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Is there a grammatical rule for the pronunciation of words such as dance, castle and prance? I believe the British English pronunciation is "ah", while in American English it is a short "a" sound.

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Sorry to be pedantic, but it's not grammar. In linguistics, grammar is the set of structural rules that governs the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language [Wikipedia]. The way words are pronounced is phonetics: the branch of linguistics that comprises the study of the sounds of human speech. [Wikipedia].

Pronunciation is one aspect of dialect. It's true that Americans and Southern Englishmen pronounce dance differently, although both can be represented /dɑːns/ because the /ɑː/ symbol between slashes is a broad transcriptional device. A more accurate transcription of the American dance might be [däns] or [dɐns]. Northern English makes the a in dance much shorter than Southern English and it's more like /dæns/. In the English West Country it's different again: [dɐᵊns].

As for rules, well, no: it's custom and practice. The American pronunciation of mass is different to the English, but Northern and Southern English are generally almost identical to each other, with a short vowel (some Southerners pronounce it /mɑːs/ but it sounds affected these days). Because pronunciation of vowels in particular is not matched to spelling — think of bough, cough, dough, tough as obvious examples — it's difficult to come up with any rules for how to differentiate between [ä] [ɑː] [ɐ] [æ] and [ɐᵊ] in dance. And there are some words where rules simply don't apply: one text-to-speech program I used insisted on pronouncing without as /woʊ'ʒiːtɑ/! I still don't know if there is any dialect of English which actually does that.

The only way of learning pronunciation truly accurately is immersion and practice.

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    Very important that non-UK dwellers understand how different pronunciation can be north and south of the Midlands. It is often that we ourselves forget. Only last week we were in Manchester and my wife, asking in Tesco where she could find a 'bath mat', got flummoxed looks from the assistant.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 9:05
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    How can the American word dance be represented as /dɑːns/? The IPA symbol /ɑ/ can be used for father, spa, pot, and, in some dialects, caught. But we don't pronounce dance with a vowel anywhere close to that. Commented Nov 22, 2013 at 15:49
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    @PeterShor I don’t know that I’ve heard a North American say dance any other way that /dæns/. I suppose there may be some nasalization in some speakers, or some bag–beg type collisions in others, but I don’t think it really changes that much here. Outside of certain choral performances, I’m pretty sure it is never the /ɑ/ as in not: that sounds pretentious as all get out.
    – tchrist
    Commented Dec 28, 2013 at 15:13
  • I am from Wiltshire, a county that is undoubtedly part of the West Country and the dialectical peculiarities of that region are often overlooked. This is a particular sore point as the place name Bath is a homonym with bath and often used as a gauge of whether or not someone is 'southern'. People actually from Bath pronounce bath with neither of the commonly accepted variants. And that accent is different again to mine.
    – Tom W
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 0:58
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A linguistic abstraction for comparison of vowel pronunciation in different dialects is called lexical sets, for UK and US English there are Wells lexical sets, of which you need BATH set. Some rules about trap-bath split show which words may fall into BATH set, though it is unpredictable. In the table there is a mix of BATH and PALM words, as they are indistinguishable in UK accent alone, so see also a more correct example list based on Wells' Accents of English or the book itself.

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In official standard British English, and indeed most varieties of British English, the 'A' in words like "dance", " can't " and "bath" are pronounced the same as the 'a' in words like "start" and "palm", basically the same 'A' sound that most varieties of American English use in words like " hallway", "caught" and "walk". This is what's linguistically referred to as the " Trap-bath split ", and can be found in the accents of most British Commonwealth countries. And in American English, the Boston \ east New England accents tend to have a limited version of the trap-bath split. Certain other American accents possess what could be considered a similar phenomenon to the trap-bath split, with the 'a' in certain words, usually those where the A is succeeded by a voiceless consonant, such e 's' or 't' are pronounced differently than the same 'a' in certain other words, such as those where the A comes before voiced consonants such as "z" and "n".

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