In phonology, tenseness or tensing is the pronunciation of a vowel with narrower mouth width (often, with the tongue being raised) and usually with less centralization and longer duration compared with another vowel, thus causing a phonemic contrast between the two vowels. Contrast between vowels on the basis of tenseness is common in many languages, including English; for example, in most English dialects, [iː] (as in the word beet) is the tense counterpart to the lax /ɪ/ (as in bit), and /uː/ (as in kook) is the tense counterpart to the lax /ʊ/ (as in cook). The opposite quality of tenseness, in which a vowel is produced as relatively more widened (often lowered), centralized, and shortened is called laxness or laxing.
Unlike most distinctive features, the feature [tense] can be interpreted only relatively, often with a perception of greater tension or pressure in the mouth, which, in a language like English, contrasts between two corresponding vowel types: a tense vowel and a lax vowel. An example in Vietnamese is the letters ă and â representing lax vowels, and the letters a and ơ representing 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. The term has also occasionally been used to describe contrasts in consonants.
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; however, in Scots, Scottish English, and Icelandic, there is no such correlation.
Germanic languages have lax vowels generally only in closed syllables, where they are also called checked vowels. The tense vowels are called free vowels as they often 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 Ewe, /f/ and /v/ are articulated with a strong articulation, [f͈] and [v͈], to better distinguish them from weaker /ɸ/ and /β/.
In some dialects of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, there is a contrast between [l, lʲ, n, nʲ] and [ɫˑ, ʎˑ, nˠˑ, ɲˑ]. 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.
- Halle, Morris (1977). "Tenseness, Vowel Shift, and the Phonology of the Back Vowels in Modern English." Linguistic Inquiry 8.4. p. 611.