I’ve finally decided to take a look at my English pronunciation and it is being an awesome new world. I am focused on Received Pronunciation (British Standard) and one question comes to mind for which I can find no answer on the internet.

The a spelling on CAN and THAT should have the same pronunciation according to the pronunciation symbol ‘æ’, but they don’t.

The pronunciation of that as /ðæt/ seems quite right, but shouldn’t can be /ken/ not /kæn/?

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    I don't recognize the phonemic (phonetic? eye-dialect?) transcription /ken/ here. If you just mean that sometimes the vowel in can is reduced to a schwa, I don't see the relevance. The vowel in that can also be reduced in exactly the same way. Aug 13, 2015 at 15:22
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    There is no single way to pronounce these words when considering dialectal variation. forvo.com/search/can/en
    – Jim
    Aug 13, 2015 at 15:37
  • Thank you for your answers. As I am a beginner I really do not understand. Formally they have the same 'æ' symbol and I've searched on different dictionaries + forvo and in UK they are pronounced differently (that vs can). CAN is always pronounced as /ken/ and formally should be pronounced as /kæn/. I am talking in purely formal ways. If then in practice we have the freedom to do it otherwise is another issue.
    – viery365
    Aug 13, 2015 at 15:45
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    I think this may be an RP system that distinguishes tense vowels with colons. In these /e/ is IPA /ɛ/ as in ken, men, ten. And in the US, can is mostly pronounced /kɛn/. The pronunciation /kæn/ is most likely to be short for /kænʔ/_can't_, which always uses /æ/. Aug 13, 2015 at 15:47
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    I don't really understand your question very well, and I think there's a way you can clarify it. Do you think can rhymes with man? Do you think with can rhymes with pen? Do you think can, man, and pen all rhyme? In AmE, can often rhymes with pen and not man, but I don't know whether this ever happens in BrE. Aug 13, 2015 at 16:02

1 Answer 1

  1. kæn
  2. kən
  3. ðæt
  4. ðət

The strong forms of the words can and that both have the TRAP vowel in RP. This is the same vowel as in the word cat /kæt/. These forms of the words are shown in examples (1) and (3) repsectively. The auxiliary verb can is usually only strong when stressed or when stranded (ie when not followed by another verb).

The subordinator that and the auxiliary verb can both have weak forms which we use when they are not stressed. These are usually said with a schwa vowel, /ə/ as shown in examples (2) and (4). However, can may also be realised with a syllabic consonant, as in /kn̩/.

The determiner that as in that elephant, and the pronoun that as in give me that have no weak forms. Neither does the noun can, of course.

Speakers who are just starting out on their journey into English pronunciation may well mistake a schwa for another vowel. It can be difficult to recognise for the uninitiated, having no association with any particular orthographic vowel.

[Speakers with razor sharp ears may be able to detect a slight difference in the quality of the vowels in can and that. The vowel in can will be nasalised because of the following alveolar nasal sound, /n/.]

  • 1
    That's the answer and I am glad you understood the question:) Thank you very much!
    – viery365
    Aug 13, 2015 at 16:24

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