In phonology, tenseness is a particular vowel quality that is phonemically contrastive in many languages, including English, in which the tongue is positioned close to the roof of the mouth. It has also occasionally been used to describe contrasts in consonants. Unlike most distinctive features, the feature [tense] can be interpreted only relatively, that is, in a language like English that contrasts [i] (e.g. beat) and [ɪ] (e.g. bit), the former can be described as a tense vowel while the latter is a lax vowel. Another example is Vietnamese, where the letters ă and â represent lax vowels, and the letters a and ơ the corresponding tense vowels. Some languages like Spanish are often considered as having only tense vowels, but since the quality of tenseness is not a phonemic feature in this language, it cannot be applied to describe its vowels in any meaningful way.
In general, tense vowels are more close (and correspondingly have lower first formants) than their lax counterparts. Tense vowels are sometimes claimed to be articulated with a more advanced tongue root than lax vowels, but this varies, and in some languages it is the lax vowels that are more advanced, or a single language may be inconsistent between front and back or high and mid vowels (Ladefoged and Maddieson 1996, 302–4). The traditional definition, that tense vowels are produced with more "muscular tension" than lax vowels, has not been confirmed by phonetic experiments. Another hypothesis is that lax vowels are more centralized than tense vowels. There are also linguists (Lass 1976, 1-39) who believe that there is no phonetic correlation to the tense–lax opposition.
In many Germanic languages, such as RP English, standard German, and Dutch, tense vowels are longer in duration than lax vowels; but in other languages, such as Scots, Scottish English, and Icelandic, there is no such correlation.
In Germanic languages, lax vowels generally occur only in closed syllables and so are also called checked vowels, whereas the tense vowels are called free vowels as they can occur even at the end of a syllable.
Occasionally, tenseness has been used to distinguish pairs of contrasting consonants in languages. Korean, for example, has a three-way contrast among stops and affricates; the three series are often transcribed as [p t tɕ k] - [pʰ tʰ tɕʰ kʰ] - [p͈ t͈ tɕ͈ k͈]. The contrast between the [p] series and the [p͈] series is sometimes said to be a function of tenseness: the former are lax and the latter tense. In this case the definition of "tense" would have to include greater glottal tension; see Korean phonology.
In some dialects of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, contrasts are found between [l, lʲ, n, nʲ] on the one hand and [ɫˑ, ʎˑ, nˠˑ, ɲˑ] on the other hand. Here again the former set have sometimes been described as lax and the latter set as tense. It is not clear what phonetic characteristics other than greater duration would be associated with tenseness in this case.
Some researchers have argued that the contrast in German traditionally described as voice ([p t k] vs. [b d ɡ]) is in fact better analyzed as tenseness, since the latter set is voiceless in Southern German. German linguists call the distinction fortis and lenis rather than tense and lax. Tenseness is especially used to explain stop consonants of the Alemannic German dialects because they have two series of them that are identically voiceless and unaspirated. However, it is debated whether the distinction is really a result of different muscular tension, and not of gemination.
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- Giegerich, Heinz J. (1992). English Phonology: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33603-1.
- Jessen, Michael (1998). Phonetics and Phonology of Tense and Lax Obstruents in German. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 90-272-1553-7.
- Kim, Nam-Kil (1987). "Korean". In Bernard Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages. Oxford University Press. pp. 881–98. ISBN 0-415-60902-X.
- Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8.
- Lass, Roger (1976). English Phonology and Phonological Theory. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-21039-9.
- Ó Siadhail, Mícheál (1989). Modern Irish: Grammatical Structure and Dialectal Variation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42519-0.