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In all the examples I've seen they seem to be the same sound.

Examples of ə:

  • a in about
  • a in comma

Examples of ʌ:

  • u in run
  • o in won

I am trying to decipher the difference between these sounds but they seem identical to me. Is it because of my dialect (American English), or is there a very subtle difference that I should look out for?

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It depends on your dialect. Many dialects of American English use exactly the same sound for /ə/ and /ʌ/ (I use slightly different ones, although I use /ʌ/ for comma). Some dialects of British English pronounce /ʌ/ with a vowel that sounds to me more like the one in spa. –  Peter Shor Nov 22 '12 at 20:46
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1 Answer 1

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In English, the only real difference between these two is that [ʌ] occurs in stressed syllables, and [ə] occurs in unstressed syllables. There is a slight acoustic difference between the two ([ʌ] is supposed to be a tiny bit lower and possibly backer than [ə]), but it is so slight that it is virtually indistinguishable.

Also note that many full vowels become [ə] when unstressed in English (e.ɡ. [sɔlɪd], but [səlɪdɪfaɪ]).

(This distinction is only for English, in other languages these phonemes can pattern completely differently.)

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The rule about the unstressed [ʌ] versus stressed [ə] does not always hold true. For instance "unfair" [ʌnˈfɛər]. But I would agree that the difference between the two sounds really is insignificant. –  Benjamin Mar 24 '13 at 9:40
    
I'm teaching myself phonetics, and am really confused on this point. From what I can see on wikipedia, your answer appears to be wrong, so I guess I must be misunderstanding something. /ʌ/ is a back vowel, whereas /ə/ is central. I'm a speaker of British English (from the South), and the sounds are clearly distinguishable. I can also see how /ʌ/ gets replaced by /ə/ in some words that get unstressed, like 'but' being /bʌt/ when stressed and /bət/ when unstressed, but I'm guessing there are a lot of words where /ʌ/ is unstressed. 'Pickup truck' for starters. –  oldmankit Mar 19 at 6:27
    
I forgot to an include a link to the wikipedia page I was referencing: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-mid_back_unrounded_vowel –  oldmankit Mar 19 at 6:51
    
OK, I think I've found the answer. In Many North American accents, the vowels are barely distinguishable. However in RP and other accents, they are clearly distinguishable. –  oldmankit Mar 19 at 7:16
    
However, I was wrong to call it a back vowel. It is a central vowel. From [wikipedia][1]: "Before World War II, the /ʌ/ of Received Pronunciation was phonetically close to a back vowel [ʌ]; this sound has since shifted forward towards [ɐ]". Also "In transcriptions for some languages (including several dialects of English), this symbol [/ʌ/] is also used for the near-open central vowel." So if I understand correctly, when talking about the English language we write /ʌ/ but should probably be writing /ɐ/. [1]: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open-mid_back_unrounded_vowel –  oldmankit Mar 19 at 7:17
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