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What Is a Front Vowel?

By Daphne Mallory
Updated May 23, 2024
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A front vowel is a particular type of sound used in the speech or human annunciation of certain vowels. It gets its name because, in order to articulate these sounds, the tongue must be held in far front of the mouth. Sometimes they’re called “bright vowels” because they sounds clearer or brighter than those formed when the tongue is farther back. One of the keys to successfully making a front-of-the-mouth vowel sound is for the tongue to hold its front position without causing a narrowing of the vocal tract. If such a constriction occurs, this creates a consonant sound, not a vowel sound. Most of the time proper tongue position must be learned through practice, and can be a challenge to non-native speakers of languages that use them. There are nine recognized front vowel sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet, although only five are used in the English language. These are the long “e” and “a,” and the short “i,” “e,” and “a.”

Basics of Making These Sounds

In order to make this sort of vowel sound the tongue must move forward in the mouth, of course, but in most cases the tip needs to stay low, usually about even with the lower front teeth. Different vowel sounds are made in part by varying the arch of the tongue; this creates three types vowels: high, high-mid to low-mid, and low. Front-specific vowels can be contrasted with back vowels, which are made with the tongue placed as far back in the mouth as possible.

Long E

The highest front vowel, meaning the tongue is most arched toward the gum line, is the long "e." There are 23 different spellings of the long "e" sound in English, and it can be found in words like “eat,” “debris,” and “people.” As the highest and most fronted of vowels, the long "e" is rarely said incorrectly, even by those learning English later in life, and normally occurs early in the speech of children.

Long A

The long "a" is normally considered to be in the high-mid category. Examples can be found in words like “ate,” “paper,” and “tray.” There are 36 different spellings of this vowel in English, but the most common is the letter "a." Speakers tend to have few problems with this sound because of the position of the tongue.

Short I

The short "i" sound is also another example. Words like “ship,” “it,” and “hit” are all common English words that use this vowel sound. In English there are 33 different accepted spellings for this sound. The tongue is not as high in the mouth as it is with the long "e” or “a,” so it is often more difficult for children and non-native speakers to master the short "i" sound.

Short E

In the low-mid front vowel range is the short "e" sound that is used in words like “bed,” “head,” and “get.” The common spelling is the letter "e," but it has 19 different English variations. This vowel is influenced by dialect and is often very problematic for non-native speakers, particularly if they’re trying to learn to recognize different regional pronunciations of certain words and terms.

Short A

The last sound considered to be in the front-of-the-mouth vowel category in English is the short "a" sound. Some examples are “at,” “laugh,” and “plaid.” The most common spelling is "a," but it does have 13 different variations in English. The short "a" is considered a low vowel because the tongue is not normally arched and the mouth opens wider for this sound. This is the vowel most commonly pronounced incorrectly by English-speaking children and is not a common sound in many world languages.

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Discussion Comments
By Animandel — On Nov 16, 2014

After reading this article I can better understand why children have such a hard time saying certain words when they are young. It makes me laugh when I think back and remember how my kids pronounced some words when they were growing up. It was cute at the time, and I miss the funny words. However, a teenager using those same words wouldn't be so cute, so I guess those funny pronunciations are better left in the past.

By Feryll — On Nov 15, 2014

When I was little I absolutely could not make the S sound. Do you have any idea how embarrassing this can be? My S sounds came out as an F sound, so one day when I had to read out loud during class about "the smart fox" everyone got a big laugh. Well, everyone except me got a big laugh.

My teacher sent me to the speech therapist right then. I spent about 30 minutes in her office, and we worked through some exercises where I had to hold my mouth a certain way. From that day forward, I had no trouble saying words that started with S. It was amazing how quickly the problem was fixed, and this was a major relief for me.

By Sporkasia — On Nov 15, 2014

When you speak your language from the time you are a child and you speak this language every day, you do not give much consideration to how you create the sounds that go along with the language. It was not until I began taking foreign languages in school that I realized that some of the mouth movements needed to make the sounds in other languages are not needed in my language.

I speak English, and the language that gave me the most trouble when I was studying foreign languages was French. I simply could not make some of the sounds, and I could not even tell when I got lucky and actually produced some of the sounds correctly. Until you attempt to learn another language you cannot fully appreciate how difficult it can be and why some people never get rid of their accents.

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