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I have an issue with the /æ/ sound. There is no such vowel sound in my native language, which is Russian, so it's quite problematic for me to master this sound. The main problem is I can't even HEAR it as the same sound in different words. For example, the word "can" sounds to me more like there is an /e/ sound, but in the word "back" it sounds closer to an /ɑ/. I can clearly hear the difference between "man" and "men" but when it comes to words with different consonants around /æ/ (like can/back) I hear completely different sounds.

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  • I offer an unrelated observation about usage. OP reports, “I have an issue” with the phoneme. In idiomatic English, this kind of use of the noun issue typically conveys a negative judgment, as though the fault lay in the phoneme or the way others use it, whereas I suspect he meant something more like, “I have a difficulty” or, “I struggle.” Aug 22, 2023 at 13:16
  • "can" isn't pronounced with /e/ in any standard or near-standard dialect: when stressed, /ɛ/ or /æ/ or /a/, when unstressed often little or nothing. I guess your problem is wider, e.g. inability to distinguish /ɛ/ and /e/.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 22, 2023 at 13:46
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    No, it's never the same. That's true of all phonemes, which are sets of sounds used by one or another person in one or another context. Sep 18, 2023 at 16:51

3 Answers 3

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There are multiple ways of pronouncing this phoneme. The “pure” pronunciation is a near-open front unrounded vowel [æ] (as in cap and back), which as you can see on a vowel chart is directly between [ɛ] (Э) and [a] (А).

Before a nasal consonant such as /n/, it is also pronounced as [eə] or [εə] (as in can and Mary) in many accents.

Furthermore, in English, unstressed vowels are usually pronounced [ə], so “can” is often pronounced [kən] as in “I can do that”.

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    Dayum is not an attempt at writing the [εə ~ eə] found in many different US dialects; it’s an attempt at writing the [æʲə] found in a much more limited group of dialects in the South. This Wikipedia table gives a very good overview of what happens where. It’s far too confusing for anyone to remember by heart, like all English vowel developments in recent times … Feb 6, 2015 at 23:03
  • For further research, you might find some of the links on this page useful: photransedit.com/Resources/Links.aspx Feb 6, 2015 at 23:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: I thought of that—honestly I would guess it’s both. Removing that bit.
    – Jon Purdy
    Feb 7, 2015 at 1:03
  • The "many accents" you mention include nearly all American ones; in some it also happens before many non-nasal consonants.
    – alphabet
    Mar 1, 2023 at 22:13
  • Also, I suspect that it's pronounced further forward between alveolar consonants than between velar consonants, but maybe that's not a universal rule.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 2, 2023 at 20:06
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If you're listening to American English, when you hear /ɛ/ in the word can, you're probably hearing correctly.

In American English, can is often pronounced with the /ɛ/ vowel; this helps to distinguish it from can't. See the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

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Actually, it is not a difficult sound to master. It is a combination of /e/ and /a/ (rEd and fAther) or (мЕра и вАня). For Russians it is very easy to produce /æ/, because /æ/ is made in the back of the mouth (throat) and the Russian 'a'/^/ (as in 'влад')is made in the back of the mouth, that is the Russian /^/ coincide coincides with the American /^/. So,just add a bit of /e/ to the Russian /a/, et voilà, you have got the /æ/. If you don't want to stress yourself with /a/, you can use /e/+/ə/ or /e/ or /ə/instead.

My advice is that you use only /æ/ or /ə/ all the time and don't bother yourself with allophones, even in unstressed positions.

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  • Welcome to EL&U. Do you mean [ɛ] in red? Please take a moment to tour the site and see the help center for clarification.
    – livresque
    Mar 19, 2022 at 22:53
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    This isn't very helpful because /æ/ is normally considered a front vowel. Chart.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 22, 2023 at 13:43
  • Yes, it is considered a front vowel. However if you really try to pronounce it in the front of the mouth, you wil get a 'yah'. So, I stick to what I said. Sep 17, 2023 at 20:10

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