The Story of Sounds: Episode 24: Discovering the vowel /ɑː/

The Story of Sounds: Episode 24: Discovering the vowel /ɑː/

You can think of a vowel sound as the result of the shape of the tongue coupled with the resonant space in the mouth created by lip shape and tongue/jaw height. As I’ve said before vowels are not made at ‘fixed locations’ like most consonants, but are on an endless continuum, each vowel merging at some point into the ones around it

This is why it is a great help to learn vowels in relation to each other, to learn them holistically, as a set, alongside each other, because each vowel helps define the ones around it.

The use of minimal pairs is a step in this direction, because you contrast two vowels with each other, while the other sounds remain the same

Eg Hit / heat   Fast / forced.  But the use of minimal pairs falls short in two respects:

1) If you do two sounds and then stop, without relating the sounds to one or two others

2) Each vowel is static, so it is less easy for the speaker to get insight into what the tongue/lips/jaw are doing. Whereas if there is a glide from one to another there is a proprioceptive sense of movement, which affords the speaker the necessary insight into what muscles move in order to change a sound. I’ll illustrate this in a moment with the sound /ɑː/

1.. Approximate tongue shape and resonant space for /ɑː/

The jaw is relatively open (bottom jaw lowered)

The tongue is low in the mouth, and also relatively back.

The lips are quite open and rather rounded, but not pushed forward or pouted in any way.

But as I said we can get much more precise if we also do some ‘minimal slides’ between /ɑː/and its neighbouring vowels. Here are two:

 2.. Slide from /ʌ/ to /ɑː/ eg luck to lark, tusk to task

2.1.. Start with /ʌ/ (see Story of Sounds Episode 23, March 2015).

Note the spread but lax lip position, and the relative openness of your jaw when you say /ʌ/. Notice the position of the tip of your tongue. It may be touching or close to your lower front teeth (either case is fine). Now start to slide slowly from /ʌ/ to /ɑː/ voicing aloud as you do so. As you start to move towards /ɑː/ there are several key things to note:

2.2.. The back of your tongue moves a little down in your mouth, allowing the air to flow quite unobstructed from the airway and through the mouth (saying this sound enables a clearer view of the top of the air passage, so a doctor might ask a child to say /ɑː/ in order to examine the top of the pharynx). If you put a pencil of your finger flat across your tongue, and then make the slide, you will be able to notice this movement of the back of the tongue.

2.3.. This movement in turn causes the tip of your tongue to move back a little in the mouth, away from the lower front teeth.

2.4.. There is a sense of an unrestricted relaxed throat, alllowing the air stream to pass through easily. /ɑː/ can be an expressive sound of release to accompany a massage (please conduct experiential research and report findings).

In order to help ‘fix’ both the proprioceptive and the acoustic experience, it is useful to try another slide, so that you arrive at /ɑː/ from a different direction, and with complementary observations. So lets start from /ɜː/.

3.. Slide from /ɜː/ to /ɑ:/ eg further to father, fur to far,

3.1.. Start with /ɜː/ (see Story of Sounds Episode 18, October 2013).

Say /ɜː/ aloud, and start to sense what you are doing to make that sound. Note the neutral lip, tongue and jaw position, and the lack of muscle tone there and in the cheeks. Notice the position of the tip of your tongue. It may be touching or close to your lower front teeth (either case is fine). Now start to slide slowly from /ɜː/ to /ɑː/ voicing aloud as you do so. Once again there are several things to note:

3.2.. You probably notice a lowering of the jaw, and with it the tongue, thus creating a larger resonant space in the mouth above the tongue.

3.3.. But the tongue doesn’t just stay in the same position relative to the jaw, but is a bit lower. You find that the back of your tongue moves back and down a little relative to jaw and teeth allowing the air to flow quite unobstructed from the airway, as I said above.

3.4.. Note the movement of the tip of your tongue. Does it also move back a little back in the mouth, away from the lower front teeth?

4.. Four comments about this discovery activity .

4.1.. Try both of the slides until you can feel what is going on. Also try the slides in reverse, as that will strengthen the proprioceptive insights.

4.2.. These are approximate shapes not exact locations, therefore you need to keep experimenting in order to ‘tune’ your mouth to the required vowel.

4.3.. The very action of sliding from one vowel to another, in this case from /ʌ/ or /ɜː/ to /ɑː/, helps you to contact the muscles that make the difference, and that enable you to experiment and tune the sound. You do not get this insight from standard (static) minimal pair practice.

4.4.. After experimenting with sounds in isolation, put them into the context of words and then into the context of connected speech. It is important to put things back together after taking them apart.

And finally, these exploratory and discovery activities are for teachers and students alike. We are all explorers in this field. And it is a way of knowing.

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