to school as a child, the headmaster had shifted the "t" making it sound Chinese. He later changed his name to a purely Bur-Myan name by which most of his friends and former students would know him. -- UKT110227

In some dialects gemination is also found when the suffix -ly follows a root ending in -l or -ll, as in:

<solely> /soʊlːi/ 

In most instances, the absence of this doubling does not affect the meaning, though it may confuse the listener momentarily. Notable examples where the doubling does affect the meaning are the pairs <unaimed> /ʌnˈeɪmd/ versus <unnamed> /ʌˈnːeɪmd/, and <holy> /hoʊli/ versus <wholly> /ˈhoʊlːi/. (The latter two are identical in many areas, however.)

In some varieties of Welsh English, the process takes place indiscriminately between vowels, e.g. in <money> /ˈmɜ.nːiː/ but it also applies when the orthography dictates it, e.g. <butter> /ˈbɜt̚.tə/

Many languages do not have distinctive length. Among the languages that have distinctive length, there are only a few that have both distinctive vowel length and distinctive consonant length. It is more common that there is only one or that they depend on each other.

The languages that distinguish between different lengths have usually long and short sounds. According to some linguists, Estonian and some Sami languages have three phonemic (meaning-distinguishing) lengths for consonants and vowels. Some Low German/ Low Saxon varieties in the vincinity of Hamburg and some Moselle Franconian and Ripuiarian Franconian varieties do, too.

Strictly speaking, a pair of a long sound and a short sound should be identical except for their length. In certain languages, however, there are pairs of phonemes that are traditionally considered to be long-short pairs even though they differ not only in length, but also in quality, for instance English "long e" which is /iː/ (as in <feet> /fiːt/) vs. "short i" which is /ɪ/ (as in <fit> /fɪt/) or German "long e" which is /eː/ (as in Beet /beːt/ 'garden bed') vs. "short e" which is /ɛ/ (as in Bett /bɛt/ 'sleeping bed'). Also, tonal contour may reinforce the length, as in Estonian, where the over-long length is concomitant with a tonal variation resembling tonal stress marking.

In non-linear phonology, the feature of length is often not a feature of a specific sound segment, but rather of the whole syllable.

Go back duration-note-b
Go back perceived-length-note-b

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vowel length

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vowel_length 090701 110226
UKT: I have visited this site more than once.

In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived duration of a vowel sound. [UKT: Note the word "perceived duration" which implies the perception of the hearer -- not the speaker.] Often the chroneme, or the "longness", acts like a consonant, and may etymologically be one such as in Australian English. While not distinctive in most dialects of English, vowel length is an important phonemic factor in many other languages, for instance in Arabic, Czech, Estonian, Hindi , Sanskrit [UKT: Burmese and Pali should be included], Fijian, Finnish, Japanese, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Classical Latin, Classical Nahuati, Lombard, German, Dutch, Latvian, Old English, Samoan, Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese. It plays a phonetic role in the majority of English dialects, and is said to be phonemic in a few dialects, such as Australian English and New Zealand English. It also plays a lesser phonetic role in Cantonese, which is exceptional among the spoken variants of Chinese.

UKT: A common word "duration" has a meaning other than what we usually know. Unless you are prepared for such misconceptions, you will be missing the real meaning of an article. See my note on perceived length .

Many languages do not distinguish vowel length, and those that do, usually distinguish between short vowels and long vowels. There are very few languages that distinguish three vowel lengths, for instance Luiseo. Some languages, such as Finnish, Estonian and Japanese, also have words where long vowels are immediately followed by more vowels, e.g. Japanese hōō "phoenix" or Estonian jr "ice edge".


Vowel length and related features

Stress is often reinforced by allophonic vowel length, especially when it is lexical. For example, French long vowels always occur on stressed syllables. Finnish, a language with two phonemic lengths, indicates the stress by adding allophonic length. This gives four distinctive lengths and five physical lengths: short and long stressed vowels, short and long unstressed vowels, and a half-long vowel, which is a short vowel found in a syllable immediately preceded by a stressed short vowel, e.g. i-so.

Among the languages that have distinctive vowel length, there are some where it may only occur in stressed syllables, e.g. in the Alemannic German dialect. In languages such as Czech, Finnish or Classical Latin, vowel length is distinctive in unstressed syllables as well.

In some languages, vowel length is sometimes better analyzed as a sequence of two identical vowels. In Baltic-Finnic languages, such as Finnish, the simplest example follows from consonant gradation: haka → haan. In some cases, it is caused by a following chroneme, which is etymologically a consonant, e.g. j " ← Proto-Finno-Ugric *jŋe. In noninitial syllables, it is ambiguous if long vowels are vowel clusters poems written in the Kalevala meter often syllabicate between the vowels, and an (etymologically original) intervocalic -h- is seen in this and some modern dialects.

In Japanese, most long vowels are the results of the phonetic change of diphthongs; au and ou became ō, iu became , eu became , and now ei is becoming ē. The change occurred after the loss of intervocalic phoneme /h/. For example, modern kyōto (Kyoto) exhibits the following changes: kyauto → kyoːto. Another example is shōnen (boy): seunen → syoːnen (shoːnen).


Phonemic vowel length

Many languages make a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels: Sanskrit [UKT: Pali, Burmese?], Japanese, Finnish, Hungarian, etc.

Long vowels may or may not be separate phonemes. In Latin and Hungarian, long vowels are separate phonemes from short vowels, thus doubling the number of vowel phonemes.

Japanese long vowels are analyzed as either two same vowels or a vowel + the pseudo-phoneme /H/, and the number of vowels is five.

Estonian has three distinctive lengths, but the third is suprasegmental, as it has developed from the allophonic variation caused by now-deleted grammatical markers. For example, half-long 'aa' in saada comes from the agglutination *saata+ka "send+(imperative)", and the overlong 'aa' in saada comes from *saa+ta "get+(infinitive)". One of the very few languages to have three lengths, independent of vowel quality or syllable structure, is Mixe. An example from Mixe is [poʃ] "guava", [poˑʃ] "spider", [poːʃ] "knot". Similar claims have been made for Yavapai and Wichita.

Four-way distinctions have been claimed, but these are actually long-short distinctions on adjacent syllables. For example, in kiKamba, there is [ko.ko.na], [k.ma̋], [ko.ma̋], [ntnubn.etɛ̂] "hit", "dry", "bite", "we have chosen for everyone and are still choosing".


Long vowels in English

Vowel length, when applied to English, has several different related meanings. [Long vowels are written in the IPA with a triangular colon /ː/, and in Romabama with {:} (tentatively) which incidentally is used to emphatic register.]


Traditional long and short vowels in English orthography

Traditionally, the vowels /eɪ/ /iː/ /aɪ/ /oʊ/ /juː/ (as in <bate> <beet> <bite> <boat> <beauty>) are said to be the "long" counterparts of the vowels // /ɛ/ /ɪ/ /ɒ/ /ʌ/ (as in <bat> <bet> <bit> <bot> <but>) which are said to be "short". This terminology reflects their pronunciation before the Great Vowel Shift, rather than their present-day pronunciations. A linguistically more accurate description is that the former are diphthongs in many dialects, while the latter are monophthongs ("pure" vowels).

UKT: /eɪ/ /iː/ /aɪ/ /oʊ/ /juː/ , and the corresponding // /ɛ/ /ɪ/ /ɒ/ /ʌ/
<bate> /beɪt/ --> {bait}   . Note <bate> and <bait> have the same pronunciation /beɪt/.
  <bat> /bt/  --> {baat}
<beet> /biːt/ --> {bi:t} . Note <beet> and <beat> have the same pronunciation /biːt/ .
  <bet> /bet/ --> {b:t}
<bite> /baɪt/ --> {beikt}
  <bit> /bɪt/ --> {bt}
<boat> /bəʊt (US) boʊt/ --> {boat}
  <bot> /bɒt/ --> {bau:t}   . Note: derived from <botany>
<beauty> /ˡbjuː.ti/ --> {byu:ti}
  <but> /bʌt/ --> {bt}

Traditional English phonics teaching, at the preschool to first grade level, often used the term "long vowel" for any pronunciation that might result from the addition of a silent E (e.g., like) or other vowel letter as  given on the right.

A mnemonic was that each vowel's long sound was its name.

In Middle English, the long vowels /iː/, /eː/, /ɛː/, /aː/, /ɔː/, /oː/, uː/ were generally written <i..e>, <e..e>, <ea>, <a..e>, <o..e>, <oo>, <u..e>. With the Great Vowel Shift, they came to be pronounced /aɪ/, /iː/, /iː/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /uː/, /aʊ/. Because <ea> and <oo> are digraphs, they are not called long vowels today. Under French influence, the letter <u> was replaced with <ou> (or final <ow>), so it is no longer considered a long vowel either. Thus the so-called "long vowels" of Modern English are those vowels and diphthongs written with the help of a silent <e>.

UKT: More in the Wikipedia article. My conclusion after reading the whole article: the term "long and short vowel" can be very misleading, and that I should stick to "free and checked vowels" -- conclusion of 090702 and 110226 - the same.

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vowel triangle

From: A Conceptionary for Speech & Hearing in the context of Machines and Experimentation - by David R. Hill
http://pages.cpsc.ucalgary.ca/~hill/papers/conc/ 090701 , 110227

If a plot of vowel sound is made against variation in the frequencies of formant 1 & 2 (F1 and F2) [instrument measured quantities], they are seen to form a roughly triangular figure. It is of interest that, correctly oriented, this figure also corresponds roughly to tongue hump positions required to produce the corresponding vowels. Some vowels (central vowels) fall inside the figure, as might be expected. The vowels and diphthongs represented in the diagrams are for GA (General American). For the left-hand figure, clock-wise from the top left, the vowels are the ones in: <beat>, <bit>, <bet>, <bat>, <bart>, <bought>, <boot> with <book> and <but> for the left and right "inside" vowels respectively. For the right-hand figure, from top to bottom, the diphthongs are those in: <bate>, <bite>, <cute>, <quoit>, <bout>, <boat> respectively.

UKT: Pix on right shows The vowel triangle showing locations of vowels and diphthongs (From Handbook of Experimental Psychology, edited by S.S. Stevenson, John Wiley & Sons, 1951). Bur-Myan vowels are my guesses.

To help you and me to understand the "Vowel triangle" better, I am giving the "F2/F1 Vowel space" which I have redrawn from Russell, Univ. of Manitoba, and also "Six Vowels of Bangla Vowel System" from Hossain, et.al. I was intrigued by the various vowel diagrams, the quadrilaterals drawn in the fashion of Daniel Jones, on the positions of various vowels. How did these phoneticians arrive at the relative positions of the vowels? What instruments were they using? If they were not using any physical instruments, but only their "trained perceptions", their judgments were bound to be influenced by their first language, L1. And so would you let "foreigners" make conclusions about your native language, which to them is L2? The following is my observation.

The description of vowel qualities with the help of the vowel diagram requires a phonetician to be able to position them as certain points on the diagram. The three basic dimensions, height, backness and rounding, together with the values of cardinal vowels are involved in making a decision on the position of the vowel quality within the space of the diagram. Where a vowel is positioned would be bound to be influenced by the L1 of the investigating phoneticians. Because of this, I doubt the descriptions of the Western phoneticians on the qualities of the Bur-Myan vowels, especially when they insist that Bur-Myan has diphthongs.

Kevin Russell gives the Canadian vowels from a study of formants (values, indicated by symbol F, observed from a study of sound waves and spectrum on a subject -- most probably himself.

From the study of the vowel systems the only reliable conclusion I can draw so far (as of 090702 - the same on 110227) is that the most reliable two points are the free vowel /i/ {i} and /ɑ/ {au} with the central vowel somewhere in the middle. In comparing Bur-Myan and Eng-Lat, the series we should be looking at this is along the line from /i/ {i} to /ɑ/ {au} with the checked vowels /ɪ/ (e.g. {ait}) and /ʌ/ (e.g. {t}) in the middle.

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