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I'm confused about the difference in pronouncing "er" in words such as "farmer" and "earth". I hear them the same, but they have different phonetic symbols. Is there any difference in pronouncing "er" in these words?


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The difference lies in how the native speaker says it. There's such a slight difference, that you don't really need to worry about it. Just say it as "er", and everyone will understand you – Thursagen Aug 11 '11 at 10:47
This question cannot be accurately answered without knowing what dialect of English you speak. In my dialect, there is no difference between these sounds. – JSBձոգչ Aug 11 '11 at 11:51
@JSBᾶngs I meant american english. – NL500 Aug 11 '11 at 12:08
It depends on your dialect of American English. Many Americans, including myself, pronounce these exactly the same (except the /ɝ/ may be a little longer); some pronounce them differently. If you're being strict about the meaning of IPA symbols, they are supposed to be pronounced differently (otherwise they would have been denoted /ɚ/ and /ɚː/), but you have to make compromises if you want to use standard IPA symbols for all dialects of American. – Peter Shor Aug 11 '11 at 12:57
Second column accented, first column not. Can you have a schwa as the accented vowel? – GEdgar Aug 11 '11 at 15:28

Yet another edit: The schwa symbols reported in your image are slightly different from the one I know and the reason is that they denote the Rhotic version of the schwa sound, especially present in American English. The symbol is ɚ and it appears in words such as better. This is not the only variant but it was the one related to your question.

They are both schwa sounds.

The phonological difference between them is that this one ə is a normal schwa, while this one ɜ: is a long schwa. So the sound is the same, it's just a bit longer.

Now: it's also true that, in everyday life, people won't pay attention to that and some might pronounce it wrong. But I wanted to let you know the basic difference in terms of Phonology.

EDIT: Look, this is the Phonemic Chart provided by the BBC. Look at the vowels section and click the two symbols (ə and ɜ:) in the "middle" of that tab-like thing.

This is specifically British English, but it will give you the idea of what I meant.

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I thought we'd been over this here. Whether there's a difference in quality between the two vowels depends on accent. There are accents where the two are distinguished by more than just length, and strictly speaking the IPA symbols do represent distinct vowels: [ə] is mid-central, and [ɜ] is open-mid central. – Jon Purdy Aug 11 '11 at 21:56
Yes, one is mid-central and one is open-mid central, but the difference is very minimal. But I found out something else, after your comment. I'm going to edit it in. – Alenanno Aug 11 '11 at 22:47

In many dialects of American English, there is no difference between these two words except perhaps a slight difference in length, which is not especially significant.

The phonetic rendering that you're looking at is probably slanted towards a British accent. In British English, the /r/ sound is usually not pronounced as a separate segment at the end of a syllable, but rather causes a slight change in the preceding vowel. This is indicated by the symbols that you see, which is called an "r-colored schwa".

Most American English dialects, however, do not have an r-colored schwa in this position. Instead, they have a syllabic r, which is formed by putting your tongue in the position for the /r/ sound and simply holding it, with no real vowel sound at all. I pronounce the word farmer as [farmr̩] (where the small vertical line below the /r/ indicates a syllabic consonant), and I pronounce earth as [r̩:θ] (the colon indicates that the /r/ sound is longer). This pronunciation is typical of general American Midwest accents.

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An r-colored schwa is not the typical British pronunciation of farmer or earth, which are short and long schwas. I use an r-colored schwa, which the linked Wikipedia page says only occurs in a few languages, including American English. When I say the /r/ in red, par, or fear, the tip of my tongue goes up near the roof of my mouth. When I say fur or more, the tip of my tongue stays down and the quality of the vowel doesn't change from start to finish. So I'm using the r-colored vowels /ɚ/ and /ɔ˞/ for water, fur, and more. – Peter Shor Sep 7 '11 at 1:30
I think the length difference is allophonic (since stressed syllables are normally longer). In that case there's no (underlying) difference at all. – Mechanical snail Sep 21 '12 at 5:35
@PeterShor: I'm guessing JSB means that the phonetic notation tries to capture both the changing vowel height in BrE and the syllabic /r/ of AmE in one symbol. – Mechanical snail Sep 21 '12 at 5:37

In British and American English, the sound of the letters highlighted in red is generally /ə/; what changes is the pronunciation of the r, which may alter the pronunciation of the preceding vowel, such as in /əːθ/ where the /əː/ sound is longer than the /ə/ sound (that is the meaning of ː placed after ə).

Word           | American English        | British English
earth          | ərθ                     | əːθ
farmer         | ˈfɑrmər                 | ˈfɑːmə
fur            | fər                     | fəː
waterfall      | ˈwɔdərˌfɔl ˈwɑdərˌfɔl   | ˈwɔːtəfɔːl
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how does this answer the question? – Neil G Aug 11 '11 at 17:52
@Neil G The question is "Is there any difference in pronouncing 'er' in these words?" to which I have answered. I have also answered to the "they have different phonetic symbols" part too. – kiamlaluno Aug 11 '11 at 21:09
The question is about the difference between "er" in farmer and waterfall vs. earth and fur — not all four words in American English vs. all four words in British English. According to your table the long sound is present in British English for all four words, and it is short in American English. But, the question explicitly shows that two out of the four words have a long sound. – Neil G Aug 12 '11 at 0:29
My answer answers to that; there is no difference between how the words are pronounced in American English, for what the general pronounce is. As the question didn't report to which English dialect it was referring, I reported both the pronounces; I am not comparing American English with British English, but the answer would not be complete if it not reported the pronounce in at least two English dialects. – kiamlaluno Aug 12 '11 at 2:50
Okay, that makes sense. – Neil G Aug 12 '11 at 3:14

The er sound in farmer and waterfall has a slightly weaker r and thus is slightly more like 'uh' than the er sound in earth and fur. It is a very slight difference that's often not even noticeable.

You can test it by replacing the er with an actual uh sound. In farmer and waterfall it will sound strange, like a speech impediment. In earth and fur, it will be completely bizarre and sound like a different word entirely.

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But is this because we're used to hearing British or New York City non-rhotic accents which use 'uh' for the sound in farmer and waterfall? – Peter Shor Aug 13 '11 at 17:11

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