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Department of Linguistics


Types of Vowel Systems

Robert Mannell

This topic illustrates a number of possible types of vowel systems with examples from various languages. The vowel symbols used do not necessarily represent the exact pronunciation of the vowels of each of the sample languages but are intended to illustrate the types of vowel patterns that can be found.

The systems are built up from a number of vowel features. All vowel systems have at least two height and two fronting contrasts. Further contrasts are built up from the features length (also known as lax/tense), nasality, and lip rounding. Some extra, less common, features that define vowel systems also exist and will be dealt with elsewhere.

In the following examples only monophthongs will be examined since the more complex diphthongs are difficult to categorise in terms of their place of articulation (having a separate place of articulation for each target).

The examples are mostly from Lass, (1984, pp139-146).

HIGH-LOW Systems

Languages with minimal vowel systems typically have three vowel phonemes: one high front, one high back, and one low vowel with no length contrast.

In other words there is a maximum dispersal of vowel quality towards the far corners of the vowel space.

Length contrast.

Some languages are based on this basic system but have in addition the added dimension of vowel length.


No length contrast.

Length contrast.

Note that this table for Australian English does not imply that there are intermediate levels between mid and either high or low. The intermediate positions for /oː/ and /ɔ/ merely indicate indecision about whether to make /oː/ mid or high and whether to make /ɔ/ mid or low.

Nasal and Length Contrast.

Rounding contrast.


Rounding and Nasal contrast.

The upper limit is about 21 monophthong phonemes (eg. Swiss German and Alsatian German with length and rounding contrasts).


  1. Lass, R., 1984, Phonology: An introduction to basic concepts, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge