Friday 17 February 2012


Students of phonetics in Britain have to learn to recognize the Cardinal Vowels established by Daniel Jones: at least the primaries (i e ɛ a ɑ ɔ o u) and four of the secondaries, namely y ø œ ɯ. Masters’ students have to learn not only to recognize them but to produce them, too.

Some readers may be surprised to learn that the cardinal vowel that generally proves most difficult for English and Scottish students to produce is primary number 8, u. These students have to learn to make a vowel sound that is considerably backer and rounder than their English GOOSE vowel.

This is also the cardinal vowel that Japanese students find most difficult.

If simple imitation failed, I generally found that the most helpful technique was to start from the English word wall. The BrE vowel in this word is reliably back. More importantly, so is the close and rounded w at the beginning. If you prolong this w instead of immediately gliding away from it, the result may be an acceptable cardinal-style u — properly close, back, and rounded. It may need to be made a little “tighter” (i.e. with a greater degree of tongue raising). Once the learner has produced that satisfactorily, you just need a few fluency and catenation exercises. Then you can compare and contrast English boot with cardinal but and moon with cardinal mun. (NB cardinal vowels have no inherent length. They can be prolonged or not at will.)

Here’s Daniel Jones’s demonstration of cardinal 8, from the recording he made in 1956.

The same difficulty faces the English-speaking learner of German. German long is just about cardinal. You can hear some authentic examples here, on Paul Joyce’s German Course site (the URL mentioned for this site in my blog for 10 July 2009 is no longer valid).

(Warning: to my ear the sound clip for this vowel on the Univ. of Iowa site sounds extremely odd and un-German. To hear it, go to Vokale, Monophthonge, hinten, and select /u/.)

Here’s Wikipedia’s sound clip for the word Fuß fuːs.

If I were teaching German I would apply the same technique. I’d emphasize the difference in sound between German du duː and English do, German Hut huːt and English hoot. And of course learners of German also have to master the front-back distinction in Brüder — Bruder ˈbryːdɐ — ˈbruːdɐ. (Both tend to get mapped onto English brooder.)

One of Joyce’s examples, Stuhl ʃtuːl, is particularly interesting. For many English people the vowel in this word, because of the following dark lateral, is not all that different from that of their English stool: the initial ʃ is no problem, but the final clear is strikingly different from the usual English ɫ used in this position.

My picture shows an eagle owl, German der Uhu ˈuːhu. Its name is onomatopoeic. It hoots in a cardinal way.


  1. The t in Stuhl would be aspirated, wouldn't it?

    (I understand why you write it like that, but in light of languages like Russian, I find for the German or English non-dark l irritating.)

    1. The t in Stuhl is actually unaspirated in the sound clip. Listen to it! And see Deutsches Aussprachewörterbuch p. 76, apropos Stuhl: "es folgt jedoch meist kein Hauchgeräusch".

    2. Thanks. So, of all the sounds, that's what Stuhl and stool have in common.

      (Semantically, the overlap is probably limited to the medical euphemism…)

  2. Link to DJ file needs correcting. For

    <a href="<br />">Here’s</a>


    <a href="">Here’s</a>


    1. Thanks. Fixed. (I ought to have checked. The unwanted break was inserted by Blogger, not by me. But I know how to remove it, and have done so.)

  3. The articulation of darkness or brightness of [u]-like vowels is more complicated. Yes, more rounding will darken them. But backing won't. Slight backing and fronting of velars doesn't work (see the work of Fant and of Stevens). What does work is tongue blade elevation or depression - more depression means darker. The brighter versions of [u] you hear in so many dialects of English come from tongue blade elevation - compare pronunciations of toot and poop. They aren't "fronted velars", to be precise they are fully velar AND laminal.

  4. How do you teach students from Southern England to pronounce [o]?

    1. Many of them have a THOUGHT vowel that approaches [o:].

    2. I guess that may be true, but the London/Estuary THOUGHT vowel seems so different to me from an Italian or German [o] -- typically pharyngealized, extra-back, and/or over-rounded -- that it just doesn't seem anything like, say, an Italian or German [o] to me.

    3. What do you mean by "extra-back"? I thought [o] by definition was as back as a vowel could be.

  5. And English phonetics too happens to have the limited use or the large gap in its parallel orthography, like for expressing the variants of the ‘ooh’, for example. I found it difficult to transcribe the universal natural semantics of various expressions of ‘ooh’ as in (is that right?), (it’s hurt), (it’s a bad sensation), (it’s surprising), and so on….

    But by the time L1 children are entering to formal schooling, their being happens to have already acquired the fluent pronunciations of all these differences just as well most words of dally uses. Interestingly my first boss too, like the norms of all the bosses of the village in those days (who couldn’t usually read or write) not only speaks error less phonetics but also speaks with all the eight cases according to the Tamil grammar and its phonotactic realization, viz., nominative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, locative and vocative in accordance with their synthetic modifications. Then, what emphasizes in both dimensions here is the nature-nurture issue on mere a natural physiological foundation for cognitive endowment than having the issue emphasized on formal schooling.

    ….On the literature here, however, it is certainly interesting to know how and why the /y/ got in to the kind of lip rounding for the emphasis where areas the use /ʉː/ and /uː/ were more usual, which is otherwise (if not tensed) understandable as very close to the diphthong [aɪ] or of a bit less on the F2. Also, what is analogically complicated is to understand why the in ‘wall’ is a consonant, since it has all the similar features of a vowel in terms of its turbulence than of a consonant whose predominant features are the manners of obstruction and constriction.

  6. the german pronunciation is [ʔu:hu], with a glottal stop before the first vowel :-)

  7. I used to find cardinal 8 easier to teach to Brits back in the days when Tunes decongestant sweets had TV ads like this one:
    The sweets not only unblocked the nose but also shifted one's vowels towards conservative R.P. Each ad used to end with a cardinal 8 demo like the one at 0:26 of the YouTube clip.


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