I'm studying the English vowels of the IPA. However, I got a few questions which can't be diffused after discussions with my friends.

1. What's the difference between "ə" and "ʌ"?

I don't want an answer about the position of tongue and the shape of the mouth; instead, I wish to distinguish simply based on listening it. I know "ə" is kind of a very short "e" while "ʌ" is the sound of "u" in "up." However, I can't distinguish which one it is when listening to a word.

2. The 12 vowels in English

The 12 vowels should be as listed below (if I didn't get it wrongly).

ʌ, ɑː, æ, ɛ (e), ə, ɜː, ɪ, iː, ɒ, ɔː, ʊ, and uː.

While one of my friends studying phonology told me that ː (indicating long vowels) can be attached to all vowels. While my another friend told me that the 12 vowels listed above are the only possible vowels in English. Who was correct?

3. Distinguishing between long vowels

I found it quite difficult to do so. It is easy when I see "ee" in "see" or "oo" in "soon". But how could I distinguish it when it comes to "a" in "arm" and "u" in "turn", provided that both of them are long vowels?

4. Matters about accents

I'm personally a second-language learner in English so my pronunciation might not be as accurate (or perhaps natural, or whatever) as those who are native. Does this actually matters how I distinguish those vowels with tiny differences? For example, I used to pronouncing "professional" as "pro..." while the Oxford Dictionary pronounced it like "pra..."

5. The CVC pattern

It was my friend introducing this to me. Based on his explanation, it should be a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern for each word. And my question is: there are so many words (or I would say syllables) aren't ending in a consonant. For example, "see" is /siː/ which is a CV pattern. This denies that my friend said CVC is the most basic form of each word. I think I might get something missed out so can somebody point out what it is?

[I think this might be a similar situation of that we (as 2nd language learners) regard SVO as the basic statement structure while SV (like "it's raining") is also possible]

I hope this may not be too much and thank you for your kind responses.

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    English /ʌ/ tends to be closer to [ɜ] or even [ə].
    – Angelos
    Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 2:05
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    "ə" is kind of a very short "e" — who told you that? It's not anything of the sort. There are lots of Americans who use basically the same vowel for "ə" and "ʌ". They're supposed to be farther apart in British English, but I think that depends on the speaker's accent. Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 2:40
  • ə sounds like.... I should say the shorter version of the sound of "u" in "up"... I can't accurately describe the sound but just like the moan when you are hit by something... So they are basically indistinguishable, aren't they? Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 2:54
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    @Derrick: In British English, long vowels are longer and short vowels are shorter. In American English, this isn't true. Tell us which kind of English you are learning, and then we will try not to confuse you by telling you about the other kind. Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 3:14
  • 2
    The British vowels arm and turn don't sound much like each other to native English speakers ... even American ones. Your first language must be missing one of these vowels. I think the only thing to do is practice listening. Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 3:16

2 Answers 2


It's hard to give answers to these questions that are both simple and true, because phonetics is a complicated topic.

1. /ə/ and /ʌ/

You don't need to worry too much about the distinction between /ə/ and /ʌ/. The two vowels rarely contrast; in most varieties of American English, they actually never contrast. It's hard for even native English speakers to hear a difference. The schwa /ə/ is definitely not like a short "e" sound. The symbol /ə/ can represent slightly different sounds depending on the surrounding sounds, but in general it will be understandable if you pronounce it like the "u" in "up."

2. English monophthongs and their transcription

Different varieties of English have different sets of vowels. Also, there are different ways you can transcribe pronunciation depending on what you're focusing on. John Wells describes some systems in the linked article. The vowels you list are the traditional symbols for vowel monophthongs used in British IPA phonemic transcription.

You'll notice that this system:

ʌ ("up"), ɑː ("mark"), æ ("trap"), ɛ (e) ("bet"), ə ("the"), ɜː ("nurse"),
ɪ ("kit"), iː ("fleece"), ɒ ("lot"), ɔː ("thought"), ʊ ("book"), uː ("boot")

is redundant. The long vowels all have different symbols from the short vowels. So it's possible to leave out the length markers:

ʌ ("up"), ɑ ("mark"), æ ("trap"), ɛ (e) ("bet"), ə ("the"), ɜ ("nurse"),
ɪ ("kit"), i ("fleece"), ɒ ("lot"), ɔ ("thought"), ʊ ("book"), u ("boot")

Or you can keep the length markers, but use fewer vowel symbols:

ʌ ("up"), aː ("mark"), a ("trap"), e ("bet"), ə ("the"), əː ("nurse"),
i ("kit"), iː ("fleece"), ɔ ("lot"), ɔː ("thought"), u ("book"), uː ("boot")

(I have not found many resources that actually use a purely "qualitative" system like this. One example though is the book Making New Words: Morphological Derivation in English by R. M. W Dixon.)

English also has a rich inventory of diphthongal vowel sounds (again, the precise set is different for different accents). These are written in the IPA with two adjacent vowel letters, but they are really treated as single sounds by English speakers, so you should learn how to pronounce them as units.

British English lacks consonantal "r" at the end of syllables or r-coloring on vowels. In older varieties of British English, sequences of a vowel followed by "r" were often pronounced as "centering diphthongs" ending in a non-syllabic schwa sound: for example, "square" would be transcribed /skwɛə/ or /skweə/, "near" would be transcribed /nɪə/, and "cure" would be transcribed /kjʊə/. However, in modern British English pronunciation these "centering diphthongs" are often replaced in pronunciation by long vowels, some of which are of a different quality from the other pre-existing long vowels: "square" /skwɛː/, "near" /nɪː/, "cure" /kjɔː/.

3. How to tell if a vowel is long

If you have an IPA transcription, this is fairly easy: long vowels will generally have a length marker after them, as in /ɑːm/ and /tɜːn/.

If you just have the spelling in English, it is often difficult or impossible to figure out how to pronounce a word. Long vowels may be written in many ways.

4. Accents

It really depends on what you want to do, and what features are part of your accent. Some accents are distracting or difficult to understand, while others are barely noticeable. Your pronunciation of the first vowel in "professional" doesn't seem like it will impede communication, in my opinion.

5. CVC

I don't know exactly what your friend means, but I don't think this is a useful way for you to think about the structure of English words. As you say, there are many words of the structure /CVː/. There are also words that start with vowels (/VC/, /Vː/) or that start or end with more than one consonant (/CCVː/, /CCVC/, etc.).

  • Thank you very much by providing detailed answers; it is much appreciated. I just discussed the variations of vowels with my friends and I discovered there might be a slight difference in pronouncing "ɑː" between US and UK speakers. The former pronounces the "a" (ɑː) in arm as the "aa" I am familiar with while the latter pronounces like "o" like "orm". That's really interesting and worth studying! But again, many thanks for your answers! Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 5:12
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    The main difference between US and UK speakers in the pronunciation of arm is that US speakers pronounce the /r/. Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 13:54
  • Related.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 22 at 15:59

The only one am actually qualified to answer is the first one, so I'll leave the rest to more qualified sources till I find the book I require.

  1. Frankly, there is no phonetic difference between the two, and those who claim there is are often suffering from Bouba Kiki association. Don't strain your head over that, in the very least. The Wedge or Caret is often used as innotation in places where you are using consonants that have sharp and stressed sounds, the schwa where you require weaker 'uh' connotations.

Just refer to the site below :


  • 1
    Thank you very much. I think an easier way to understand it is that "ə" is for an unstressed syllable while "ʌ" is for a stressed one. Commented Jun 18, 2016 at 5:09

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