Vowel Power

This post was from a Write Start session taught by Kimberlee Conway Ireton at our February 1, 2010 meeting.

We all know that words are made up of letters. But I think we sometimes forget that they’re also made up of sounds. In this post I’m going to focus on vowel sounds, because vowels carry the energy of the word and therefore of the sentence.

In English there are five vowels, right? A, e, i, o, and u.

Well, yes and no. There are five vowel letters. But in most English dialects there are 15 distinct vowel sounds. They can be grouped into three categories:

High Energy Vowels

  • long e (as in tree)
  • short i (as in sit)
  • long a (as in say)

These are high sounds, spoken in the top of the mouth, with the face pulled taut. Try it. Say those sounds. Feel where they are in your mouth, what your face does as you say them. Feel their energy.

Midrange Vowels

  • long i (as in glide)
  • short e (pen)
  • short a (cat)
  • oi (toy)
  • ow (cow)

These sounds are spoken in the middle of the mouth, with the face more relaxed. Go ahead. Say them. Feel where they are in your mouth, how your face relaxes as you go down that list.

Low Energy Vowels

  • short o (cop)
  • short u (but)
  • long o (bone)
  • short oo (book)
  • long oo (tooth)
  • long u (cute)

These are low sounds, spoken in the bottom of the mouth with the face relaxed. One more time. Say them. Feel them in your mouth, your face.

Okay, so this is all very interesting (all right, so it’s only interesting if you’re a total word nerd like me, but I’ll assume if you’re reading this that you, in fact, are), but who cares? How does it affect one’s writing?

Let’s look at how knowing about vowel sounds and their effects on our physiology (and thus our psychology) can make our writing stronger. Here’s the first sentence of chapter four of my novel:

The autumn I was seventeen, the nightmares were particularly frequent.

This sentence starts off an intense chapter, in which the narrator is nearly scared out of her mind—but though the sentence tells us a few things (the narrator’s age, the time of year, and that she’s suffering from bad dreams), it’s not, ahem, particularly compelling.

So I decided to use these vowel sounds to revise it. I wanted to use as many high energy vowels as I could. Right away that got rid of every word but seventeen and frequent.

Now, the most important word in the sentence is nightmare, but it doesn’t have any high-energy vowel sounds. The only synonym I could think of was dream—and while the long e sound contributes high energy, dream doesn’t have the same connotations as nightmare. To use dream, I needed a strong verb that would make clear what kind of dreams these are. I came up with plagued (long a!).

Then I toyed with the rest of the sentence, trying to give it a few more high-energy sounds (there are a total of seven; eight if you pronounce the autumn as thee autumn). The revised version reads:

In the autumn of my eighteenth year, the dreams plagued me.

How’s that for a whole lot stronger? And all I did was tinker with the vowel sounds! (Some of you will object that I also changed from a passive being verb to an active verb, and that’s why the sentence is stronger. You’re right. That verb plagued makes a huge difference, but when I set out to revise this, I wasn’t thinking, I need a stronger verb. I was just fiddling around with the sounds, and the strong verb followed.)

The rest of that paragraph originally read:

A weight of foreboding lay on me all the fall, until finally, on the night of the winter solstice, I stood at the top of the stairs that led down into the cave and stared into the dark hole. My heart beat against my chest like a woodpecker. I took a deep breath and clutched the torch and Martha’s cross tightly in my hands. Then I began my descent.

I decided to keep going with the high energy vowels (I also wanted to add more sibilant consonants—s, z, j and soft g, th, sh, zh, ch, f, v, x—to add a sense of eeriness to the passage), and the revised version reads thus:

Finally, on the night of the winter solstice, I stood at the top of the stairs that led down into the cave and stared into the dark. My heart beat against my ribs. Breathe, I told myself and inhaled deeply. The taste of stale cave air wicked across my tongue. I clutched the torch and Martha’s cross tightly in my hands. Then I began my descent.

This version certainly has more energy than the original. But it’s also more vivid with sensory details. I didn’t set out to do that; it just sort of happened as I tried to think of words that had high energy vowels and/or sibilant consonants. I find that’s one of the joys of working with sound: it almost forces your writing to be stronger and more vivid!

Here’s one more example of the way that sounds reinforce meaning. Think of the classic bedtime story Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. The title alone contains two of the lowest energy vowels, and if you read the book, you’ll discover that fully half of the vowel sounds are low energy and less than a fifth are high energy. This is not a coincidence. The very sounds of the words reinforce the story, lulling us quietly into slumber.

If you’d like to read more about how sound can reinforce meaning, check out the following posts on my blog:

Phonics 101: Consonants (Part 1)

Phonics 101: Consonants (Part 2)

Phonics 101: The Shining Company

Finally, I must give a special thanks to Darcy Pattison who first introduced me to the idea of vowel energy.

Kimberlee Conway Ireton is the author of  THE CIRCLE OF SEASONS: MEETING GOD IN THE CHURCH YEAR (InterVarsity, 2008). She is also an unashamed word nerd. Check out her web site at http://www.kimberleeconwayireton.net/.

This article was originally published on the Author Culture blog: http://authorculture.blogspot.com/.

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5 thoughts on “Vowel Power

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Vowel Power « Northwest Christian Writers Association -- Topsy.com

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