Quality or quantity – priorities for English vowels

Sorry, I’m a late with this. I got distracted. They’re busy re–roofing the garage and I’ve been negotiating what I want them to do and for how much. “It’s a big job,’ the roofer said, ‘And I guess you want it done well, so it’s a question of both quantity and quality. That’s not going to be cheap.”

Quantity or quality? Which do I go for? In class, I mean. Students don’t have limitless budgets in terms of what they can spend on pronunciation, and many of them are looking to be intelligible as soon as possible. That constantly pushes us to compromise between quantity and quality, and never more so than when it comes to vowels.

Interestingly, the terms quality and quantity take on a special relevance when we look at English vowels. I first came across them in an article by Bryan Jenner back in the late 80s. He argued that for some learners it was necessary to ‘set up a common core (his italics) for pronunciation, which would offer the learner a guarantee of intelligibility and acceptability anywhere in the world” (Jenner 1989: 2) In setting up this core, Jenner described vowels in terms of quality (or shape), and quantity (or length). 

I’d never seen vowels described in this way. I was used to ‘open’, ‘close’, ‘front’ or ‘back’. Jenner’s terms were entirely novel to me at the time, but even more of a novelty was his assessment of the importance of precise vowel quality:

Native accents show such enormous differences in vowel quality that it cannot be claimed that these are vital for mutual intelligibility. Nor can it be claimed that there is a minimum set of vowel–shapes which must be acquired by the foreign learner, since different native varieties do not make all the oppositions which are found in SBE or any other “standard” variety. (Jenner, 1989: 3)

This is a challenging statement if you stop and think about it. It is so drilled into us in our early training that English has 12 pure vowels that we fail to spot that though this is true for RP, it is not true for all varieties of English. Take a look at these native speaker vowel charts. Other than RP, none of them have twelve vowels, and few these fully coincide in quality with the RP vowels. 

From top L going clockwise: RP, Scottish English, New Zealand English, Australian English.

This was quite a shock for me, but there was more to come in Jenner’s article. Though I knew only too well that in Northern England there’s no distinction between put and putt, and that most Scots don’t make a difference in quality between caught and cot, I didn’t know that ‘most small children operate quite intelligibly with a system of between six and ten vowels rather than the twenty found in most adult speech’ (Jenner, 1989: 3).  This was fascinating stuff coming from what, in retrospect, was a game–changing article. An authoritative article that concluded that vowel quality should not be given high priority.

So if it’s not about quality, then it has to be about quantity. ‘All native varieties,’ Jenner also explained, ‘make oppositions based on vowel length; i.e. they all have some long vowels contrasting with some short vowels, and the loss of these contrasts seriously impairs intelligibility’ (Jenner, 1989: 3).

Jenner’s affirmation is not entirely true: descriptions of North American English prefer the terms ‘tense’ or ‘lax’ for their classification of vowels (see Celce-Murcia, 1996: 96–102, for example). However, let’s ignore the NAE classification for now and skip to when Jenny Jenkins picked up on Jenner’s common core in her own work. Here she pointed out that the precise length of a vowel ‘depends critically on the nature of its phonetic environment and, in particular, on whether it is followed by a fortis or lenis consonant’ (Jenkins, 2000: 144) The vowel in back, for example, has the same quality as the vowel in bag, but is shorter because of the following fortis (voiceless) /t/. This difference in length is what allows the listener to differentiate between the two words.

Vowel length, then, is not just a question of short and long vowels, but also of the effect of the consonant that follows the vowel in what is known as pre-fortis clipping. Accordingly, when Jenkins set out her lingua franca core she was explicit about the need for work on vowel length to encompass both aspects of quantity. She did agree with Jenner, however, that the ‘vowel quality argument holds good if we can assume that L2 speakers will, like speakers of non-standard L1 varieties, be consistent in the use of their preferred vowel qualities’ (Jenkins, 2000: 144–45).

That is to say, for international intelligibility:

  • learners only need to be consistent in the vowel qualities that they produce when speaking English.
  • listeners will deal with the variations in vowel quality in much the same way as L1 users of English do amongst themselves.
  • vowel quantity (length) is a far more significant feature of the pronunciation of vowels for international intelligibility.
  • vowel quantity is not just a question of the so-called long and short vowels. The effect of the following fortis or lenis consonant must also be taken into account.
  • fortis (voiceless) consonants will shorten the preceding vowel.

Take a break. Pick up a couple of your favourite coursebooks and go through the pronunciation exercises. How many of these exercises get students to practice oppositions such as back/bagmate/made  or coat/code? While long/short differences such as in hit/heat do attract attention, the fortis/lenis effect is usually noticeable for its absence from coursebooks, despite the fact that back/bag differences are present even at beginner level.

Worse still, all too often teachers cling onto the notion that the difference between back and bag is in the voicing of the final /g/, but as Peter Roach points out, when /b/, /d/ and /g/ are in final position ‘they are scarcely voiced at all, and any voicing they may have seems to have no perceptual importance (Roach, 2009). Getting learners to focus on the voicing the final consonant in words like robe, maid or bag is not only drawing their attention away from what really matters, which is the length of the preceding vowel, but is pushing them to incorrectly voice these three final consonants. I know about this mistake. I used to make it all the time in the early years of my own teaching. Shame on me.

Most of the time when I sit down to polish the first draft of a post, I look to see if what I have written will have been helpful. Today I have the feeling that rather than help you with vowels by (re-)introducing the concepts of quality and quantity, I’ve opened pandora’s box. If this is the case, if I have raised more questions than I’ve answered, then you can always use the comment box to let off steam.

If, however, what I’ve said above aligns with your current practice, then here’s a final quote just for you. It’s from David Deterding’s summary of his extensive work on pronunciation and international intelligibility. His empirical data was collected entirely in SE Asia, an area where most indigenous languages do not have vowel length distinctions. In many of the pronunciation–based problems of intelligibility Deterding records ‘the words that are understood have different vowels from the words that are intended. However, the main issue seems only rarely to be related to the quality or length of the vowels’. (Deterding, 2013: 73).

Really David! Wow, am I glad that I’m retiring soon?

* When I use the term vowels I am referring to both the pure vowels (monophthongs) and the diphthongs of English.


Celce.Murcia, M., Brinton, D. M., & Goodwin, J. M. (1996). Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deterding, D. (2013). Misunderstandings in English as a Lingua Franca. An Analysis of ELF Interactions in South-East Asia. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as a Lingua Franca. Oxford Oxford University Press.

Jenner, B. (1989). Teaching pronunciation: The Common Core. Speak Out! 4: 2–4.

Roach, P. (2009). English Phonetics and Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


5 thoughts on “Quality or quantity – priorities for English vowels

  1. Thanks for this Robin!
    I guess the vowel sounds in ‘feet’, ‘feed’ and ‘fee’ are allophones of the same phoneme. Meanwhile, the vowel sounds in ‘feet’ and ‘fit’ are different phonemes. For me, it’s confusing to treat these allophonic and phonemic differences together under the concept of ‘quantity’, as Jennifer Jenkins seems to. Maybe things could be kept clearer if we went with the preferred American terms ‘tense’ and ‘lax’. Alternatively, we could think of ‘clipping’ as being a property of the consonant rather than the vowel. In other words, one of the characteristics that distinguishes voiceless from voiced is the way the voiceless sound clips the preceding vowel. Just an idea – perhaps it amounts to the same thing in the end.


  2. The claim that ‘learners only need to be consistent in the vowel qualities that they produce when speaking English’ has always been a mystery to me. Can you explain it?


    • Like you, Mark, I struggle to see the sounds in ‘fit’ and ‘feet’ as only different in quantity. In part, I suspect, that’s because our NS ears place so much significance on the sloght quality difference. In other words, we ‘deaf’ to the possibility that the quality difference isn’t that important.
      But coming back to the original LFC, I don’t actually think that Jenny was saying that quantity was the only difference. Rather, that the difference in quantity was more significant for international intelligibility. In practice, she was following a line that had been initiated some time earlier in 1989 by Bryan Jenner, a line he then elaborated on in 1997, but which also said that quantity was a far more significant issue than quality. But more of that in my next post.
      For myself (and also coming up in the next post) the AmE tense/lax difference seemed much more classroom–friendly than the issue of fortis-clipping because basically if you relax from a a tense almost cardinal /i:/, you end up with the ‘fit’ vowel. In class I used this tense-lax opposition a lot.


    • Hi AS

      A lot of thought and research in the late 20th century amongst British pronunciation experts went in to finding out what mattered most in pronunciation for communication to be effective. If you look at my post for ‘J’ on Jenner and Jenkins, you’ll see that as an outcome of that research it became evident from analysing NS accents in English that the same vowel had different qualities as you travelled around. The exact quality of the ‘u’ in ‘bus’ is quite different in the SE of England, to in Birmingham, to in Newcastle, and that’s just staying in the UK. Similarly, for me the vowel in ‘book’ is the same sound as the vowel in ‘fool’ because I’m from Newcastle. It’s just shorter in ‘book’. But for speakers from other parts of the UK they are quite different in quality.
      And yet, despite all this variation in exact vowel quality, we understand each other! Conclusion, vowel quality isn’t determinant when it comes to mutual intelligibility. However, and this is where Jenkins comes in, speakers do need to be consistent in the sound they produce for a given vowel so that listeners can make the (usually subconscious) adjustments in their listening to the particular way a given speaker pronounces a given vowel.
      This is what happens as you travel around the UK. When I left Newcastle to for Birmingham I was really surprised how they would pronounce ‘name’. To me the B’ham vowel sounded much more like the vowel I’d expect for ‘nine’. But it always sounded that way – speakers were consistent – so I quickly got used to it even though it was quite different to what I was used to. L2 speakers of English should also be allowed to have ‘different’ qualities as long as they are consistent in the differences they make. Does that make sense?


  3. Pingback: Quality in vowels – consistent, intelligible, achievable | englishglobalcom

Comments are closed.