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In elementary school, we all learned the vowels of the English language: a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. But what makes a vowel a vowel? Vowels and consonants are essentially two different categories of sounds that linguists use to better understand how language sounds work. The study of the sounds that human beings can produce is called phonetics. It’s a sub-speciality of linguistics.

According to phoneticians, a vowel is a speech sound that is made without constriction of the vocal tract. What does that mean? It means that when you say a vowel, the sound is not stopped by your tongue, teeth, or cheeks. Try it! When you pronounce all of the vowels, your mouth stays open, but for every consonant, your tongue hits your teeth or the top of your mouth.

The word vowel comes from originally from the Latin vox meaning voice. Consonant means “with sound” from the Latin com (with) and sonare (sound).

Every language has vowels, though some have more vowel sounds than others. Across many languages, all words have to have vowel sounds, but not all words have to have consonants. This is because the sound and volume of spoken language comes from the vowels. The consonants break up the sound that the vowels generate. That’s why it’s impossible to say a string of consonants in a row. By nature, consonants stop the air flowing through the vocal tract, which is why you can say a vowel as long as you have breath, but you can’t draw out a sound like “l” unless you break it up with more vowels, as in “lalala.” This is also why vowels sit in the middle of syllables. They give language form and rhythm.

Strings of consonants sound like parts of words in English. Think of the phrases, “hmm” or “hmph.” They are not complete words, even though they do have some meaning. Without any vowels in languages, we would be left with meaningless consonant strings. Although some languages, like Polish, can have as many as five consonants in a row, in English, we’re typically restricted to three, like str in strict.

Vowels and consonants are oversimplified categories, of course—sounds are in reality more complicated than that. Take sounds like “s” or “z,” which don’t need to be broken up by vowels to continue. Are they vowels or consonants? You can say “z” forever. It’s the onomatopoetic sound of bees buzzing, to give just one example. These sounds are a subcategory of consonants called fricatives, made by pushing air through a very small space in your mouth. And what about y? Y is an example of a semivowel. Learn more about the history of the 25th letter of the alphabet here.

English is a complicated language. What other facets of the English language stump you?

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199 Comments

  1. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 26, 2013 - 4:16 am

    I can actually draw out the ‘l’ sound.

    Polish, Dutch, and German need more vowels. I can hardly pronounce them whenever I come across them. (Not that I see them much – I came from America to an Arabic-speaking country. Although, Arabic is awfully hard to say too, but not from lack of vowels. They add some weird extra sounds. It sounds like they’re choking, if you ask me.)

    Reply
  2. The teacher -  October 26, 2013 - 1:14 pm

    Vowels A – Z.
    NO LOGIC.
    Time to read my boring books that NO ONE likes

    Reply
  3. Scrabble words with all consonants -  April 15, 2013 - 12:25 am

    We can definitely call something a word if it has no vowels. It would be possible to define something as “English word” stating that because there’s no word in English that has vowels we can state that word must have at least one vowel, but it would be too artificial.

    Reply
  4. Nathan Butler -  March 14, 2013 - 3:58 am

    For some extra help on pronouncing a string of consonants, imagine that you’re a character in a novel. Your character sneezed and that string is what came out of his/her mouth. Now try saying it, minus the sneezing part. Or if you may, bless you.

    Reply
  5. miss fab -  May 19, 2012 - 6:17 am

    Also w is a vowel there are several english words use it that way cwth, cwr, cwn

    Reply
  6. OnceInABlueMoon -  April 12, 2012 - 4:44 pm

    Jorge, the second comment down, k is used with your tongue. The very back of your tongue touches the top of your mouth right next to your throat.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous -  November 20, 2011 - 1:14 pm

    In regard to the “ch” sound, this also has its own glyph (the Cyrillic alphabet is a good example of this, in which ch, sh, ts, shch, among others are given their own glyphs).

    Reply
  8. Anonymous -  November 20, 2011 - 1:07 pm

    The first sentence of my previous post should read “each contain” or “both contain”, rather than “each contains”.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous -  November 20, 2011 - 1:06 pm

    Although it is clear that words like “rythms” and “strengths” (although having 4 and 5 consecutive written consonants, respectively) each contains 3 consecutive consonant sounds:
    rythms: “ry”, followed by the single sound “th”, followed by “m”, then a “s”. In fact, this could be written in an earlier form of English with a single letter for the “th” used.
    strengths: “s”, then “tr”, then “eng”, then “th”, then “s”. The “ng” could be written with a single glyph, as with the “th”.
    In both cases, when the letter combinations that could be replaced with single glyphs are replaced as such, they contain only 3 written consonants.

    Reply
  10. cess -  November 10, 2011 - 3:20 pm

    @DukeMutt
    If you speak Spanish correctly, “z”, “s”, and “c” do not make the same sound. Ever heard a person from Spain talk? That is why in the Spanish alphabet it is a,b,c,ch,d, etc ..

    Reply
  11. Tammy D -  October 31, 2011 - 7:39 pm

    Okay, to say you can’t draw out consonants is stupid. You can say L and F and M and N and Z for as long as you have breath.

    Reply
  12. kay gee -  October 29, 2011 - 10:21 pm

    “Like”

    Vwls on October 26, 2011 at 10:34 pm
    w dnt nd vwls nymr. vwls r stpd. why dnt w jst gt rd f thm?

    Reply
  13. Julie, J.A.B.'s Freelance World -  October 26, 2011 - 10:41 pm

    I was actually thinking the other day about vowels and consonants. I was just all of the sudden amazed, and I think it is a huge mystery to me, how they even decide and designate what is going to be a vowel and what is going to be a consonant. The very creation of a language as well as it’s alphabet just fascinates me and baffles me all at the same time. It gives me a reason to keep studying, that’s for sure!

    Reply
  14. Vwls -  October 26, 2011 - 10:34 pm

    w dnt nd vwls nymr. vwls r stpd. why dnt w jst gt rd f thm?

    Reply
  15. Grace -  October 26, 2011 - 4:15 pm

    Thats super cool! I did not know that! Why is it that you can’t have a vowel after another vowel in a sentence?

    Reply
  16. Jay -  October 26, 2011 - 3:01 pm

    Sorry. Should have said try to breathe through your mouth…

    Reply
  17. Jay -  October 26, 2011 - 3:00 pm

    You still use your tongue when you say “K”. It’s just the back of it. Without vocalizing, start to say the letter and stop your tongue before you finish the physical movement used to formulate the sound. Try to breathe. You should find that the tongue is in the way because it is touching the back of the throat preventing air from coming in.

    Reply
  18. E.A.D. -  October 25, 2011 - 9:13 pm

    Wouldn’t it be fun if there WERE words without vowels?

    Reply
  19. hightailed -  October 24, 2011 - 6:39 am

    if you realy think about it, all consonants require a sudden burst of air to make sounds like ‘k’ or ‘t’. but nice thoughts out there anyway! keep on doin what you guys do! :)

    Reply
  20. Dab -  October 23, 2011 - 10:48 pm

    Why has no one pointed out that R is almost IDENTICAL to I….yet I is a vowel and R is not.

    I need someone to explain this.

    Reply
  21. David Jaques-Watson -  October 23, 2011 - 10:04 pm

    @Scunnerous: in phonics (e.g. Spalding), “y” is given three sounds:
    - the normal “yuh” consonant, as in “yell”;
    - the “ih” vowel, as in “Skippy”, “dummy”;
    - the “eye” vowel, as in “sky”.

    The letter “i” is also given the same last two sounds: “ih”, “eye”.

    Then you add some rules such as “i is never used at the end of a word, use y instead”.

    Unless it’s a non-English word such as “ski”. ;-)

    Reply
  22. Cassie -  October 23, 2011 - 9:43 pm

    I can hold the K sound…

    Reply
  23. James -  October 23, 2011 - 12:37 am

    Uh, I thought vowels were used as bridges between different sounds in the word. E.g. I can say chmlk, there in nothing impeding me from doing otherwise, but when I try saying it, it autumatically includes the sounds that normally vowels would take the place for. Why? Because words are said one unit at a time, in one breath, so to keep the single breath for the one word, during the changing of the mouth’s shape, during which time air is still being forced out, another sound is heard in between. This is what vowels funtion as and why we can write tomorrow as tmrrw and still have it sound as such, or very closely. That’s what I remember being told vowels were for.

    Reply
  24. jebbiii -  October 22, 2011 - 3:02 pm

    It sure seems to me like “r” is a vowel in English some of the time. or at least intermediate between the two. The “r” sound can be used with any vowel although I think they (the man) says there is a schwa sound buried in there in between the two but it really isn’t. Like “murder” — it is pronounced mrdr with no u, e or schwa sound.

    Reply
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