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

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?

share|improve this question
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
up vote 11 down vote accepted

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.)

share|improve this answer
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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 7:17

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.