Vowels

The Musa alphabet includes 22 vowels : all the other letters are consonants, including some semivowels (and some punctuation and arithmetic symbols). We'll present the vowels and semivowels on this page, and the other consonants on the following pages, so you can see how it works not just for English but for all the other languages. We'll use some technical terms (in italics), but you don't have to remember them.

Vowels

Vowels differ from each other in six main parameters :

The last three traits are often interrelated - I'll discuss them further below. For now, let's talk about the first three.

The Musa vowel letters fit into a grid based on those three parameters. Each letter represents any vowel sound in that range of your mouth - the actual pronunciation can vary within that range. Normally, Musa only distinguishes three heights - close, mid, and open - and two positions: front and back. Along with rounding, that results in 11 different vowels (no language needs a low front rounded vowel). Here they are, along with my transcriptions and the IPA symbols for the sounds in that range (at right is a chart of IPA vowels) :

In the Musa vowel grid, the first two columns show front vowels and the last two show back vowels, but the two central columns show central vowels. Musa doesn't distinguish a separate category of central vowels; the front rounded vowels are pretty central, anyway, as are the back spread vowels. Here's a chart showing acoustical data - how vowels sound - and you can see this phenomenon clearly.

Within each pair of columns in the grid, the lefthand column is spread (unrounded), while the righthand column is rounded. Front rounded vowels are usually pronounced with the lips compressed, while the back rounded vowels are usually pronounced with the lips protruded. We're so used to this correspondence that exceptions sound very funny. For example, the Japanese u is rounded, but with compressed lips instead of protruded, and it definitely sounds different. Musa writes this misrounded u as an unrounded u, using the letter .

Musa has a twelfth major vowel, the rhotic er. The sound it represents is rare, but two languages in which it occurs - Chinese and English - are the world's most spoken languages!

From now on, I'll write it in the bottom box of the second column, even though it's not low, front or rounded!

Three of these vowels don't occur in English, but they aren't difficult to pronounce :

The sound in the middle of the IPA chart - the upside-down e - is called schwa. We write it ea. It's pronounced with your mouth completely relaxed, and often represents any relaxed sound more than a specific mid back spread vowel.

Here are the twelve major vowels, with some examples, from English and from languages without long vowels. Four of the sounds only occur in English when long.

MusaIPATranscriptionEnglish ExamplesFrenchSpanishItalianOthers
ii(long) fleece, seed, shriek, be, key, reap, metersipisopira
ee(long) face, rain, wait, rein, theysespesopera
æaeapple, bat, trap, bad, cab, ham, arrow
American bath, staff, clasp, dance
yuesuGerman and Turkish ü, Cantonese yu
ø ɵoeceuxGerman and Turkish ö, Cantonese eu
ɚ ɝerbutter, early, nurse, hurt, term, workChinese èr
ɨ ɯeuTurkish ı, Welsh u
ə ɘ ɤeacomma, quota, vodka, sofa, drama
about, arena, alive,
ceRomanian ä
ɑ aaalmond, palm, calm, bra, father,
American lot, stop, rob, swan
British bath, staff, clasp, dance
sapasoparla
uu(long) goose, move, cube, fruit, knew, viewsouspujobuco
oo(long) goat, robe, road, so, sew, doughsautposobocca
ɒahBritish otter, bother, lot, stop, rob, swan,
cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin

Vowels are normally written low, but are written high when they're stressed or carry a high tone.

Minor Vowels

Most of the world's languages can be written just fine with the twelve vowels you've already met, but some of them need to distinguish two vowels that share the same parameters. In those cases, Musa offers a set of eight minor vowels. With some cheating, they are simply the major vowel letters lying on their sides - they're lazy! And we use them to write lazy vowels: lax vowels, vowels with retracted tongue root (-ATR), pharyngealized vowels, or just vowels that are lower and more central. Here they are, in the yellow rows, alongside the major vowels and the same IPA vowel chart you saw above.

Let me just call your attention to the letters and , which are not simply the sideways versions of the corresponding major vowel. At least the transcriptions are all regular: they all just add an h. As you'll learn later, to type these minor letters on a Musa keyboard, just hold the key down a little longer. Now let me show you how these minor vowel letters are used.

Bright Vowels

I mentioned above the distinction between vowels with advanced tongue root (+ATR) and those with retracted tongue root (-ATR). The former sound "brighter" (they have narrower formants). This contrast is used extensively in Africa, often in systems of vowel harmony where a word has either all +ATR or all -ATR vowels (sometimes there are also neutral vowels that can be used with both sets). A typical African system might look like this:

Bright (+ATR) Dull (-ATR)
i ɪ
e ɛ
ə a
o ɔ
u ʊ

Open-Mid Vowels

French, Catalan, Italian and Portuguese all distinguish between close-mid and open-mid vowels, as do most of the Germanic languages, which we'll discuss below. (In Spanish, the close-mid vowels have become diphthongs ie and ue.)

An open-mid front rounded vowel is very rare : as far as I know, it only contrasts with its close-mid sister in French and before nasals in Danish, and it's even being lost in those two languages, where few speakers make distinctions between French jeûne and jeune, or between Danish synds and søns.

The open-mid back spread vowel is common in English (as in strut) and German, where it spells the common ending written -er, as in einer. This vowel is lower than the schwa, but less relaxed. The other two open-mid vowels and are pretty common around the world.

MusaIPATranscriptionEnglish ExamplesFrenchPortugueseItalian
ɛeh elbow, bet, dress, step, ebb, hem, terror saiscede perla
œ ɞoeh Danish søns jeune
ɜ ʌ ɐeah British onion, strut, cub, rub, hum cama
ɔoh awful, bought, thought, taut, hawk, broad,
American cloth, cough, long, laurel, origin
sot move bosco

Near-Close Vowels

In English, the differences between feel and fill or between fool and full, are very similar to the differences we just discussed between close-mid and open-mid vowels: the second in each pair is lower and more central. The vowels of fill and full are called near-close vowels; there are also near-close front rounded and back spread vowels. We write them all with the lazy versions of the close vowels.

MusaIPATranscriptionExamples
ɪih English itchy, bit, kit, ship, rip, dim
ʏueh German schützen, Kazakh жүр
euh English helmet, rabbit, button, bottle, bottom
Irish broad i, Russian ы, Romanian î or â
ʊuh English cookie, book, foot, full, look, could

Stressed Vowels

Musa has a separate mechanism for indicating vowel stress: stressed vowels are written high, in the upper half of the line, while unstressed vowels are written low. For example, the Spanish word pasó has stress on the second syllable, while paso has stress on the first syllable. In Spanish, the vowel sounds don't change.

When vowels are unstressed, they're often pronounced lower and more centrally than their stressed counterparts, as if your whole mouth was smaller. Sometimes, this reduction is so extreme that we write it with a different letter, as in English, Russian or Catalan. But if the difference is less extreme, then we just use the same letter, even though the unstressed version is somewhat lazy.

For example, the unstressed second vowels in English golden helmet are more central than the stressed vowels in din mitt. We write the stressed ones with and the unstressed ones with . A contrasting case is the unstressed final vowel in English happy, which isn't as long as the stressed vowel in pea. We write it with the same letter, but without the long mark.

Nasal Vowels

Polish, Portuguese and French, for example, have nasal vowels. In Musa, these are written by appending a Nasal Suffix to the corresponding oral vowel. The Nasal Suffix looks and acts like a vowel: it's high following a high vowel, and low following a low vowel.

Here are some examples from French, contrasted with the oral vowel alone and the oral vowel followed by the letter n :

When needed, I'll transcribe the Nasal suffix as a tilde ˜, as in ã õ.

Syllabic nasals are vowels made with your mouth completely closed. For example, in Cantonese and Fukienese, there are syllabic nasals as in m and ng. In Musa, they're written with the nasal suffix, but without any preceding vowel.

But this nasal vowel letter isn't used to spell the sounds of English bottom or button. Those are better spelled with a very short vowel - usually - since the nasal consonant is at the end of the syllable, not the beginning as in the Cantonese examples above.

Most of the time, any vowel becomes somewhat nasalized before a nasal consonant like m n ny ng, and we don't spell it with the nasal suffix - it's taken for granted. But a phonemically nasal vowel keeps its suffix before a following nasal.

Long Vowels

As I mentioned above, in some languages, vowels are distinguished by length. A long vowel is simply the short vowel held for a longer time, long enough to contrast with a short version.

Musa indicates that a vowel is long by following it with a short vertical line at the same height as the vowel letter. We call this sign the long mark.

For example, here are the words for uncle and grandfather in Japanese. They're the same, except for the long vowel (and different stress):

We also use the long mark when the vowel moves a little (as is usually the case for all long vowels). For example, the vowels in English fleece and goose are uncontroversially long, even thought they're sometimes pronounced as [ɪi] and [ʊu]. The vowels of face and goat move much more - [eɪ] and [oʊ] - but we still write them with a long mark.

fleece goose
face goat

The Long mark is occasionally used as a prefix to indicate an extra-short vowel, as in Vietnamese â ă.

Not Short Short
ơ ə  â ə̆
a a  ă ă

Long Mark as Vowel

The Long mark with no preceding vowel is also used for vowels that have been reduced almost to zero. Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Sanskrit have syllables "without vowels", in which l or r plays the role of vowel. Musa spells them using the Long mark followed by the consonant. The long versions of these, as in Slovak and Sanskrit, use a second Long mark.

When used after a sibilant, it spells a hiss. But use the nasal suffix instead to make a hum when following a nasal sound. When used after a plosive or affricate, a following long mark means the stop isn't released. For example, the moraic obstruent of Japanese is written as the matching consonant followed by a long mark.

English also uses this letter to spell the schwi, the very reduced vowel in words like is, it, its, if, his, in, message, orange and button.

Semivowels

A semivowel is a vowel being used as a consonant. The four high vowels and the er vowel all have corresponding semivowels, although not all of them are used in English. Here they are :

There's also an unvoiced version of the w, as in English words like where or whale (if you pronounce them differently from wear and wail).

Thus we'd write whine as .

In addition, Musa has three glides that represent directions rather than positions.

Here are four of these semivowels in use in Bengali:

   
অয়ি ai অয়ে ae অয়ো ao অয়ু au

The central vowel of a syllable is never written with a semivowel, but onglides and offglides always are, so that there's only one vowel for each syllable. For example, the Chinese word 水 shŭi (water) is written as shwĕy, not shuĕi, shuĕy or shwĕi.

Diphthongs

Many languages feature diphthongs, which are vowels that move as they are pronounced. In Musa, as in most scripts, they're written using letters for the starting and ending positions. But in Musa, only one of these two letters is a vowel - the other is a semivowel.

If the ending position is more prominent, they're called rising diphthongs, and we write them with a semivowel onglide before the vowel. Spanish has a full set :

RisingExample
yeie as in tierra
yaia as in diablo
yoio as in dios
yuiu as in viuda
wouo as in cuota
waua as in cuadro
weue as in fuego
wiui as in buitre

If the starting position is more prominent, they're called falling diphthongs, and we write them with a semivowel offglide after the vowel. If the semivowel matches the vowel, the result is just a long vowel, which we would normally write with a long mark. But here's what they look like written as diphthongs:

We almost always write i: u: instead of iy uw, even though your mouth does move a little as you say words like ease and ooze - the long mark is broad enough to include cases where your mouth moves a little, as long as it stays nearby.

The mid vowels often form diphthongs with the semivowel in the same column. In those cases, it's hard to tell the difference between a long vowel and a diphthong. In Dutch, zee beu boot are diphthongs in the Netherlands and long vowels in Flanders. So if the movement is very short, we usually just write it as a long vowel. But here they are in their diphthong versions:

And here are the diphthong versions of the long open vowels, which use the wh semivowel:

Cross Vowels

When a falling diphthong crosses your mouth from one position to another, I'll call it a cross vowel. Several cross vowels cross to the front of your mouth :

Others cross to the back of your mouth :

Others cross to the bottom of your mouth, as in Finnish:

We also use wh if they cross downwards, but only to the center of your mouth, as in Vietnamese, Khmer, Thai and Irish :

Finally, we use the wr semivowel for r-colored diphthongs, as in English, where your tongue drops down at the end of the sound :

Thai has long diphthongs where a long vowel is followed by a cross offglide, as in ยาย. English also features long diphthongs - triphthongs - in words like pyre and power.

Germanic Vowels

Now we're in a position to look at examples that include long and cross vowels. The Germanic languages have some of the largest vowel inventories in the world, so let's look at some of them. Note that the vowels are usually lax when short and tense when long (but in Danish, both tense and lax vowels can be long or short).

MusaEnglishDutchGermanDanishSwedish
Short Vowels
milde
bit zit bitten minde sill
melde
bet zet Betten kælig hetta
bat malle hätta
dysse
nut Bütten dyppe syll
kønne full
Böttingengrøn nött
(American) better
comma de eine danske be
bud einer ånder
balm Baten mange matt
kulde
book Butten foto bott
lunde
(British) bob zot Bottich vor moll
zat bolle
Long Vowels
 beet zie bieten mile sil
 mene
 bait zee beten mæle hel
 mei male häl
 nu wüten dyse ful
 døbe
 beu böten høne nöt
 smøre
 bird
 la arne
 boot moe buhten kule bot
 stole
 boat zo Booten låne mål
 bought kort
 (some Am.) bought* baten mat
Cross Vowels
 boei
 boy mooi Beute
 by saai weiten
 nieuw
 meeuw
 ruw syl
 lui
 bout
 kou Bauten
R-colored Vowels
 earring
 arrow
 army
 order
 boor
 fire
 hour
MusaEnglishDutchGermanDanishSwedish


< Principles Consonants >


© 2002-2021 The Musa Academy musa@musa.bet 28jun21