When I presented British /ӕ/ sound to three Korean English-familiar persons online - they are doing answering English-related questions activities [case 1; case 2], and asked what sound it’s like /ӕ/ or /ɑ/, astonishingly all three of them without hesitation checked out /ɑ/. That shows how difficult it is to differentiate the two sounds for Koreans.

I can perceive both British and American /ӕ/ are made at the front. But the former sound is far more similar to Korean’s “ㅏ” sound. That’s why the Koreans all hear /ɑ/. And this definitely shows, I wonder, that there’s some difference between British and American /ӕ/. Would you let me know the difference?

  • Perahps you are misunderstanding the TRAP–BATH split.
    – tchrist
    Mar 6, 2013 at 0:02
  • 2
    Please read this.
    – tchrist
    Mar 6, 2013 at 2:23

3 Answers 3


The complete story is too complex to fit into an answer here.

The short story is that there are many accents in America, and there are many, many, many accents in Britain, and just exactly what happens to phonemic /ӕ/ and to phonemic /ɑ/ varies incredibly in many of them, so much so that things can sound like different words.

The thing you were probably noticing was the TRAP–BATH split, which occurs on both sides of the Altantic but moreso in Britain than America. However, there are quite a few other factors, too; it is by no means the only one affecting any of this. Some of those accents can even seem comical to those who don’t have it, and vice versa.

The medium story can be found here in the Wikipedia article on the “phonological history of English short a. I strongly suggest that you read it in full. It can be quite subtle, and perhaps surprising. I think you may be astonished at all the variants.

The long story can perhaps be found by chasing the bibliographic references provided there.

  • The one place in the U.S. where the trap-bath split occurs is New England (where I live) and I believe it is slowly losing it, except for the word aunt. Mar 6, 2013 at 11:37
  • @PeterShor Hm, I’m thinking that John Kerry may have it.
    – tchrist
    Mar 6, 2013 at 12:51

Although other answers have mentioned the trap/bath split, I don't think that is actually the explanation for the phenomenon discussed in the original post. The word valuable has the trap vowel and not the bath vowel.

The trap vowel is traditionally transcribed as /ӕ/, using the IPA symbol that is defined in phonetic terms as a vowel [ӕ] that is front of center and intermediate in height between open [a] and open-mid [ɛ].

The phonetic realization of the English phoneme /ӕ/ is supposed to have been accurately represented by the IPA phone [ӕ] in an old-fashioned "RP" British accent. However, in many current varieties of English, the trap vowel is often more open. To speakers of these varieties, the RP value of [ӕ] may in fact sound like the "dress" vowel /ɛ/. Because of this, it has been argued that [a] would be a more appropriate phonetic transcription than [ӕ] for the modern trap vowel, and some linguists (such as Clive Upton) correspondingly transcribe the phoneme as /a/ rather than /ӕ/ in the context of British English. (See "The British English vowel system", by Geoff Lindsey (2012) and "The General British "ash" vowel", by Jack Windsor Lewis, for more details about this.)

Although you say "both British and American /ӕ/ are made at the front", the sources that I have read suggest that central or central-ish realizations of the trap vowel do exist and are supposed to be more common in British English than in American English; this may be why your friends mishear the vowel as /ɑ/ when they listen to the British English pronunciation of words like valuable.

  • Many people (myself included) write the phoneme as /a/ for both BrE and AmE as well, simply because there’s easier to type and there’s no phonemic distinction between /a/ and /æ/ anyway. Nov 27, 2018 at 20:53

There are many differences in pronunciation between British and American English.

British speakers use the [ɑ:]sound, Americans use the “short a” /æ/ sound. Eg:

  1. class /clɑ:s/ vs /klæs/
  2. last /lɑ:st/ vs /læst/ ask
  3. /ɑ:sk/ vs /æsk/
  4. laugh /lɑ:f/ vs /læf/

You can see differences here: http://epronunciation.com/pronunciation-rules/british-american-english-differences.html

  • You are overgeneralising British pronounciation. There are considerable regional differences.
    – Chenmunka
    Jun 27, 2016 at 14:38
  • @Chenmunka ...as there are in the US (but not as considerable as the UK). We all know that the answerer is referring to standard BrE (RP) and GenAmE as it is simpler to talk about the standard without qualification and mention differences only in nonstandard varieties.
    – Mitch
    Jun 27, 2016 at 18:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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