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PETER TRUDGILL: Very valuable varying vowels

The Parthenon, at The Acropolis in Greece. Peter Trudgill says we have the Ancient Greek language to thank for almost all our misfortunes. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

When it comes to this aspect of language, it’s not as straightforward as a, e, i, o, u, says PETER TRUDGILL

If you ask English-speaking people how many vowels there are in their language, many of them will tell you that there are five: a, e, i, o and u. If you ask Greek speakers the same question, many of them will reply that they have seven vowels. They will say these are the vowels called alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, omega and upsilon: A, E, H, I, O, ?, Y

Both these answers are wrong. It is true that there are seven letters representing vowels in the Greek alphabet, but the Modern Greek language itself has only five vowel sounds. For English, the number of vowel sounds is much higher than that but depends on what sort of accent people speak with.

Some of us were told at school that English has five vowels, but our teachers were thinking of letters, not sounds. In fact, they were even wrong about the number of letters, because there are actually six of those: the letter y in words like city and tryst also stands for a vowel.

Most people with accents from the south east of England have 19 different vowel sounds in their spoken English. These are the different vowels in words such as pit, pet, pat, put, putt, pot, bee, bay, buy, boy, boot, boat, bout, peer, pair, purr, par, and paw, plus the vowel in the first syllable of about.

In contrast, many Scottish speakers have only 14 vowels. But, regardless of accent, one of the great issues facing the English spelling system has been the problem of having to use a small number of vowel letters to represent a much larger inventory of vowel sounds.

Languages vary a great deal in terms of their inventories of vowels. Like English, the other Germanic languages also tend to utilise a large number of vowel sounds, something like 26 in the case of Faroese, 22 in Norwegian, 21 in Dutch, and 18 in German. Polish uses only eight, and Spanish five.

Finnish has eight vowels, but the Finns cleverly represent each vowel with a different letter: in addition to a, e, i, o, u, they also use æ, ö, and y, where y denotes a sound close to German ü or French u.

Vowel systems can also change a great deal over time: Ancient Greek used to have 22 vowels, while Modern Greek, as we saw, has only five.

Languages differ too in the number of consonant sounds their speakers use. Most varieties of English have 24 consonants, which we represent in our spelling system by means of the letters p, t, ch, k, b, d, j, g, m, n, ng, f, v, th (as in thigh), th (as in thy), s, z, sh, si (as in vision), h, w, l, r, and y (as in young). Lithuanian has 29 consonants and Polish has as many as 31. Modern Greek has only 15 consonants.

The total number of speech sounds that languages possess differs enormously around the world. Taking vowels and consonants together, the now-extinct Caucasian language Ubykh had about 86 different sounds. According to some linguists, Lithuanian has 57. Some forms of Scottish Gaelic have 52.

In my accent of English, I have 43. Polish has 39 vowels and consonants; Spanish has a total of 22; Finnish 21; and Greek 20.

Looking outside Europe, the Polynesian language Hawaiian uses only 13 sounds (eight consonants and five vowels), while one of the San languages of southern Africa has an amazing inventory of about 100 different sounds.

None of this seems to matter in terms of what languages can and can’t do. But it does appear that languages with fewer speech sounds may tend to have longer words than languages with larger inventories.

Modern Greek words are on average about 50% longer than English words: the Greek word for ‘use’ is chrisimopoió.