Languages differ widely in the size of their vowel inventories; however, cross‐linguistic surveys indicate that certain vowels and vowel system configurations are preferred. A cross‐linguistic comparison of the acoustic vowel categories of two languages that differ in vowel inventory size, namely, English and Spanish, was performed in order to reveal some of the language‐specific and/or universal principles that determine the acoustic realization of the vowels of these two languages. This comparison shows that the precise location in the acoustic space of similar vowel categories across the two languages is determined, in part, by a language‐specific base‐of‐articulation property. These data also suggest that the relatively crowded acoustic vowel space of English may be expanded with respect to the relatively uncrowded acoustic vowel space of Spanish; however, this effect is variable depending on the syllable context of the English vowels. Finally, the data indicate no difference in the tightness of within‐category clustering for the large versus the small vowel inventory.

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