As I am a foreigner, I have great difficulty differentiating the sounds /æ/ and /e/ . When spoken softly, it becomes almost impossible for me to discern the sounds. Such as this one from movie Inception at 2:06 (...Saito knows. He's playing with us. Dicaprio: It doesn't "MATTER".)


Matter here almost sounds like "MEtter". As such, I am frustrated by such hardship.

Are /æ/ and /e/ always distinguished when spoken? I always make sure that I emphasize the vowel sound when I speak so as to achieve the best clarity I possibly can. However, it seems that when native speakers speak, the difference becomes extremely subtle or just indistinguishable. Is it only me? And if so, what should I do to attain the ability to hear such difference?

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    It's probably the influence of your first language. They're fairly close vowels, but native English speakers can distinguish them most of the time. Jun 5, 2016 at 1:49
  • Is the one in the video clear to you? Jun 5, 2016 at 1:50
  • Hi ohgodpleasegod, welcome to ELU. The issue you raise isn't specific to English, it occurs in many other languages: most people speak lazily in their native tongue, not taking the care to use good diction, enunciate clearly, etc. Education, socio-economic status, ethnic background and geography are all strong influences on accent / pronunciation / diction. Two solutions are exposure (eg watching films from different English-speaking countries) and practice at discerning words based on context. But I assure you that even native speakers can struggle with understanding poor diction. Jun 5, 2016 at 2:46
  • As a native speaker of English I was confused at your title, these are very distinct sounds to me, and I imagine to most English speakers. /æ/ is a fairly English sound, and one that is less common worldwide . If your native language does not have it, it's no surprise you confuse it with other vowels. What is your native language? Jun 5, 2016 at 7:59
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    The one in the video is fairly clear. Another thing ... there are a lot of dialects of English, and in several of them (New Zealand, Chicago) the vowel /æ/ moves into the vowel space of /ɛ/. This can confuse native speakers who aren't used to these dialects (although when we're visiting a region that speaks one of these dialects, we adapt after a while). Jun 5, 2016 at 13:04

1 Answer 1


Phonology works together with word sense and context. In your example, there is no need to mark /æ/ from /Ɛ/ much: "m æ tter" or "m Ɛ tter", the word sense remains the same. I do not mean to support unclear pronunciation. This is just how it happens (along with recording quality; in your example, I hear /æ/).

You would hear more difference, when the sounds are distinctive, i.e. make divergent word senses. Compare





The website has audio pronunciation.

I understand your language does not have /æ/. It sure has /a/ and /e/. Telling /æ/ comes easier when we can say it ourselves. Try saying /e/ and lowering your jaw, gradually, as for /a/. You should get /æ/, I've tried with students. :)

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