I cannot hear the distinction between certain sets of vowel sounds. Normally the words in each of these sets (and of several others) all sound identical to me: Don, Dawn; marry, merry, Mary; ah, awe; cot, caught; ferry, fairy. If the speaker's accent heightens the differences between them I might be able to tell them apart, but cannot tell which word is intended by which of the different pronunciations. I can do that only from context.

This may not be uncommon in American English; maps of regional variations in pronunciation suggest that about half of the country pronounce Don and Dawn the same way. This would explain why I hear those names the same way, but only if I lived in that part of the country.

What is this trait called? I wish I knew.

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    I think it means they are allophonic to you. And I would guess you were from the West Coast with all those vowel merges, rather than the Midwest. – Bradd Szonye Feb 27 '14 at 0:18
  • Shirley ewe jest. – Elliott Frisch Feb 27 '14 at 0:20
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    You question raises an interesting issue. I have been told, since I was 13 or so, that I cannot pronounce 'woman.' I cannot hear the difference between what they say I say and what I sound like when I say it. It is my understanding that the ability to parse difference in various sounds decreases as we grow older. According to this hypothesis, older people cannot learn to speak a new language without an accent because they cannot hear sounds that they did not learn to hear as children. – Michael Owen Sartin Feb 27 '14 at 0:21
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    I am 62. I am beginning to try to learn Spanish, and I am told that I don't sound like a typical English-speaker trying to learn Spanish. I can definitely hear and parse the different ways that, say, an Argentinian versus a Mexican might pronounce certain words. And I can reproduce both forms. I may of course be an outlier. – Cyberherbalist Feb 27 '14 at 1:03
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    The ability to distinguish phonemes is called auditory discrimination. So the inability might be called auditory indiscrimination. – JLG Feb 27 '14 at 20:22

I think we can call it "phonological unawareness". Or it can be related to the different levels of phonological awareness:

Phonological awareness refers to an individual's awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of spoken words.

It is related with listening skills as well:

  • Alertness: Awareness and localization of sounds

  • Discrimination: Recognize same/different sounds

  • Memory: Recollection of sounds and sound patterns

  • Sequencing: Identify order of what was heard

  • Figure-ground: Isolate one sound from background of other sounds

  • Perception: Comprehension of sounds heard

Phonics deals with phonological awareness:

Phonics is a method for teaching reading and writing the English language by developing learners' phonemic awareness—the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes—in order to teach the correspondence between these sounds and the spelling patterns (graphemes) that represent them.

That is to say, it is usually mentioned regarding to teaching the language to the children or neurolingustic researches about bilinguals or non-native speakers.

Another source that mentions the term:

Accurate word learning requires identification of the sounds and letters in the word. Without such clarity, meanings are harder to learn; build, built, and bill differ only by one phoneme, as do bruise and breeze, and goal and gold. One of my fifth graders, years ago, was sure for weeks that the Gold Rush had something to do with soccer ("goal rush"), a semantic confusion directly tied to phonological unawareness.

And there is more to add to this topic. Phonological history of the English language.

Now that you mention it, we should talk about Mary–marry–merry merger also:

One of the best-known pre-rhotic mergers is known as the Mary–marry–merry merger, which consists of the mergers before intervocalic /r/ of /æ/ and /ɛ/ with historical /eɪ/. This merger is quite widespread in North America.

Another useful question: How are 'marry', 'merry', and 'Mary' pronounced differently?

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The first term that comes to mind is "tone deafness".

I don't know if this is the correct term for the inability you describe. Wikipedia says "Tone deafness is the lack of relative pitch, or the inability to distinguish between musical notes that is not due to the lack of musical training or education." The article in question does not mention hearing "the distinction between certain sets of vowel sounds."

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  • They're different in my case. In 50+ years as a chorister, I've been told I was singing the wrong vowel but never the wrong note. – Joan Pederson Feb 27 '14 at 19:47
  • Not a chorister, @JoanPederson, and I've often gotten the note wrong! :-) Which is probably why I prefer not to participate in my church choir. I like singing, but my voice is halfway between bass and tenor and I strain at too many songs. – Cyberherbalist Feb 28 '14 at 1:14

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