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Vowel length

Vowel length

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In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived duration of a vowel sound. 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, Hindi, Sanskrit, Fijian, Finnish, Japanese, Hawaiian, Hungarian, Classical Latin, Lombard, German, Latvian, Old English, Samoan, 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.

Most languages do not distinguish vowel length, and for those that do, usually the only distinction is between short vowels and long vowels. There are very few languages that distinguish three vowel lengths, for instance Mixe. 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 jäääär "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. Imitating long vowels in unstressed syllables is surprisingly easy for anyone trained in singingTemplate:Fact: e.g., consider a loud but short eighth note followed by a softer quarter note.

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. jää " ← Proto-Finno-Ugric *jäŋe. 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.

Similarly in Japanese, long vowels are often the result of the loss of an /h/. Historically, /h/ underwent a number of phonological changes: in intervocalic environments, *[p] > [ɸ] > [w] > [u]; in non-intervocalic environments, *[p] > [ɸ] > [h]. For example, modern tōru (通る) exhibits the following changes: *to2poru > to2ɸoru > toɸoru > toworu > tooru > toːru. Another example is kyō (今日) meaning "today": *ke1pu > ke1ɸu > keɸu > kewu > keu > kyoː. The final /eu/ > [yoː] is separate but regular phonological change. There is no lengthening and the number of morae remain the same.

Phonemic vowel length

Many languages have phonemic long and short vowels: Japanese, Finnish, Hungarian, etc.

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 Template:IPA "guava", Template:IPA "spider", Template:IPA "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 Template:IPA, Template:IPA, Template:IPA, Template:IPA "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.

Traditional non-phonetic "long" and "short" vowels

Traditionally, the vowels Template:IPA (as in bait beet bite boat beauty) are said to be the "long" counterparts of the vowels Template:IPA (as in bat bet bit bot put) 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 (except for Template:IPA), while the latter are monophthongs ("pure" vowels).

Allophonic vowel length

In certain dialects of the modern English language, for instance General American and, to some extent, British Received Pronunciation, there is allophonic vowel length: vowel phonemes are realized as longer vowel allophones before voiced consonant phonemes in the coda of a syllable. For example, the vowel phoneme Template:IPA in Template:IPA ‘bat’ is realized as a short allophone Template:IPA in Template:IPA, because the Template:IPA phoneme is unvoiced, while the same vowel Template:IPA phoneme in Template:IPA ‘bad’ is realized as a long allophone (which could be transcribed as Template:IPA), because Template:IPA is voiced. (Incidentally, the final consonant allophones in these syllables also have different relative lengths; the Template:IPA of bat is longer than the Template:IPA of bad.)

Symbolic representation of the two allophonic rules:

Template:IPA Template:IPA | _ /+con +vcd/
Template:IPA Template:IPA
Template:IPA Template:IPA | _ /+con -vcd/
Template:IPA Template:IPA

In addition, the vowels of Received Pronunciation are commonly divided into short and long, as obvious from their transcription. The short vowels are Template:IPA (as in kit), Template:IPA (as in foot), Template:IPA (as in dress), Template:IPA (as in strut), Template:IPA (as in trap), Template:IPA (as in lot), and Template:IPA (as in the first syllable of ago and in the second of sofa). The long vowels are Template:IPA (as in fleece), Template:IPA (as in goose), Template:IPA (as in nurse), Template:IPA as in north and thought, and Template:IPA (as in father and start). While a different degree of length is indeed present, there are also differences in the quality (lax vs tense) of these vowels, and the currently prevalent view tends to emphasise the latter rather than the former.

Phonemic vowel length

In Australian English, there is distinctive phonemic vowel length. The following are minimal pairs of length for many speakers:

Template:IPA ferry vs Template:IPA fairy
Template:IPA span past tense of spin vs Template:IPA as in wing span
Template:IPA can meaning able to vs Template:IPA as in tin can
Template:IPA bid vs Template:IPA beard


The long vowel may often be traced to assimilation. In Australian English, the second element Template:IPA of a diphthong Template:IPA has assimilated to the preceding vowel, giving the pronunciation of bared as Template:IPA, creating a contrast with bed Template:IPA. Another etymology is the vocalization of a fricative such as the voiced velar fricative or voiced palatal fricative, e.g. Finnish illative case, or even an approximant, as the English 'r'.

Estonian, of Balto-Finnic languages, exhibits a rare phenomenon, where allophonic length variation becomes phonemic following the deletion of the suffixes causing the allophony. Estonian already distinguishes two vowel lengths, but a third one has been introduced by this phenomenon. For example, the Balto-Finnic imperative marker *-k caused the preceding vowels to be articulated shorter, and following the deletion of the marker, the allophonic length became phonemic, as shown in the example below. Similarly, the Australian English phoneme Template:IPA was created by the incomplete application of a rule extending Template:IPA before certain voiced consonants, a phenomenon known as the bad-lad split.

Notations in the Latin alphabet


  • Circumflex, (â), used for example in Welsh. As with acute accents, a vowel with an accent is long, with other vowels being short. The circumflex is occasionally used as a surrogate for the macrons, particularly in the Kunrei-shiki romanization of Japanese.

Additional letters

  • Vowel doubling, used consistently in Estonian, Finnish, Lombard and in closed syllables in Dutch. Example: Finnish tuuli Template:IPA 'wind' vs. tuli Template:IPA 'fire'.
    • Estonian also has a rare "overlong" vowel length, but does not distinguish this from the normal long vowel in writing; see the example below.
  • Consonant doubling after short vowels is very common in Swedish and other Germanic languages, including English. The system is somewhat inconsistent, especially in loan-words, around consonant clusters and with word final nasal consonants. Examples:

     Consistent use: byta Template:IPA 'to change' vs bytta Template:IPA 'tub' and koma Template:IPA 'coma' vs komma Template:IPA 'to come'

     Inconsistent use: fält Template:IPA 'a field' and kam Template:IPA 'a comb' (but the verb 'to comb' is kamma)

  • Classical Milanese orthography uses consonant doubling in closed short syllables. Eg. lenguagg 'language' and pubblegh 'public'.[1]
  • ie is used to mark the long Template:IPA sound in Dutch and in German. In German, this is due to the preservation and generalization of a historical ie spelling that originally represented the sound Template:IPA. In northern German, a following e letter lengthens other vowels as well, e.g. in the name Kues Template:IPA.
  • A following h is frequently used in German and older Swedish spelling, e.g. German Zahn [tsaːn] 'tooth'.
  • In Czech, the additional letter ů is used for the long U sound, where the character is known as a kroužek, e.g. kůň "horse". (This actually developed from the ligature "uo", which signified the diphthong /uo/, which later shifted to /uː/.)

Other signs

  • Colon (punctuation), commonly used in IPA phonetic transcription but no native writing systems. Vowel length can also be signified by a half-colon (a colon with only the top dot), meaning half-long, and a double colon, meaning twice as long as a regular vowel. This "colon" is actually two triangles facing each other in an hourglass shape instead of the usual two dots. A breve is used to mark a short vowel.
Estonian has a three-way phonemic contrast:
saada Template:IPA "to get"
saada Template:IPA "send!"
sada Template:IPA "hundred"
Although not phonemic, the distinction can also be illustrated in certain dialects of English:
bead Template:IPA
beat Template:IPA
bit Template:IPA
  • Interpunct, commonly used in non-IPA phonetic transcription, such as the Americanist system developed by linguists for transcribing the indigenous languages of the Americas. Example: Americanist Template:IPA = IPA Template:IPA.
  • Some languages make no distinction in writing. This is particularly the case with ancient languages such as Latin and Old English. Modern edited texts often use macrons with long vowels, however. Australian English does not distinguish the vowels Template:IPA from Template:IPA in spelling, with words like ‘span’ or ‘can’ having different pronunciations depending on meaning.

Notations in other writing systems

In non-Latin writing systems, a variety of mechanisms have also evolved.

  • In abjads derived from the Aramaic alphabet, notably Arabic and Hebrew, long vowels are written with consonant letters (mostly approximant consonant letters), while short vowels are typically omitted entirely. Most of these scripts also have optional diacritics that can be used to mark short vowels when needed.
  • In South-Asian abugidas, such as Devanagari or the Thai alphabet, there are different vowel signs for short and long vowels.
  • In the Japanese hiragana syllabary, long vowels are usually indicated by adding a vowel character after. For vowels Template:IPA, Template:IPA, and Template:IPA, the corresponding independent vowel is added. Thus: あ (a), おかあさん, "okaasan", mother; い (i), にいがた "Niigata", city in northern Japan (usu. 新潟, in kanji); う (u), りゅう "ryuu" (usu. ), dragon. The mid-vowels Template:IPA and Template:IPA may be written with え (e) (rare) (ねえさん (姉さん), neesan, "elder sister") and お (o) [おおきい (usu 大きい), ookii, big] , or with い (i) (めいれい (命令), "meirei", command/order) and う (u) (おうさま (王様), ousama, "king") depending on etymological, morphological, and historic grounds.
    • Most long vowels in the katakana syllabary are written with a special bar symbol ー (vertical in vertical writing), called a chōon, as in メーカー mēkā "maker" instead of メカ meka "mecha". However, some long vowels are written with additional vowel characters, as with hiragana, with the distinction being orthographically significant.
  • In the Korean Hangul alphabet, vowel length is not distinguished in normal writing. Some dictionaries use the <Template:IPA> symbol, for example ː “Daikon radish”.

See also



de:Vokalquantität fr:Quantité vocalique ja:長母音 zh:元音長度

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