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Department of Linguistics


Complex Vowel Articulations

Robert Mannell

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Recommended readings

  • Clark and Yallop, chapter 3 ("Units of Speech") and especially sections 3.2 to 3.10
  • Ladefoged, chapter 9, has some discussion of complex articulations in vowels.

Of the above references, the Clark and Yallop reference is the most detailed.


The following book was the source of many of the examples included below. It is not required reading for this course, but is an excellent reference for anyone with a continuing interest in phonetics.

  • Ladefoged, P. and Maddieson, I., 1996, The Sounds of the World's Languages, Blackwell, Oxford

Other Topics

The topic "Complex Consonant Articulations" commences with a general description of complex articulations.

You should also examine the topic "IPA Diacritics" for details of some of the diacritic symbols used in the transcription of complex vowel articulations.


Diphthongs are essentially single vowel phonemes that consist of two pure vowel targets in sequence. In diphthongs it is often assumed that both targets have equal importance and one does not dominate the other in determining the identity of the vowel. When an initial brief vowel gesture is dominated by a following full target the initial gesture is referred to as an onglide. When a final brief vowel gesture is dominated by a preceding vowel target the brief final gesture is referred to as an offglide. Sometimes diphthongisation can be extended to three vowel targets in triphthongs.

Two identical sequences can be identified as a single diphthong phoneme in one language and as a monophthong phoneme plus a semi-vowel phoneme in another language.


Diphthongs are ideally transcribed as a sequence of two vowel symbols that represent, as closely as possible, the pronunciation of each of the two targets.

eg. /aɪ/ /eɪ/ /æɔ/

Onglides are usually indicated by a preceding superscript and offglides by a following superscript of a symbol appropriate to the pronunciation of the glide gesture. Such glides are very often schwas, but this is certainly not always the case.

eg. [əi] [ɔə]


See the topic "The Vowels of Australian English and Other English Dialects" for examples of diphthongs from Australian English and other English dialects.

Nasalisation of Vowels

In the lecture on vowels we have already dealt briefly with nasalised vowels. This vowel nasalisation is a complex articulation and is an example of simultaneous nasalisation. Such contrastive simultaneous nasalisation must not be confused with contextual and pervasive nasality. Contextual nasality occurs in vowels, as well as approximants and fricatives, when they are adjacent to nasal stops. Pervasive nasality is nasality that occurs throughout a person's speech as a result of habit, dialect or pathology. Simultaneous nasalisation of consonants is very rare as a contrastive feature in languages.


Simultaneous nasalisation is transcribed by placing the "tilde" symbol   ̃over the symbol for the sound being nasalised.

eg. [ẽ], [æ̃], [ɐ̃]


See the web page on Vowel Systems for examples of languages with vowel systems that include contrastive vowel nasalisation.

Vowel Retroflexion

Vowel retroflexion introduces an r-colouration to a vowel, usually by curling the tongue tip up and back from its normal position, but without moving the tongue body from it normal position for that vowel. Such vowels are often called "rhoticised" vowels. This vowel feature is commonly found in the speech of many American and Irish speakers of English. It occurs in the environment of a following [ɹ] but in some cases the rhoticised vowel is all that remains of a deleted following [ɹ] or alternatively the vowel is completely deleted and the [ɹ] becomes syllabic.


In the past vowel retroflexion was sometimes indicated by a following superscript "ɹ" as in ɹ]. The current IPA standard recommends instead the following transcription:-

eg. [a˞] [ɔ˞] [ə˞] (ie. the affected vowel followed by the diacritic   ˞ )


Badaga (Dravidian Language, India) has two degrees of vowel retroflexion
(but the intermediate contrast is disappearing)
[be] "mouth"   [be˞] "bangle"   [be˞ ˞] "crop"
[kaːsu] "coin"   [ka˞ ːsu] "spread out"   [ka˞ ˞ ːsu] "remove"

Pharyngealised Vowels

For some examples of pharyngealised vowels see the topic "Pharyngealisation".