Has anyone found the vowel in "-ang" and "-ank" words transcribed differently than /æ/? The sound, to my ear, is not the same as the /æ/ sound in words like "ran." I hear the vowel as closer to /eI/ or somewhere in between /eI/ and /æ/.

For reference, listen to the pronunciation of "ran":


And the pronunciation of "rang":


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    Dictionaries normally transcribe phonemes. There’s no doubt that the vowel is phonemically an /a/; sang and (gin)seng have clearly different vowels, for instance. But phonemes have allophones, and those aren’t generally included in dictionary transcriptions. The phoneme /a/, for example, has a specific allophone before velars, especially before the velar nasal /ŋ/. In AmE, it frequently gets diphthongised more there than elsewhere; in BrE, it is usually less centralised there. So a purely phonetic transcription would show a difference; but a phonemic one needn’t. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 4 '17 at 18:08
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    Because that deviation is not universal. It only applies to some dialects and speakers. Occam’s Razor: transcribe the simplest phoneme that will fit. There are no minimal pairs between /aŋ/ and /eɪŋ/ in English, so they could have chosen either; /a/ is just a more basic phoneme, since it’s not in itself a diphthong. In diphthongising dialects, the change is completely automatic, so it can be easily applied; in non-diphthongising dialects, no change is necessary. If they’d chosen /eɪ/, it would just have been reversed. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 4 '17 at 18:18
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That comment seems to be a reasonable official answer (and Jane should probably update her question to clarify that it is partly an issue of dictionary writing too. – Mitch Feb 4 '17 at 18:28
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    The palatal glide inserted after [æ] and before velar nasal is not purely phonetic, because it does not happen before a derived velar nasal, only before phonemic velar nasal. Compare "bankings" with "Ban kings!", where in the latter there is often an optional regressive assimilation of /n/ in place of articulation to the following velar /k/. Yet this secondary velar nasal does not cause insertion of a preceding glide (at least, not usually). – Greg Lee Feb 4 '17 at 19:21
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Oh yay, I’m glad you chimed in about there being no minimal pairs for /æŋ/ and /eɪŋ/. Dictionary pronunciations never capture the allophonic range realized in our pre-nasal vowels, especially lax ones, due variously to nasalization, assimilation, or neutralization. Spelling conventions for native English words are telling: witness how no native words are spelled with -enk or -eng (for /g/ not /dʒ) finally or under stress, so we have only sang, thank, tank, anger, banker, never any -en- versions of those. – tchrist Feb 4 '17 at 19:26

As other people have mentioned in the comments, the vowel in words like "rang" and "rank" is traditionally transcribed with the symbol /æ/, "ash," which corresponds to the vowel phoneme in the word "ash" in a standard modern English accent. This is the transcription you will see in dictionaries. It will likely to continue to be used because it is easy to derive most of the regional variants from this phonemic representation.

However, there are many American English accents where the vowel in "rang/rank" sounds significantly different from the vowel in "ash" (my own aming them). The phoneme /æ/ is especially prone to being "tensed" before nasals and voiced velar sounds, and /ŋ/ is both.

  • For some speakers, /æ/ is raised before any nasal to something like [ẽə̯̃]. This is about how I think I pronounce the vowel in "rang/rank" (it seems more-or-less the same to me as the vowel in "ran" or "ram," and about the same in quality as the sound in "rare" or "rail"). Actually, if I pronounce it slowly I can hear that the vowel in "rang" ends on a higher quality than the vowel in "ram," but I still don't mentally recognize my "rang" vowel as a closing diphthong.

  • For other speakers, the following velar nasal causes a high off-glide that is prominent enough that they perceive the vowel in "rang" to be noticeably different from the vowels in "ran" and "ram". For some of these speakers, there may be some kind of merger or near-merger with the phoneme /eɪ/ as in "rate." This doesn't cause much disruption to the system of vowel contrasts in English because the sequene /eɪŋ/ does not exist otherwise. This is similar in some ways to the change of /ɪŋ/ to [ɪjŋ] or /iŋ/ that is observed in some American English speakers, although I don't know if these changes tend to occur in the same areas or not. (For more on "ing", see the following post and the various linked posts: Why is /ɪŋk/ used with "ink" words when the actual pronunciation is /ijŋk/?)

    Another similar change may occur for some speakers before the /g/ vowel, where it does cause a merger of previously distinguishable sounds (although the merged sound is sometimes perceived, or at least described as being closer to /æ/ than to /eɪ/). This is mentioned in the following post: Pronunciation of vowel in vague as [æ] instead of [eɪ].

  • Thank you. Can you shed any light on which regional accents most commonly retain more of a raised /æ/ and which go more fully towards /eɪ/? – Jane Mar 13 '17 at 1:51
  • @Jane you're probably talking about a particular regional accent. The change you're describing is a feature of the 'Northern cities' accent (Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago). – Mitch Apr 11 '17 at 0:23

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