English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

. . . alibis . . . appetite . . . rather . . . Mark . . . [audio source]

The first two a’s are different in their phonetic symbols in the dictionaries from the other two, but I can’t differentiate. What’s the difference between /ӕ/ and /ɑ/?

share|improve this question
What do you mean by “alphabets” here? I do not think that that word means what you think it means. – tchrist Feb 8 '13 at 2:21
Perhaps this site will help. Go to the American English page; you will find /ӕ/ under 'monophthongs/front' and /ɑ/ under 'monophthongs/back'. May we know your native language? That may help someone refer to sounds in your language. – StoneyB Feb 8 '13 at 2:23
@tchrist: I edited some letters. – Listenever Feb 8 '13 at 2:31
I think these four words are really a bad place to start listening for this particular difference. The vowel in alibi is changed slightly by the 'l' after it, and the vowel in Mark is changed slightly by the 'r' after it. Find a website which gives you comparisons between these vowels where none of the words has an 'l' or 'r' following the vowel, and maybe you'll be able to hear the difference then. – Peter Shor Feb 8 '13 at 2:52
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think the problem is to do with the accents represented in the audio source.

The vowel in appetite might be better represented as /a/ rather than /ӕ/. This is the value of the TRAP vowel in many younger RP speakers.

The person who says Mark sounds as if she is a Northern English speaker. Northern English speakers often lack the back /ɑ/ vowel, and they also tend not to lengthen their vowels as much as Southern English or RP speakers. I would say that the vowel there is [aː] rather than [ɑː], and not a very long [aː] at that.

I'm not surprised that you can't hear the difference very clearly. Dictionaries which try to represent British pronunciation use RP (Received Pronunciation). Unfortunately they do not attempt to capture other British accents. Some dictionaries are changing the way they are representing the short vowel, using /a/ instead of /ӕ/. (The Oxford English Dictionary is moving in that direction for British pronunciations.)

share|improve this answer
I wasn’t ready to say there is /a/ for TRAP. After that, I got the idea that /a/ is a new RP trend and Oxford online adopts the symbol. I also found although BBC website has symbol /ӕ/ for the pronunciation guide, its real pronunciation is /a/. Without having known this, I heard the sound wrong as /ɑ/, and the question above has no idea about it. American Prof. John Lawler’s linked chart below hasn’t the information, so this question hasn’t got the well matched answer then. Thank you very much. – Listenever Jun 26 '14 at 14:59


The near-open front unrounded vowel, or near-low front unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨æ⟩, a lowercase ae ligature. Both the symbol and the sound are commonly referred to as “ash”.


The open back unrounded vowel, or low back unrounded vowel, is a type of vowel sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨ɑ⟩. . . .

So one is a front vowel and the other is a back vowel. They also differ in their degree of openness.

share|improve this answer
I’ve already read what you introduced. What I want to know is whether the examples are differentiated by that guide. Are you sure that the examples are matched with the Wikipedia’s explanations? – Listenever Feb 8 '13 at 2:42
@Listenever Are you saying you cannot hear the difference between the “a” vowels in Mark and appetite? Perhaps they are not phonemically distinct sounds in your language, but they are in English. – tchrist Feb 8 '13 at 2:43
No, I can’t. That’s why I made my representing name, Lestenever. I guess it needs lots of time to hear the difference. Thank you. – Listenever Feb 8 '13 at 2:51
For example, American English phonemes are displayed here. – John Lawler Feb 8 '13 at 4:06
@Listenever, you might want to listen to those words in RP too, where the difference is clear, eg howjsay. Here's Mark, and here's appetite – Peter Jun 27 '14 at 3:01

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.