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.

  • 1
    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. Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 0:18
  • 1
    Shirley ewe jest. Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 0:20
  • 1
    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. Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 0:21
  • 1
    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. Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 1:03
  • 2
    The ability to distinguish phonemes is called auditory discrimination. So the inability might be called auditory indiscrimination.
    – JLG
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 20:22

3 Answers 3


I believe the term is phonological unawareness. It can be related to the different levels of phonological awareness and it can involve listening skills as well:

Phonological awareness is an individual's awareness of the phonological structure, or sound structure, of words.

Listening skills
The ability to attend to and distinguish environmental and speech sounds from one another

  • 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

Wikipedia / Phonological Awareness

Phonics deals with phonological awareness:

Phonics is a method for teaching people how to read and write an alphabetic language (such as English, Arabic or Russian). It is done by demonstrating the relationship between the sounds of the spoken language (phonemes), and the letters or groups of letters (graphemes) or syllables of the written language. In English, this is also known as the alphabetic principle or the Alphabetic code. - Wikipedia

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


When in college I wrote one paper 17 times, my teacher said I have sound deficit syndrome. Also when reading words, I know what they mean, I just can’t pronounce them correctly, especially medical terms. Background noise always bothers me. I can hear most anything when quiet, if TV on then it’s hard for me to hear.!
What would you say, I am 60 + now still same problem.


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."

  • 1
    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. Commented Feb 27, 2014 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. Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 1:14

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.