The Story of Sounds: Episode 25: Discovering the vowel /æ/

Example words: cat, app, fab, add, taxi, sanction, accurate, vocabulary, language, catch, vanish, narrow

General setting of /æ/: The lips are spread and quite open, and the jaw is lowered. The lips being open and spread may give a slight sensation of muscular stretch near the corners of the lips. The tip of the tongue rests just behind the lower front teeth, probably – though not necessarily – touching the teeth. The centre of the tongue is higher in the mouth than the tip.

As you experiment with these positions try to sense the position of your lips, jaw and tongue, and to feel these positions internally. One way to strengthen the sensation of the muscles is to make very small changes to the positions of each, and at the same time to notice the slight changes in the resulting vowel sound. Try with the sample words given above. The more you can sense these fine adjustments the better you are likely to become at finding new pronunciations (in general, and in any language).

So really there are two exercises to do at the same time, and each informs the other. One is to sense which muscles you are moving and how much effort you are using, and to become more familiar with new muscular postures. And the other is to listen to the small changes in the acoustic vowel sound that these small muscular changes produce.

Two practice activities: The practice of static minimal pairs eg bad v bed /bæd/ v /bed/ is widespread and very useful for a number of reasons. But I also advocate the additional use of what I call dynamic pairs, where you take the two vowels in question and slide slowly from one to the other and back, several times, making sure to catch all the in-between sounds produced during the movement of the muscles from one position to the other, like this /e…. æ…. e…. æ…. e…./ This develops control of the muscle movement and of the shades of the vowel sounds they produce

Here are two dynamic pairs: shown as slides from a neighbouring vowel to /æ/to help you to sense the position, alter it, and in the end control it.

Dynamic slide 1: From /e/ to /æ/. Make the sound /e/ (see Episode 21) and slide slowly to /æ/. Notice how the jaw lowers slightly, how the tongue lowers with the jaw, how the lips maintain their spread but increase their openness, and how the tip of the tongue remains in the same position relative to the lower front teeth. Try this slide a number of times, taking it slowly, so that the change from /e/ to/ is gradual, and you produce and hear the sliding range of in-between vowel sounds.

Dynamic slide 2: From /ʌ/ to /æ/. Make the sound/ (see Episodes 21/22) and slide slowly to /æ/Notice that the jaw remains the same height (open), while the lips have to spread a little more, and the centre of the tongue rises a little. Look for the small movements and their acoustic effect, and become sensitive to them.

Length: Any vowel can be made longer or shorter. But the five long English vowels /iː uː ɜː ɔː ɑː/ are typically longer than the others and are thus marked with the length indicator /ː/. Although usually indicated as a short vowel /æ/ can typically be longer before a lenis (or voiced) consonant. Thus it may be longer in sad than in sat, in bad than in bat, in man than in map. This is not a critical distinction but worth pointing out as you will notice this on occasions.

Are you finding vowel sounds ‘slippery’ to locate? That’s because they are. For more on this and how to deal with it, and perhaps even take advantage of the fact, see Episode 14, Introduction to Vowels

Proprioception: Throughout The Story of Sounds I have been emphasizing the benefits of sensing internally what your pronunciation muscles are doing, of attending to the physicality of pronunciation. The term for this from neurology is Proprioception. If you would like to see the video of my talk Proprioception in learning new sounds and connected speech and talks of other speakers on pronunciation, recorded at the British Council earlier this year, click here

It is my experience that developing your proprioception skill is likely to reduce the time and increase the precision of your pronunciation learning.

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