Relishing Vowel Length

To Relish, the verb, means ” To take pleasure or delight in; to enjoy greatly,” and ” To give flavour or relish to; to make appetizing. Also fig.” or so the OED tells us.  So when I encourage an actor to relish the language, I’m not so much suggesting she add something to the language so much as to take pleasure it what’s already there, and to make that quality of the language “appetizing” to themselves. If they enjoy the nature of the language, then we too will enjoy it.

Vowels in English can be categorized in many ways, but one way that they can be broken down is by so-called vowel tenseness. Wikipedia tells us that this distinctive feature contrasts vowels like the “EE” sound in beat  [i] vs. the “ih” sound in “bit” [ɪ], where the former “EE” [i] is tense while the “ih” [ɪ] is lax. While some interpreters of this language associate it with being about how much muscular effort is taken to make the two vowels (as words with the vowel in beat are closer than the vowel in bit, this makes sense in this case), it isn’t always the case in all accents of English. Another way to consider this has to do with whether the vowels might be categorized as free or checked. Free vowels can occur in syllables with nothing after them. So the free vowel in beat can be in words like bee/be while the checked vowel in bit can’t be in a word without a final consonant—it must have a something following it (as in pit, pip, pick, pig, etc.). There is no word that is “pih”.

A third way of categorizing these vowels has to do with their potential for length as we speak them. In emphasized syllables in English, free vowels tend to be longer than checked ones, depending on environment. So beat tends to be longer than bit, though some accents emphasize this potential more than others;  Received Pronunciation (aka Standard British to many North Americans) is more likely to accentuate this contrast than General American would. This leads to a contrast that some people merely call long and short vowels, though it can be argued that long vowels can be said equally short, and, in a pinch, we seem to be able to lengthen any short vowel out as a form of exaggeration. I can easily recall someone saying my first name, whose two vowels should both technically be considered short, as Eeeer-iiiiic.

Learning to identify these tense/free/long vowels vs. the lax/checked/short vowels isn’t that hard, really. We’re greatly aided in that there are only 6 English vowels that are in the second category:

/ɪ/ as in bit, Lexical Set kit
/ɛ/ as in bet, Lexical Set dress
/æ/ as in bat, Lexical Set trap
/ʊ/ as in put, Lexical Set foot
/ʌ/ as in putt, Lexical Set strut
/ɒ/ as in pot, Lexical Set lot/cloth

 That gives us the long vowels as

/iː/ as in bee, Lexical Set fleece
/uː/ as in boo, Lexical Set goose
/ɔː/ as in paw, Lexical Set thought
/ɑː/ as in bra, Lexical Set palm
/ɝː/ as in burr, Lexical Set nurse
/eɪ/ as in bay, Lexical Set face
/aɪ/ as in buy, Lexical Set price
/ɔɪ/ as in boy, Lexical Set choice
/oʊ/ as in toe, no, Lexical Set goat
/aʊ/ as in bough, Lexical Set mouth
/ɪɚ/ as in beer, Lexical Set near
/ɛɚ/ as in bear/bare, Lexical Set square
/ʊɚ/ as in boor, Lexical Set cure
/ɔɚ/ as in bore/boar, Lexical Set north/force
/ɑɚ/ as in bar, Lexical Set start

Unstressed vowels, such as those in the Lexical sets happy, comma, and letter, [ɨ, ə, ɚ], cannot be emphasized, and as such, don’t have the potential for length.

You also should be aware that, if there is a consonant following these vowels, they have a tendency to shorten the vowel somewhat. Voiceless consonants shorten vowels the most, while voiced consonants only shorten them a little. Continuant consonants shorten vowels less than stop-plosives do. So from longest to shortest, we might have Bee, beam, bees, beef, bead, beat.” The ones that really deserve to be relished are the ones that are followed by voiced consonants or nothing.

Now, for a little application. Relishing the potential for length in long vowels means you have to spot them.  So here’s a bit of Shakespeare’s The Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, with the long vowels emboldened, and the short vowels emphasized with italics. (Emphasized long vowels that are followed by voiceless consonants I’ve left unmarked, so don’t be confused by that.)

Fathers’ Ghost. I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear.
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus’d. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Nowwears his crown.

Try the remainder of the speech without my hints. Take your time, and try to figure out which syllables have that potential for length, and which do not. I think you’ll really feel the shortness of the checked vowels in the first few lines: incestuous, adulterate, witchcraft, wit, gifts, wicked,  Also, as you relish, remember to notice the meter of the text, so that you’re not trying to emphasize words that don’t fall within its pattern.

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts—
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!—won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there,
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine!
But virtue, as it never will be mov’d,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link’d,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage.
But soft! methinks I scent the morning air.
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark’d about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother’s hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch’d;
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous’led, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.

Eric Armstrong is the voiceguy. Eric is a dialect, voice, speech and text coach based in Toronto, Canada, where he normally teaches full-time at York University’s Dept. of Theatre. Eric has been teaching voice for the actor full-time since 1994, and has taught in Canada and the US, at the University of Windsor, Brandeis University, Roosevelt University, Canada's National Voice Intensive and York University. He has worked for nationally and internationally recognized companies such as Crow’s Theatre, Volcano, SoulPepper, & Canadian Stage in Toronto, and The Court Theatre and Steppenwolf in Chicago. Eric holds a BFA from Concordia University (Montreal) in Theatre Performance, and an MFA from York University (Toronto) in Acting. His mentors were David Smukler (York, Canada’s National Voice Intensive) and Andrew Wade (Royal Shakespeare Company). He has also studied at the Drama Studio, London, and Il Stage Internazzionale di Commedia dell’Arte in Reggio Emilia, Italy. He’s a long time member of the Voice and Speech Trainers Association, where he has served on the board, as a conference planner, photo editor for the Voice and Speech Review, Founding Director of Technology and Internet Services, and has written numerous peer-reviewed articles, essays and reviews for the VASTA Newsletter, the VASTA Voice, and The Voice and Speech Review.

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2 Comments on “Relishing Vowel Length

  1. I love the idea of Relishing! It helps address the underlying fear I believe we all have of being truly heard, which is what happens when we give the vowels a full, richly varied value.

  2. It’s like savouring the words, or the substance of the words—I imagine a gourmet tasting all the subtle flavours in a fabulous dish, or an oenophile describing the “notes” in a great wine. But you’re making the wine as you taste it in this case. Delishy-ous!