Contrastive Analysis of English and Arabic Vowels Introduction

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Contrastive Analysis of English and Arabic Vowels
Sounds are divided into consonants and vowels. A consonant is a speech sound which obstructs the flow of air through the vocal tract. A vowel is the class of sound which makes the least obstruction to the flow of air. Vowels are almost always found at the centre of a syllable, and it rare to find any sound other than a vowel which is able to stand alone as a whole syllable (Roach, 1992). Each vowel has a number of properties that distinguish it from other vowels. These include; the shape of the lips, which may be rounded, neutral, or spread. The second property is the position of the tongue, which could be front, middle, or back. Finally, the tongue may be raised giving different vowel qualities.

Vowels in English and Arabic have similarities and differences. They are different in number; English has more vowels than Arabic. They also differ in distribution; English words can begin with vowels, whereas Arabic words can only begin with consonants. Both languages have some common vowels, but at the same time, there are some vowels that are restricted to each one of them.

Contrary to English which has a larger vowel system containing about nine simple vowels and seven longer vowels, Arabic has only three short and three long vowels. (Kara, 1976).

This paper presents a contrastive analysis of English and Arabic vowels, showing the differences between them in production and use. It also discusses the difficulties that Arabs learning English face when learning English. The discussion will be based on the comparison between standard American English and standard Arabic.

The Arabic Vowels:

In (Bakalla, 1982), it was stated that the Arabic vowels are voiced and produced with no obstruction or constriction in the mouth. According to Ibn Jinni, who called the vowels huruf madd wa ?istitalah are rendered as the sounds of lengthening and prolongation and may be short (harakat) or long (huruf madd). This idea of prolongation points to the fact that Arabic vowels being produced without constriction in the mouth, may further be lengthened, i.e. held, as long as the breath allows, and, a glottal stop begins wherever the vowels end.

Long vowels are also called the sounds of softness. Ibn Jinni says:

When the point of articulation (maxraj-ul-harf) widens (i.e. the vocal tract is not restricted) so as to keep the sound ( i.e. the vowel) constantly enuciated and continued until it can no longer be prolonged, it will end by the articulation of the glottal stop (hamza). It will necessarily come to an end at this point… the sounds (huruf) which are produced with open stricture at the places of articulation are three; a, i, and u. However, a is more open (?awsa ) and softer (?alyan) than the others and for this reason it is auditorily different from both i and u, and vice versa.

In Arabic, a long vowel can be heard with further prolongation in three cases; if it is followed by a glottal stop (hamza), if it followed by a geminate (harf mushaddad), and if it is paused upon for the purpose of recollection. On the other hand, long vowels are given alphabetical names, whereas the corresponding short vowels are actually given names that suggest phonetic distinctive features, they are called case markers.

Ibn Jinni defines al harakat as the element which if occurs between two identical consonants it will prevent them from being doubled. He also states that short vowels are in par with consonants in that they are all regarded as elements of speech.

In (Abdul-Rauf, 1977), it was mentioned that as in English the full sound of consonant is achieved by the application of the vowel, but there are only three vowels in Arabic. One has the value of “a” in “bat”, or “u” in “but” another has the value of “i” in “fit”, and the third has the value of “u” in “put”, they are all short. These vowels are not represented by characters following the consonants; but are represented by signs written above or below the consonants.

One of the basic distinctions in Arabic sounds is that between short and long vowels that it may make the difference between: singular and plural; as in colloquial: gamal (s.) and gima:l (pl.) “camal”, in formal: musa:firun (s.) musa:firu:n (pl.) “traveler.” Vowels also indicate object and absence of object; as in katabu “they wrote” and katabu:h “they wrote it.” Finaly, they indicate one meaning and another as in; gamal “camel” and gama:l “beauty.” (Hanna and Greis, 1972).

Description of vowels in Arabic:

Arabic vowels are divided into long and short vowels. In the description of long vowels in (Saleh, __) it was explained that the letter ( ) called alif is a vertical line and represents the vowel a. this a is pronounced like “a” of “father” or “a” of “dad.” The letter ( ) is called waw and represents the vowel u. this u is pronounced like the vowel of “food.” The letter ( ) is called ya’ and represents the vowel i. this i is pronounced like the vowel of “deep.” The short vowels were also explained as follows; first, the diacritic ( __ ) written on the top of the consonant, stands for the vowel a and is pronounced like “a” of “hat.” Its usage indicates that such a consonant is followed by the vowel “a”. this diacritic is called in Arabic fathah ( ___), second, the marker (___) on the consonants stands for short “u” and indicates that such a consonant is followed by the vowel u. This u is pronounced as the vowel in “pull”. This marker is called in Arabic dammah (___), third, is the diacritic (___) written below the consonant, stands for short “i” and indicates that such a consonant is followed by the vowel i. this is pronounced like the vowel in “tin”. This marker is called in Arabic kasrah. Finally, it was mentioned that the absence of the vowel is indicated by a small circle over the consonant meaning that this consonant is not followed by any vowel sound. This marker is called in Arabic sukun.

According to (Prochazka, 1988), in a discussion of Saudi Arabian dialects, the vowels in Arabic are of two kinds: oral and nasal. Oral vowels are divided into simple vowels and diphthongs. Simple vowels are divided into long and short. On the other hand, dipthongs include “aw” and “ay” which occur in non-final positions. It was also mentioned that in all dialects dipthongs occur in final positions. The author also adds that some vowels may be nasalized in forms ending in –un and –un in those dialects.

In (Watson,2002) Arabic vowels were explained and it was mentioned that the major lexical contrasts in Arabic are indicated through the consonants. This is reflected in the Arabic script which is based on roots of consonants and glides, which inserts short vowels when necessary as diacritics above and below the consonant. Thus, Arabic was a very rich consonantal system and a relatively impoverished vocalic system.

Vowels in Standard American English:

In (Kurath, 1977), English vowels were described. They were explained as follows:

The vowel /I/ is a lax high-front monophthong. It does not occur finally or before vowels. It becomes stressed before all consonants, as in lip, bit, ditch. /I/ can be followed by clusters consisting of a resonant and an obstruent, as in limp, hint. It occurs in the final member of complex words, in prefixes and suffixes, and medially. Examples of such cases are the words biscuit, benefit, infinite.

The vowel /E/ is a lax front monophthong. It does not occur at the end of words and morphemes, or before vowels. /E/ appears before all consonants except /h, j, w/ as in step, pepper. It is rare before /z, z, ng/. Like other checked vowels, /E/ occurs before /s, m, n, l/ clusters, as in best and escort.

The vowel /ae/ is a raised low-front monophthong, usually short. Prolongation occurs in monosyllables, especially before voices consonants, as in sad, bag, and man. This phoneme does not occur at the end of words and morphemes or before vowels. /ae/ is found before all consonants, except /th, z, z, h, r, j, w/, as in lap, hat, latch. It also occurs before all medial consonants, except / ng, j, w/, as in dapper, batter, tackle. Finally and medially, /ae/ can be followed by clusters consisting of a resonant and an obstruent, as in lamp, hamper, and ant.

The vowel /a/ is current in most varieties of American English. It is an unrounded low-central vowel, often prolonged before voiced consonants, as in rob, nod, bother. It does not occur at the end of words and morphemes, or before vowels. it appears before all consonants except /h, j, w, z/, and rarely before /c, th, s, th/. Examples of the distribution of /a/ include; hop, proper, lock. /a/ also occurs before /m, n, l, r/ clusters, as in pomp, font, monster, and before /s/ clusters, as in hospital, mosque.

The phoneme / / is an unrouded mid-back vowel more or less lowered and fronted. It occurs before all consonants except / /h, z, j, w/ as in cup, supper, nut. It can be followed by clusters consisting of a resonant and a plosive, as in hunt, punch, bundle, and by clusters consisting of /s/ and a plosive as in lust, husk.

The vowel /U/ is a short rounded lowered high-back monophthong. It occurs before /d/ as in good and stood, and before /k/ as in book, look, and before /l/ as in bull. It is rare before /t, c, s, z/ as in foot, butcher, put. It occurs before bilabials, as in hoop, roof, room, and also before /n/, as in soon and spoon. /U/ does not occur before / g, v, th, th, ng/.

The vowel /O/ is slightly rounded mid-back vowel, always short and often ingliding. It contrasts with / /, as in stone = stun, whole = hull.

The free vowel /i/ is articulated either as upgliding [ ij] or as a monophthongal [i.] as in three. It occurs finally in words and morphemes as in see and pea, before a vowel within a morpheme as in peon and real, and before all consonants except /b, h, j, w, ng/ as in leap, beat, seek. The vowel /i/ is rare before /s, z, g/. It can be followed by clusters /ld/ and /st/ as in field and east.

The free mid-front vowel /e/ is an upgliding diphthong [eI EI], starting in mid-front position, close or open. It occurs at the end of words and morphemes, as in day, daily, play, and before all consonants except /ng, j, w, h/ as in tape, late, Asia, shame. It is rare before /c, s, z/. /e/ occurs also before the clusters /st, ng/ as in haste and range.

The free low-to-mid back vowel /c / has rather regional diaphones. It occurs at the end of words and morphemes as in draw, law, and before all consonants except / g, v, th/ as in caught, water, talk, sauce. It is rare before / p, b, c, z, m/. It appears before the clusters in launch, salt, false, soft, and following /w/ as in swamp and want.

The free vowel /o/ is most widely pronounced as an upgliding [ou] starting mid-back-close and rather well rounded. It occurs finally as in go, toe, and before vowels as in going and poet. It also occurs before all consonants except /ng, h, j, w/ as in hope, boat.

The free rounded high-back vowel /u/ is articulated either as a monophthongal [u.] or as an upgliding [uw], or after /j/ as in few, music. It occurs at the end of words and morphemes as in do, few, true, and before all consonants except /ng, j, w/ as in droop, mute. It is rare before / c, g, g, s, th/.

The unstressed free vowel / / occurs in checked as well as in free position. Appearing initially, medially, and finally, but not before vowels it is confined to unstressed syllables. Initially, / / occurs in arise, again, and account.

Contrastive Analysis and possible problems:

Some Arabic speakers perform oddly on a range of experimental tasks which involve word discrimination. All these tasks involve discriminating words with identical consonant patterns, but differing in their vowels. Some Arabic speakers, it seems, are conspicuoulsy inaccurate in handling vowels in English words, and are much more prone to make errors involving vowels than subjects of other L1 backgrounds.

One possible explanation for these effects is that Arabic speakers may transfer to English a set of psycholinguistic strategies that are more appropriately deployed in processing Arabic words. In Arabic, vowels are of secondary importance both in script and in word building, and the word recognition system depends heavily on the tri-consonantal roots which are the basis of most Arabic words. Word families in Arabic are made up of sets of words which all share a common set of three consonants, but vary in the way vowels are placed within this consonantal framework. Thus, katab he wrote, yiktib he writes, kaatib clerk, kitaab book, maktab office, maktaba library, etc, are all variations on a single tri-consonantal theme, K-T-B (Mitchell 1962). Such a writing system works well with Semitic languages, but creates problems for readers when they start learning a language which follows different structural rules. A system which encourages the reader to focus on the consonantal framework of a word does not allow sufficient discrimination between words when it is transferred to the lexical system of English, where consonants are not the only key signals for a reader. Thus r-d-r is an inadequate representation for 'reader', since this consonantal code is shared with several other unrelated words (raider, rider, rudder, ardour, ordure, order, redraw, etc...).

It was suggested that a substantial number of Arabic speaking learners of English may be using inappropriate word recognition strategies of this sort. Most Arabic learners will use a system of this sort in the early stages of learning English, although we do not have hard evidence to back this hunch up. Most learners, it seems, succeed in developing a word-handling system that is appropriate to English in the long run. However, a number of learners continue to have difficulties with English words, and continue to make confusions like "dismal numbers" for "decimal numbers". Indeed, some may never get past this problem (Ryan & Meara, 1996).

When teaching pronunciation to Arabic-speaking students, there is a difference in the comparative force of pronunciation of stressed and unstressed syllables in English and Arabic. In English there is a great difference in force: unstressed syllables can be pronounced very weakly; stressed syllables can be fully pronounced. In Arabic this difference is not nearly so extreme; unstressed syllables can have full vowels and be pronounced fairly clearly.

Sentence stress in Arabic is similar to that in English. Content words are usually stressed, and function words are usually unstressed. However, function words in Arabic do not have two forms. Vowels in words in an unstressed position keep their "full" value, unlike vowels in unstressed words in English, which are reduced to "schwa." (Wahba, 1998).


Vowels can be described in terms of three factors; the height of the body of the tongue, the front-back position of the tongue and the degree of lip rounding. It is very difficult to be aware of the position of the tongue in vowels, but it is possible to get an impression of the tongue height by observing the position of the jaw while saying the words ( Ladefoged, 1975).

Whereas the English vowels have their full place and independent existence in the English alphabet and constitute integral parts of the English words, the short vowels in Arabic are merely oral. Signs indicating these vowels on top of or below the consonants are used only in teaching texts for guiding learners and in important religious texts.


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Hanna, S. & Greis, N. 1972. Beginning Arabic a linguistic approach: from cultivated cairene to formal Arabic. Leiden: Netherlands.

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Kurath, H. 1977. A phonology and prosody of modern English. Michigan, USA: Michigan University Press.

Ladefoged, P. 1975. A course in phonetics. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Mitchell, T. 1962. Colloquial Arabic. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

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Watson, J.C.E. 2002. The phonology and morphology of Arabic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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