Vowel - Acoustics


Related article: Phonetics

The acoustics of vowels are fairly well understood. The different vowel qualities are realized in acoustic analyses of vowels by the relative values of the formants, acoustic resonances of the vocal tract which show up as dark bands on a spectrogram. The vocal tract acts as a resonant cavity, and the position of the jaw, lips, and tongue affect the parameters of the resonant cavity, resulting in different formant values. The acoustics of vowels can be visualized using spectrograms, which display the acoustic energy at each frequency, and how this changes with time.

The first formant, abbreviated "F1", corresponds to vowel openness (vowel height). Open vowels have high F1 frequencies while close vowels have low F1 frequencies, as can be seen in the accompanying spectrogram: The and have similar low first formants, whereas has a higher formant.

The second formant, F2, corresponds to vowel frontness. Back vowels have low F2 frequencies while front vowels have high F2 frequencies. This is very clear in the spectrogram, where the front vowel has a much higher F2 frequency than the other two vowels. However, in open vowels the high F1 frequency forces a rise in the F2 frequency as well, so an alternative measure of frontness is the difference between the first and second formants. For this reason, some people prefer to plot as F1 vs. F2 – F1. (This dimension is usually called 'backness' rather than 'frontness', but the term 'backness' can be counterintuitive when discussing formants.)

In the third edition of his textbook, Peter Ladefoged recommended use of plots of F1 against F2 – F1 to represent vowel quality. However, in the fourth edition, he changed to adopt a simple plot of F1 against F2, and this simple plot of F1 against F2 was maintained for the fifth (and final) edition of the book. Katrina Hayward compares the two types of plots and concludes that plotting of F1 against F2 – F1 "is not very satisfactory because of its effect on the placing of the central vowels", so she also recommends use of a simple plot of F1 against F2. In fact, this kind of plot of F1 against F2 has been used by analysts to show the quality of the vowels in a wide range of languages, including RP, the Queen's English, American English, Singapore English, Brunei English, North Frisian, Turkish Kabardian, and various indigenous Australian languages.

R-colored vowels are characterized by lowered F3 values.

Rounding is generally realized by a complex relationship between F2 and F3 that tends to reinforce vowel backness. One effect of this is that back vowels are most commonly rounded while front vowels are most commonly unrounded; another is that rounded vowels tend to plot to the right of unrounded vowels in vowel charts. That is, there is a reason for plotting vowel pairs the way they are.

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