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A front vowel is a particular type of sound used for certain vowels. It gets its name because the tongue is held in front of the mouth, but does not cause a narrowing of the vocal tract. If such a constriction occurs, this creates a consonant sound, not a vowel sound. There are nine front vowel sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet, although only five are used in the English language.
To make a front vowel sound, the tongue moves forward in the mouth, but the tip stays low, even with the lower front teeth. Different vowel sounds are made, in part, by varying the arch of the tongue; this creates three types vowels: high, high-mid to low-mid, and low. Front vowels can be contrasted with back vowels, which are made with the tongue placed as far back in the mouth as possible.
The highest front vowel, meaning the tongue is most arched toward the gum line, is the long "e." There are 23 different spellings of the long "e" sound in English, and it can be found in words like eat, debris, and people. As the highest and most fronted of vowels, the long "e" is rarely said incorrectly, and occurs early in the speech of children.
The short "i" sound is also considered a high front vowel. Words like ship, it, and hit all use this vowel sound. In English, there are 33 different spellings for this sound. The tongue is not as high in the mouth as it is with the long "e," so it is often more difficult for children and non-native speakers to master the short "i" sound.
The long "a" front vowel is considered to be in the high-mid category. Examples of this high-mid vowel include ate, paper, and tray. There are 36 different spellings of this vowel in English, but the most common is the letter "a." Speakers tend to have few problems with this sound because of the position of the tongue.
In the low-mid front vowel range is the short "e" sound that is used in words like bed, head, and get. The common spelling is the letter "e," but it has 19 different English spellings. This vowel is influenced by dialect and is often a problem for non-native speakers.
The last sound considered to be in the front vowel category in English is the short "a" sound. Some examples are at, laugh, and plaid. The most common spelling is "a," but it does have 13 different variations in English. The short "a" is considered a low vowel because the tongue is not arched and the mouth opens wider for this sound. This is the vowel most commonly pronounced incorrectly by children and is not a common sound in many world languages.
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