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I'm learning phonemes used in English. And, I came to know that there is the phenomenon called vowel reduction. Vowels get closer in the quality to schwa sound by this phenomenon.

Here is my question. I wonder if the sound qualities of different phonemes are overlapped and similar; is it hard or even impossible to identify phonemes?

In Japanese, there is no overlapped phoneme and vowel reduction, so I'm wondering why words can be identified while the timbres of phonemes can be the same with each other.

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    English speakers pay very little attention to the sound of vowels in unstressed syllables. There are not that many pairs of words that are distinguished by these (examples: affect and effect, Aaron and Erin in American dialects have the Mary/merry/marry merger), and native English speakers tend to confuse these words very easily. – Peter Shor Oct 9 '16 at 14:22
  • Interesting question. Is this one way of describing the Mary/merry/marry homophone issue? – John Feltz Oct 9 '16 at 14:23
  • @JohnFelz: Yes. That's not really a homophone issue -- it isn't limited to those words -- but rather a general tendency for tense and lax vowels to merge ("overlap" in the OP's terminology) before /r/. These are not all neutralized in some cases, in some dialects, including the ones that distinguish Mary, merry, and marry. As for the OP's question, Peter's right -- English speakers cue strongly on the shape of the word in terms of the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables. So does Japanese, but in a different way, since Japanese syllables are very different from English. – John Lawler Oct 9 '16 at 14:54
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    Note: vowels are reduced in Japanese as well, just based on different criteria. /i/ and /u/ are regularly reduced after sibilants and between unvoiced plosives, for instance. It is true that these reductions don't lead to phoneme mergers in Japanese as in English, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 9 '16 at 15:12
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    @David: yes, the noun affect is pronounced differently. But I find the verb affect and the noun effect are close to indistinguishable. – Peter Shor Oct 9 '16 at 15:54
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Even though the second syllables in these words all have the same /ə/ phoneme, they are written differently:

  • mountain
  • captain
  • woman
  • women
  • kitten
  • common
  • button
  • cousin
  • cabin
  • bosun
  • mesclun

It isn’t necessary (nor possible) to “hear” the difference there, because there isn’t one: all schwas are the same phoneme. The way native speakers know which word is said is always by the distinct phonemes found in the unreduced syllables, so in this case, the first syllable of each respective word listed.

The mapping of letters to sounds in English is a complex, many-to-many mapping. For example, in the case of woman and women, the second syllable is spelled differently but sounds the same, but the first syllable is written the same yet sounds different.

You aren’t really going to be able to figure out how to spell a word you haven’t heard before by listening to it in English. You have to learn them all one at a time.

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