Vowel length

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IPA vowel length
◌ː ◌ˑ ◌̆
IPA number 503 or 504 or 505
Entity (decimal) ː​ˑ​̆
Unicode (hex) U+02D0 or U+02D1 or U+0306

In linguistics, vowel length is the perceived duration of a vowel sound. Often the chroneme, or the "longness", acts like a consonant, and may have arisen from one etymologically, such as in Australian English. While not distinctive in most other dialects of English, vowel length is an important phonemic factor in many other languages, for instance in Arabic, Finnish, Fijian, Kannada, Japanese, Old English, Scottish Gaelic and Vietnamese. It plays a phonetic role in the majority of dialects of British English and is said to be phonemic in a few other dialects, such as Australian English, South African English and New Zealand English. It also plays a lesser phonetic role in Cantonese, unlike other varieties of Chinese.

Many languages do not distinguish vowel length phonemically. Those that do usually distinguish between short vowels and long vowels. A very few languages distinguish three phonemic vowel lengths, such as Luiseño and Mixe. However, some languages with two vowel lengths also have words in which long vowels appear adjacent to other short or long vowels of the same type: Japanese hōō "phoenix" or Ancient Greek ἀάατος [a.áː.a.tos][1] "inviolable". Some languages that do not ordinarily have phonemic vowel length but permit vowel hiatus may similarly exhibit sequences of identical vowel phonemes that yield phonetically long vowels, such as Georgian გააადვილებ [ɡa.a.ad.vil.eb] "you will facilitate it".

Vowel length and related features

Stress is often reinforced by allophonic vowel length, especially when it is lexical. For example, French long vowels always occur on stressed syllables. Finnish, a language with two phonemic lengths, indicates the stress by adding allophonic length. This gives four distinctive lengths and five physical lengths: short and long stressed vowels, short and long unstressed vowels, and a half-long vowel, which is a short vowel found in a syllable immediately preceded by a stressed short vowel, e.g. i-so.

Among the languages that have distinctive vowel length, there are some where it may only occur in stressed syllables, e.g. in the Alemannic German dialect and Egyptian Arabic. In languages such as Czech, Finnish or Classical Latin, vowel length is distinctive in unstressed syllables as well.

In some languages, vowel length is sometimes better analyzed as a sequence of two identical vowels. In Finnic languages, such as Finnish, the simplest example follows from consonant gradation: haka → haan. In some cases, it is caused by a following chroneme, which is etymologically a consonant, e.g. jää "ice" ← Proto-Uralic *jäŋe. In non-initial syllables, it is ambiguous if long vowels are vowel clusters — poems written in the Kalevala meter often syllabicate between the vowels, and an (etymologically original) intervocalic -h- is seen in this and some modern dialects (e.g. taivaan vs. taivahan "of the sky"). Morphological treatment of diphthongs is essentially similar to long vowels. Interestingly, some old Finnish long vowels have developed into diphthongs, but successive layers of borrowing have introduced the same long vowels again, such that the diphthong and the long vowel again contrast (e.g. nuotti "musical note" vs. nootti "diplomatic note").

In Japanese, most long vowels are the results of the phonetic change of diphthongs; au and ou became ō, iu became , eu became , and now ei is becoming ē. The change also occurred after the loss of intervocalic phoneme /h/. For example, modern Kyōto (Kyoto) exhibits the following change: /kjauto/ → /kjoːto/. Another example is shōnen (boy): /seuneɴ/ → /sjoːneɴ/ [ɕoːneɴ].

Phonemic vowel length

Many languages make a phonemic distinction between long and short vowels: Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese, Hebrew, Finnish, Hungarian, Kannada, etc.

Consider, for instance, the following example of minimal pairs in Italian:

Italian IPA Quality Etymology English
sentì /senˈti*/ short < lat. sentīre "(s)he felt/heard"
sentii /senˈtiː/ long < lat. sentīre "I felt/heard"

Long vowels may or may not be analyzed as separate phonemes. In Latin and Hungarian, long vowels are analyzed as separate phonemes from short vowels, which doubles the number of vowel phonemes.

Latin vowels
  Front Central Back
short long short long short long
High /ɪ/ /iː/   /ʊ/ /uː/
Mid /ɛ/ /eː/   /ɔ/ /oː/
Low   /a/ /aː/  

Vowel length contrasts with more than two phonemic levels are rare, and several hypothesized cases of three-level vowel length can be analysed without postulating this typologically unusual configuration.[2] Estonian has three distinctive lengths, but the third is suprasegmental, as it has developed from the allophonic variation caused by now-deleted grammatical markers. For example, half-long 'aa' in saada comes from the agglutination *saata+ka "send+(imperative)", and the overlong 'aa' in saada comes from *saa+ta "get+(infinitive)". As for languages that have three lengths, independent of vowel quality or syllable structure, these include Dinka, Mixe, Yavapai and Wichita. An example from Mixe is [poʃ] "guava", [poˑʃ] "spider", [poːʃ] "knot". In Dinka the longest vowels are three moras long, and so are best analyzed as overlong /oːː/ etc.

Four-way distinctions have been claimed, but these are actually long-short distinctions on adjacent syllables.[citation needed] For example, in kiKamba, there is [ko.ko.na], [kóó.ma̋], [ko.óma̋], [nétónubáné.éetɛ̂] "hit", "dry", "bite", "we have chosen for everyone and are still choosing".

Short and long vowels in English

Allophonic vowel length

In most dialects of the English language, for instance British Received Pronunciation and General American, there is complementary allophonic vowel length. Vowel phonemes are realized as longer vowel allophones before voiced consonant phonemes in the coda of a syllable, meaning vowels are lengthened before a voiced consonant. For example, the vowel phoneme /æ/ in /ˈbæt/ ‘bat’ is realized as a short allophone [æ] in [ˈbæt], because the /t/ phoneme is voiceless, while the same vowel /æ/ phoneme in /ˈbæd/ ‘bad’ is realized as a slightly long allophone (which could be transcribed as [ˈbæˑd]), because /d/ is voiced.

Symbolic representation of the two allophonic rules:

/æ/ [æˑ] | _ [ +consonant ]
/ˈbæd/ [ˈbæˑd]
/æ/ [æ] | _ [ +consonant ]
/ˈbæt/ [ˈbæt]

In addition, the vowels of Received Pronunciation are commonly divided into short and long, as obvious from their transcription. The short vowels are /ɪ/ (as in kit), /ʊ/ (as in foot), /ɛ/ (as in dress), /ʌ/ (as in strut), /æ/ (as in trap), /ɒ/ (as in lot), and /ə/ (as in the first syllable of ago and in the second of sofa). The long vowels are /iː/ (as in fleece), /uː/ (as in goose), /ɜː/ (as in nurse), /ɔː/ as in north and thought, and /ɑː/ (as in father and start). While a different degree of length is indeed present, there are also differences in the quality (lax vs tense) of these vowels, and the currently prevalent view tends to emphasise the latter rather than the former.

Contrastive vowel length

In Australian English, there is contrastive vowel length in closed syllables between long and short /e æ a/ and sometimes /ɪ/. The following can be minimal pairs of length for many speakers:

[bɪd] bid vs [bɪːd][citation needed] beard
[feɹi] ferry vs [feːɹi] fairy
[mænɪŋ] Manning the last name vs [mæːnɪŋ] manning

Traditional long and short vowels in English orthography

English vowels are sometimes split into "long" and "short" vowels along lines different from the linguistic differentiation. Traditionally, the vowels /eɪ iː aɪ oʊ juː/ (as in bait beat bite boat bute) are said to be the "long" counterparts of the vowels /æ ɛ ɪ ɒ ʌ/ (as in bat bet bit bot but) which are said to be "short". This terminology reflects their pronunciation before the Great Vowel Shift.

However, the use of the terms "long" and "short" in describing these vowel values is actually linguistically incorrect, as the letters in these words, although the same letter may be used, actually represent different vowels, that is, they are pronounced in spoken English as different vowels.

Traditional English phonics teaching, at the preschool to first grade level, often used the term "long vowel" for any pronunciation that might result from the addition of a silent E (e.g., like) or other vowel letter as follows:

Letter "Short" "Long" Example
A a /æ/ /eɪ/ mat / mate
E e /ɛ/ /iː/ pet / Pete
I i /ɪ/ /aɪ/ twin / twine
O o /ɒ/ /oʊ/ not / note
U u /ʌ/ /juː/ cub / cube

A mnemonic was that each vowel's long sound was its name. However, it is important to remember that the "a" in the word "mat" represents a different vowel sound than the "a" in "mate," it is not a long or short version of the same vowel sound. In this case, the terms "long" and "short" are incorrectly used to describe these vowel values.

In Middle English, the long vowels /iː, eː, ɛː, aː, ɔː, oː, uː/ were generally written i..e, e..e, ea, a..e, o..e, oo, u..e. With the Great Vowel Shift, they came to be pronounced /aɪ, iː, iː, eɪ, oʊ, uː, aʊ/. Because ea and oo are digraphs, they are not called long vowels today. Under French influence, the letter u was replaced with ou (or final ow), so it is no longer considered a long vowel either. Thus the so-called "long vowels" of Modern English are those vowels written with the help of a silent e.


Vowel length may often be traced to assimilation. In Australian English, the second element [ə] of a diphthong [eə] has assimilated to the preceding vowel, giving the pronunciation of bared as [beːd], creating a contrast with the short vowel in bed [bed].

Another common source is the vocalization of a consonant such as the voiced velar fricative [ɣ] or voiced palatal fricative, e.g. Finnish illative case, or even an approximant, as the English 'r'. A historically important example of this is the laryngeal theory, according to which many long vowels in the Indo-European languages were formed from short vowels followed by any one of several "laryngeal" sounds of Proto-Indo-European (conventionally written h1, h2 and h3). When a laryngeal followed a vowel, it was later lost in most Indo-European languages, and the preceding vowel became long. However, Proto-Indo-European possessed long vowels of other origin as well, usually as the result of older sound changes such as Szemerényi's law and Stang's law.

Vowel length may also have arisen as an allophonic quality of a single vowel phoneme, which may have then become split in two phonemes. For example, the Australian English phoneme /æː/ was created by the incomplete application of a rule extending /æ/ before certain voiced consonants, a phenomenon known as the bad–lad split. An alternative pathway to the phonemicization of allophonic vowel length is the shift of a vowel of a formerly different quality to become the short counterpart of a vowel pair; this is also exemplified by Australian English, where the contrast between /a/ (as in duck) and /aː/ (as in dark) was brought about by a lowering of earlier /ʌ/.

Estonian, of Finnic languages, exhibits a rare[citation needed] phenomenon, where allophonic length variation has become phonemic following the deletion of the suffixes causing the allophony. Estonian had already inherited two vowel lengths from Proto-Finnic, but a third one has been introduced by this phenomenon. For example, the Finnic imperative marker *-k caused the preceding vowels to be articulated shorter, and following the deletion of the marker, the allophonic length became phonemic, as shown in the example above.

Notations in the Latin alphabet


In the International Phonetic Alphabet the sign ː (not a colon, but two triangles facing each other in an hourglass shape; Unicode U+02D0) is used for both vowel and consonant length. This may be doubled for an extra-long sound, or the top half (ˑ) used to indicate a sound is "half long". A breve is used to mark an extra-short vowel or consonant.

Estonian has a three-way phonemic contrast:

saada [saːːda] "to get" (overlong)
saada [saːda] "send!" (long)
sada [sada] "hundred" (short)

Although not phonemic, the distinction can also be illustrated in certain accents of English:

bead [biːd]
beat [biˑt]
bid [bɪˑd]
bit [bɪt]


Additional letters

  • Vowel doubling, used consistently in Estonian, Finnish, Somali, Lombard and in closed syllables in Dutch. Example: Finnish tuuli /ˈtuːli/ 'wind' vs. tuli /ˈtuli/ 'fire'.
    • Estonian also has a rare "overlong" vowel length, but does not distinguish this from the normal long vowel in writing; see the example below.
  • Consonant doubling after short vowels is very common in Swedish and other Germanic languages, including English. The system is somewhat inconsistent, especially in loanwords, around consonant clusters and with word-final nasal consonants. Examples:
Consistent use: byta /ˈbyːta/ 'to change' vs bytta /ˈbytːa/ 'tub' and koma /ˈkoːma/ 'coma' vs komma /ˈkomaː/ 'to come'
Inconsistent use: fält /ˈfɛlt/ 'a field' and kam /ˈkam/ 'a comb' (but the verb 'to comb' is kamma)
  • Classical Milanese orthography uses consonant doubling in closed short syllables, e.g., lenguagg 'language' and pubblegh 'public'.[4]
  • ie is used to mark the long /iː/ sound in German. This is due to the preservation and generalization of a historical ie spelling that originally represented the sound /iə̯/. In northern German, a following e letter lengthens other vowels as well, e.g., in the name Kues /kuːs/.
  • A following h is frequently used in German and older Swedish spelling, e.g., German Zahn [tsaːn] 'tooth'.
  • In Czech, the additional letter ů is used for the long U sound, where the character is known as a kroužek, e.g., kůň "horse". (This actually developed from the ligature "uo", which signified the diphthong /uo/, which later shifted to /uː/.)

Other signs

  • Apostrophe, used in Mi'kmaq, as evidenced by the name itself. This is the convention of the Listuguj orthography (Mi'gmaq), and a common substitution for the official acute accent (Míkmaq) of the Francis-Smith orthography.
  • Colon, commonly used as an approximation of the IPA phonetic transcription, and in a few orthographies based on the IPA.
  • Interpunct, commonly used in non-IPA phonetic transcription, such as the Americanist system developed by linguists for transcribing the indigenous languages of the Americas. Example: Americanist [tʰo·] = IPA [tʰoː].

No distinction

Some languages make no distinction in writing. This is particularly the case with ancient languages such as Latin and Old English. Modern edited texts often use macrons with long vowels, however. Australian English does not distinguish the vowels /æ/ from /æː/ in spelling, with words like ‘span’ or ‘can’ having different pronunciations depending on meaning.

Notations in other writing systems

In non-Latin writing systems, a variety of mechanisms have also evolved.

  • In abjads derived from the Aramaic alphabet, notably Arabic and Hebrew, long vowels are written with consonant letters (mostly approximant consonant letters) in a process called mater lectionis, while short vowels are typically omitted entirely. Most of these scripts also have optional diacritics that can be used to mark short vowels when needed.
  • In South-Asian abugidas, such as Devanagari or the Thai alphabet, there are different vowel signs for short and long vowels.
  • Ancient Greek also had distinct vowel signs, but only for some long vowels; the vowel letters η (eta) and ω (omega) originally represented long forms of the vowels represented by the letters ε (epsilon, literally "bare e") and ο (omicron – literally "small o", by contrast with omega or "large o"). The other vowel letters of Ancient Greek, α (alpha), ι (iota) and υ (upsilon), could represent either short or long vowel phones.
  • In the Japanese hiragana syllabary, long vowels are usually indicated by adding a vowel character after. For vowels /aː/, /iː/, and /uː/, the corresponding independent vowel is added. Thus: (a), おかあさん, "okaasan", mother; (i), にいがた "Niigata", city in northern Japan (usually 新潟, in kanji); (u), りゅう "ryuu" (usu. ), dragon. The mid-vowels /eː/ and /oː/ may be written with (e) (rare) (ねえさん (姉さん), neesan, "elder sister") and (o) [おおきい (usu 大きい), ookii, big], or with (i) (めいれい (命令), "meirei", command/order) and (u) (おうさま (王様), ousama, "king") depending on etymological, morphological, and historic grounds.
    • Most long vowels in the katakana syllabary are written with a special bar symbol (vertical in vertical writing), called a chōon, as in メーカー mēkā "maker" instead of メカ meka "mecha". However, some long vowels are written with additional vowel characters, as with hiragana, with the distinction being orthographically significant.
  • In the Korean Hangul alphabet, vowel length is not distinguished in normal writing. Some dictionaries use a double dot, ⟨:⟩, for example 무:Daikon radish”.
  • In the Classic Maya script, also based on syllabic characters, long vowels in monosyllabic roots were generally written with word-final syllabic signs ending in the vowel -i rather than an echo-vowel. Hence, chaach "basket", with a long vowel, was written as cha-chi (compare chan "sky", with a short vowel, written as cha-na). If the nucleus of the syllable was itself i, however, the word-final vowel for indicating length was -a: tziik- "to count; to honour, to sanctify" was written as tzi-ka (compare sitz' "appetite", written as si-tz'i).


  1. ^ Liddell, H. G., and R. Scott (1996). A Greek-English Lexicon (revised 9th ed. with supplement). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p.1
  2. ^ Odden, David (2011). The Representation of Vowel Length. In Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume, & Keren Rice (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Phonology. Wiley-Blackwell, 465-490.
  3. ^ http://www.babel.gwi.uni-muenchen.de/media/downloads/grammar/NorthernMansi/Phonology/Northern-Mansi_Phonemes_unified.pdf
  4. ^ Carlo Porta on the Italian Wikisource


  • Some Features of the Vernacular Finnish of Jyväskylä
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