A vowel sound is interestingly lengthy in expression in comparison to consonants. Speak out the vowels and mix them with consonants and you will immediately be struck by this characteristic of vowels. A vowel sound relies greatly upon an open vocal tract, or that physiology of the human throat starting at the trachea and ending with the lips and nasal openings. That’s a lot of territory worthy of the echoing sounds of vowels. Vowels are an effortless effort; frictionless, that seem to float on a soft, continuant movement of air. If humans had an equivalent to a bird’s melodious song, it would be the sounds of vowels.
The dictionary, Merriam-Webster, defines the vowel dryly: “one of a class of speech sounds in the articulation of which the oral part of the breath channel is not blocked and is not constricted enough to cause audible friction; the one most prominent sound in a syllable; a letter or other symbol representing a vowel —usually used in English of a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y”.
The English language recognizes two distinct classes of vowels: long and short. The long vowel is simply the expression of the sound of the letter in the alphabet. One starts the alphabet with the letter “a”; well that’s the long vowel sound, as are the other letters in the alphabet that are vowels. Say the letter and that’s the long form of that vowel. Long vowel sounds are produced where a vowel is placed at the end of a word or a syllable, or where two vowels are side-by-side, or where a silent “e” follows the classic short vowel form of a consonant-vowel-consonant arrangement. An example of such would be the short vowel in the word ”kit” and the long vowel sound in the work “kite”.
The short vowel is different than the letter sound. The short vowel sound routinely resonates where there is a single vowel, either at the beginning of a word or in between two consonants. Examples would be the words “at” and “elf” or “sit” and “sat”. One would wonder why we didn’t simply create an additional six letters in the alphabet with sounds that mimic the short vowel expression. Well, we didn’t. Otherwise, we would have to do the same for consonants. That would produce a minimum of 77 letters in the English alphabet were we to be so adventurous.
When we examine vowels – and consonants too for that matter – we are discussing the building blocks of phonics. I can’t stress enough the importance of the proper execution of phonic sounds. As in all languages, good phonics is the difference between intelligibility and imbecility. After working diligently with pronouncing the alphabet with your students, you should shift your gaze to the individual variations of vowel and consonant sounds; giving the time they deserve as you promote the good use of the English language in our American culture.