The Story of Sounds: Episode 23: Discovering the vowel /ʌ/ part 2

You can think of a vowel as the result of a certain position of the tongue, jaw and lips. You can also think of a vowel sound as the result of a shape (of the tongue) and a resonant space (created by lip shape and jaw height). I find the second view helpful. The fact is that vowels are not at fixed places like consonants, but are on an endless continuum, each vowel merging at some point into another vowel. And that is why we need to learn the vowels holistically, all together alongside each other, because each helps define the ones around it. And, where one becomes another will vary from one accent or variety to another. At the same time it is useful to zoom in to work on one vowel in detail, to zoom back a bit and work on two vowels together (sometimes referred to as minimal pairs, but see below) and to zoom further back to put them all in the context of each other.

Minimal pairs generally refers to two sounds that are produced close together in the mouth, so they may be confused with each other both acoustically and proprioceptively. In the case of vowels, the following would be considered minimal pairs: beat:bit; pit:put; look:Luke. And in the case of/ʌ/: bad:bud /bæd/bʌd/; bud:bard /bʌd/bɑː(r)d/ are minimal pairs

In this approach (Sound Foundations, based on the physicality of pronunciation) there are three aspects to work on minimal pairs, and all three are needed to maximise insight and learning. Our received methodology recognises the first, but (in my view) insufficiently recognises the other two, thereby disadvantaging learners. Here are the three:

1.. Traditional minimal pairs (ship:sheep /ɪ/ and /iː/ ) practised in contrast with each other

2..Dynamic sliding along a continuum between the two vowels /ɪ/ à /iː/, thereby enabling learners to sense the movements of the muscles and the acoustic change

3.. Putting the two vowels back into context of all the vowels and contrasting each with all their other neighbours.

You are all familiar with no 1, so I will illustrate work on /ʌ/ using no 2.

Here is a travel guide for two such journeys using/ʌ/

Journey 1 from /ǝ/ to /ʌ/

1.. Find the sound /ǝ/ in your mouth. This requires zero muscle tone (ie letting go of any muscle effort) in lips, tongue and jaw. Now voice that shape with minimal breath and volume. If you can’t find the sound readily, then start with the longer energised version /ɜː/ and then minimise breath, energy, volume and length. For more on how to produce these two sounds refer back to Episode 18 and Episode 19

2.. Now introduce muscle tone, breath and volume and slide the tongue down a bit (lower it), creating more space above it in the mouth. Also lower the jaw a little to help create that space. This will also open the lips a little, which alters the resonance of the space.

3.. In doing this slide make sure you voice the whole slide, as if you were saying a diphthong, so that you hear one vowel at the beginning and something different at the end, and between them a continuum of changing vowel sound. This helps you to notice the change in vowel sound, which may be quite small, and to notice the very small muscle movements that produce the change. You will still need to experiment to find the sound /ʌ/, and at first you may not be sure if you have found it.

4.. Now compare both the sound and the mouth shape and space of /ʌ/ with other monophthong vowels on the chart, just to get the acoustic and proprioceptive feel of this sound and how it differs from others. If you keep experimenting with small changes you will be freeing yourself from the grip of your mother tongue pronunciation (if that is what you wish) and developing the awareness you need to fine tune the sound in due course, and to make the best use of models given by other speakers in person or through recordings.

Journey 2 From /ʌ/ to /ɪ/ yielding the diphthong /aɪ/…

Yes I know! /ʌɪ/ does not look like /aɪ/…For their own reasons phoneticians designing the International Phonetic Alphabet chose the symbol /a/ as the starting point for the glide to /ɪ/ that produces the diphthong /aɪ/ as in five, my, height. However /a/ is not used as a solo vowel, so I use its nearest equivalent /ʌ/ as the starting point for the glide, while continuing to use the symbol /aɪ/ for that diphthong (because /aɪ/ is used in the dictionary).

This causes no problem as we teachers and our learners are essentially interested in phonemic distinctions rather in the phonetic differences that interest language scientists

1.. Locate the separate sounds /ʌ/and /ɪ/

2.. Now join them together with a long slow voiced glide /ʌ/ à /ɪ/ from one to the other. Notice the spectrum of vowel sounds in between. Do this both slowly and quickly. And also do the journey in the other direction from /ɪ/ to /ʌ/ to produce the glide /ɪ ʌ/

Final reminder: The aim of all this attention to detail is for learners to become comfortably understood by their listeners, and to be able to understand other speakers comfortably themselves. Connected speech requires attention to individual movements, in the service of smooth connected speech, just as a complete ballet requires dancers to attend to multiple small details of movement in the service of the connected up whole. My aim is not to get learners to be ‘perfect’ but to show them that they can be free to choose their own accent and variety, starting off with the accents of their teachers and others they hear and meet in person and through recordings.  Have fun!

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