Monday, 21 September 2009

ən əˈnʌðə θɪŋ

Serkan Yanikoğlu asks
What is the difference between the vowel in the word "cup" and the first vowel in the first syllable of the word "about" in terms of phonetics? Why do they have to be shown in different symbols? Do they sound the same?
If we are referring to RP and the kind of pronunciation usually taught to EFL learners who take BrE as their model, then the vowel of cup (aka the STRUT vowel) is considerable more open than that in the first syllable of about (aka “schwa”). That is, it is more similar to Turkish [ɑ].
They are represented by different phonetic symbols, [ʌ] and [ə] respectively, because they sound different and, more importantly, because there are a few pairs of words or phrases in which the difference is important for the meaning. For example, unorthodoxy [ʌnˈɔːθədɒksi] sounds different from an orthodoxy [ənˈɔːθədɒksi]. A hubbub is always a [ˈhʌbʌb], never a *[ˈhʌbəb]. A large untidy room [ə ˈlɑːdʒ ʌnˈtaɪdi ˈruːm] is different from a large and tidy room [ə ˈlɑːdʒ ən ˈtaɪdi ˈruːm]
There are only a few such cases, though, because the STRUT vowel belongs to the strong vowel system and is often stressed, while schwa belongs to the weak vowel system and is never stressed.
In other varieties of English the picture is different. There are many English and Welsh people who pronounce the STRUT vowel pretty much the same as schwa. So do many, perhaps most, Americans. For them, we could reasonably write both vowels as [ə]. So it would be reasonable for EFL learners not to worry too much about the contrast. Millions of NSs manage without it.
Your textbooks will tell you to pronounce above as [əˈbʌv] and another as [əˈnʌðə]. But millions of people in Birmingham, Swansea or Miami say [əˈbəv] and [əˈnəðə(r)]. You can too, if that’s easier.
But not if you want to speak RP.


  1. /ʌ/ is one of my biggest problems* with RP - I know the difference, but I find it hard to enunciate consistently. And I'm not even sure I notice when it's spoken - I need to pay better attention.

    *I've largely given up learning where /z/s go. I may be able to produce an isolated /z/, but it doesn't really help when I don't know where to use it.

  2. I speak with a pretty neutral AmE accent, and I don’t distinguish those two sounds (an orthodoxy vs. unorthodoxy), and what’s more, the American Merriam-Webster dictionaries use the same syllable, with only different stress marks.

  3. But is /ʌ/ really [ʌ]? "The literature" tends to say this is so only in very limited regions (eg Philadelphia) and that it used to be [ʌ] in prewar RP. At least regarding the latter, still to be heard here and there, I think it's more like [a], so that classical RP's hut and modern RP's hat sound alike.

  4. Other mergers or reducements can create confusion, too. A week or two ago, I heard an American say that Obama's healthcare speech was "his most impressive ineffective speech yet". Of course, he said "impressive an' effective", but I really wondered for a split second if he meant it in a sarcastic way.

    Don't remember how he talked otherwise, and whether this was an occasional reducement or an actual ɪ/ə merger.

  5. What about transcriptions claiming that the first vowel in RP "burner" is more open than the second one? To my ear, if there's any consistent qualitative distinction between the two *at all*, it's the other way round. (As for [^], are you sure? To me, the "strut" vowel sounds less open and less central in songs by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones than I usually hear today on BBC.)

  6. I wouldn't say that classical RP STRUT was the same as modern RP TRAP. The standard texts describe classical RP as having a quality reflecting the choice of the phonemic symbol, i.e. Cardinal Vowel 14, while modern RP trap is described as having the quality of Cardinal Vowel 4. Nothing I have heard would suggest that this isn't the case.

  7. I'd characterize the merged vowel as closer to [ʌ] than [ə]: thus [ʌˈbʌv], at least in AmE. (I myself do not merge an orthodoxy with unorthodoxy, because in the former the [n] is in the onset, as if spelled "a northodoxy", whereas in the latter the [n] is in the coda. But if I had to be clear about it, I would give extra stress to the un-.

  8. I think we all know that the RP STRUT vowel is nowadays nowhere near cardinal [ʌ] (= back open-mid unrounded). It is central, [ɐ], although we continue to use the ʌ symbol for it.

    Please do not leave unsiɡned, anonymous messaɡes. It makes it impossible to reply to one message at a time: and I don't know whether the two "Anonymous" above are the same person or not - presumably not.

  9. As a near-RP exile in California, I find the STRUT vowel gives me the most problems in comprehending spoken English. In in my native dialect, although I have four open central/back unrounded vowels, they are all distinguishable without regard to tongue position:

    STRUT is unrounded and short
    PALM is unrounded and long
    LOT is rounded and short
    THOUGHT is rounded and long.

    In the local California dialect there are only two such vowels: LOT/PALM/THOUGHT and STRUT. However, they are both unrounded, and length is not a reliable way to distinguish them. As a result, I am unable to tell the difference between pairs such as "bum" and "bomb". I'd be very grateful for any expert advice :)

  10. One issue is that much of Scotland and Ireland does use something approaching cardinal [ʌ] for the STRUT vowel, and it's a bit misleading to use the same symbol for RP STRUT as for those dialects.

    More than a hundred years ago, Joseph Wright was using [ɐ] for RP STRUT. We should have followed his lead.

  11. Ed, what actual sounds do you mean in each case?

    Prof. Wells, how was that in pre-war RP with [ʌ] and [a] for the STRUT vowel?

    To me, an actual [ʌ] sounds somewhat affected (in the framework of pre-war RP) or like a not too bad French accent.

  12. Daniel Jones (b. 1881) had a sort of centralized-back [ʌ]. My father (a native RP speaker, born 1909), already had [ɐ] like my own. Anything as open and front as cardinal [a] would be definitely Cockney (and old-fashioned Cockney at that).
    @Ed: I agree. When I was young and impetuous I tried to get people to use the symbol [ɐ] instead of [ʌ] for STRUT. But the weight of inertia proved to be too great.

  13. Thanks. (Have to look for sound clips to make clear what I mean.)

    About [ɐ] - what would you say is the first vowel in German aber? The word is usually transcribed as [a:bɐ], but that [a] is probably a convention as well - it's not identical to mainstream English or even Italian /a/. I'd say it's in between [a] and [ɑ]. Northern German as [a] and South Eastern German has [ɑ], both of which are different from the vowel in Standard German.

  14. I'll reply to this in a new blog posting.

  15. @Lipman: the easiest way to illustrate this is with a website.
    (sorry but I can't get this link to work unless it starts on Liverpool for some reason)

    If you click on the RP one on the left hand side, it has [ɐ] in the following words: blood, hunger, mother, young.
    If you click on Standard Scottish, these words have [ʌ].
    If you click on Antrim (in Ireland), you can see [ʌ] for hundred, hunger, young but not for blood or mother.

    So [ʌ] is used by some people in STRUT words, and is understood by all native English-speakers.

  16. Just compared some of the pronunciations for "one" here. The phonetic transcriptions are very narrow indeed, but frankly, I'm less than sure they're justified by the actual samples.

  17. David Marjanović3 October 2009 at 18:57

    The sound I was taught to use for the STRUT vowel – which may well be on the conservative side of things, as I haven't had many occasions to talk to native speakers, let alone RP speakers, since then – is neither [ɐ] as in German nor [ʌ] as in Russian; I think it's as open as the former and as back as the latter, occupying a place on the vowel chart that hasn't got a symbol ascribed to it. It's probably also pharyngealized.

  18. David Marjanović31 October 2009 at 23:22

    South Eastern German has [ɑ]

    In southwestern German, and in southeastern Germany perhaps, but not in Austria.

    The Bavarian-Austrian dialects have... the rounded open back or central vowel depending on the dialect. The latter (let's spell it [ɒ̈]) is, BTW, the same thing as the French* an sound, only oral instead of nasal. The nasal version also occurs in e. g. my dialect, but I digress.

    So, aber for me: Standard: [ˈaːb̥ɐ] (with vowel length that can disappear in connected speech, because this word is often entirely unstressed, and vowels are only allowed to be long if they carry at least secondary stress); dialect: [ˈɒ̈(ː)vɐ] (with a long vowel only in isolation, and optional even then, because vowel length is not phonemic).

    * Modern Parisian anyway. Or most kinds of that anyway.

    the vowel in Standard German.

    Several accents are standard. The Ausspracheduden describes only one of them. If you come to, say, anywhere in Austria and talk like it's written in the Ausspracheduden, you might as well run around with a label that says "I'm from northern Germany", even if you never leave settings where only Standard German is used.

  19. It's difficult. Words LOST, LAST, LUST when pronounced by a Californian all sound like [last] to my Spanish ear, the acoustic difference is minimal, especially in fast speech. Professor Labov said some Americans pronounce BOSSES in the same way some other Americans pronounce the word BUSSES, that is both have the same central-to-back unrounded vowel.