Will Styler's Homepage
Will Styler

Associate Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

How many vowels have you used today?

Five? Ten? Likely thousands.

But when was the last time you stopped to think about how those vowels live? These vowels have friends, family, and natural classes, but yet they never hesitate to resonate for you in your time of need.

Yet every day, vowels are bought and sold on national television, subjected to reduction (or even deletion) in unstressed environments and worst of all, in elementary and middle schools, students are systematically taught to deny the existence of more than two thirds of their ranks, focusing instead on five (sometimes six) lies spread by the million-dollar-a-year spelling bee industry.

Vowels are under threat, not just in schools, not just on TV, but in syllables in our very own words. Read on to hear heartbreaking tales of vowels in danger around the world.

The War on Vowels in Schools

“A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y”. This is the battle cry of a vile revisionist movement, a policy instituted by a shady cabal of scribes, printers, teachers and spelling-bee industry insiders.

Rather than telling our children of all the wonderful vowel qualities that they produce on a regular basis, teachers instead teach only the “letters”, orthographic representations designed to disguise the true nature of our speech. These so-called “letters”, A, E, I, O, U and Y are diphthongs in disguise, vowel/glide packages designed to cover up the 16 legitimate English vowels and keep them hidden from inquiring young minds.

So instead of acknowledging the spoken vowels which so enrich our lives and provide nuclei for the syllables we use everyday, our school systems continue to propagate these lies, while hosting events for the lucrative spelling bee industry in the very same buildings.

You wouldn’t accept a history book which doesn’t mention the Renaissance. You wouldn’t teach a chemistry course without discussing the Periodic Table. So why would we allow these so-called “English Teachers” to discuss our language without mention of a single schwa? Don’t revise history, don’t hide our grammar. Tell our schoolchildren the truth.

Our children are our most important resource. Don’t you think they should get all the vowels they deserve?

The Wheel of Misfortune

Who doesn’t love a game show? Some lucky contestant gets on TV, wins fabulous prizes, and maybe if they’re lucky, comes back for a finalist round. All innocent fun, right?

Wrong. In fact, Wheel of Fortune is the biggest vowel-trafficking organization in the world, hiding their dirty business in plain sight in front of millions of Americans every night. Those vowels, bought for as little as $250 USD, are then forced into awkward puns, nonsensical “before and after” phrases, and even thrown away if they don’t “fit in”.

But where do these vowels come from? Wheel of Fortune’s “shadow producers” travel to eastern Europe, plying innocent young vowels with offers of Hollywood stardom. But once they print themselves on the dotted line, those dreams are shattered. Whisked across the ocean on unregistered, untraceable sheets of paper, these vowels are never heard from again… until their cruel television debut.

Thanks in large part to the example set by Wheel of Fortune, vowel trafficking in eastern Europe has grown so bad that even humans are feeling the pain. Just ask the residents of Brčko, Bosnia, left with only a syllabic /r/ to express their very geographical identities.

Join us in standing up against this abhorrent trade. Join us in keeping vowels united with their friends, families, and natural classes. Do your part to make sure that not one more vowel is bought, and not one more is sold. And if you’re ever asked to buy a vowel, remember, the answer is always “NO!”

Reduction by Force

We discuss phonological reduction clinically. “English vowels in unstressed contexts are often centralized or reduced to /ə/”. It sounds so clean, so clinical. Patterned, efficient, and necessary. But it isn’t so clean, efficient, or necessary for the vowels being reduced.

Imagine a beautiful life living in a beautiful word, like “photograph”. An upper-middle height vowel living the American dream, living in harmony with stops and fricatives. Can you imagine such a life?

This wonderful life continues until one day, a suffix is added. A simple little “-er” is appended, and suddenly, dreams are shattered. A cataclysmic stress shift tears through the word, bringing with it aspiration, centralization and… reduction. No matter how valiantly the initial /oʊ/ may struggle, he fights a reductive tide. He may keep his height, for a time. He may stay backed like a good /oʊ/ should be. But from the moment that suffix was added, our poor little vowel was handed a reduction sentence, and sooner or later, will face duration slashing, lowering of amplitude, and eventually, complete and total centralization.

But it’s not just those unlucky vowels who live at the whim of productive lexical morphology. Vowels in our most frequently used and most predictable words face reduction around every corner. According to a shocking study by Dan Jurafsky, Alan Bell, Michelle Gregory, and William D. Raymond conducted in 2000, vowels in strongly predictable words face up to a 48% chance of reduction. That’s 48%.

Can you imagine waking up in the morning and having to kiss members of your natural class goodbye, knowing that there’s a 48% chance that you’ll be phonologically reduced at work that day? Can you imagine doing your job constantly worried about who would carry place cues for your plosive friends and family, and wondering if some other vowel could ever take your place in your syllable’s sonority profile?

Frequency effects and lexical morphology are eliding more of our vowels, and we cannot stand idly by. Vowel reduction is real, and despite what the phonologists tell us, it’s not so clean, patterned, or efficient for the vowels involved. A world without vowel reduction may not be possible within our lifetimes, but we can still stand with the vowels and not let another vowel go quietly into that short, centralized night.

How can I help?

You have a choice. You can fall in line, ignore their plight, and carry on the abuse, five (sometimes six) letters at the time, or you can take a stand.

You can refuse to lump together the high and the low, the front and the back, the rounded and the unrounded, in one massive cloud of orthographic lies. You can refuse to participate in game shows which treat vowels as commodities to be bought and used. You can resist frequency effects, fight elision, and perceive all vowels equally, be they tense or lax. No phonemes should face denial, sale on national television, reduction or deletion. Ever. Stand up for vowels now, bfr ts t lte…

You can make a difference.

So, in case you’ve not noticed, this site isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously. Vowels are just sounds produced by passing voicing through an otherwise unobstructed vocal tract, and they’re not going away any time soon.

Rather than trying to rewrite history, school teachers are teaching the English writing system, which, although a gigantic trainwreck, is still useful to students in their everyday lives. Phonological reduction is a part of the circle of vocalic life, as necessary as a sunset is to a summer evening. And no matter how many vowels they may sell on Wheel of Fortune, there will always be enough left over for us to use.

However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of all the wonderful spoken vowels out there, in English and around the world. In the author’s dialect of American English alone, we have 10 spoken vowels (given in the International Phonetic Alphabet):

As well as 5 diphthongs (vowels which start in one place and then glide to another place in the mouth):

Every vowel is important, from /i/ to /u/, and a better understanding of what you’re really saying when you speak will only help you be a better speaker, a better listener, and a better citizen of the world.

So, get informed, stay connected, learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, and spread the good word about vowels to your friends and family. There’s so much more to vowels than A, E, I, O, U (and sometimes Y), and you never know where a journey of vocalic exploration may bring you.

Acknowledge them. Transcribe them. Celebrate them. Who knows. Some day, you may end up with a nerdy introduction to your personal homepage just like this one.

If you still want to get involved, or just have questions about why anybody would make such a silly website, contact the founder of the SPCV, Will Styler.