There is a Cambridge American English Dictionary web-site. I was checking pronunciation on some words that have a common sound "æ". Although the sound supposed to be the same, its pronunciation differs in my opinion. I splitted two groups based on how the words sound.

The web-site I used is http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english.

The first is group:

that, capital, apple, have

The second one is:

cat, glass, grass, class

First question, does the sound really differ or it is me hearing it differently for some reason?

If it is different in the recordings, should that sound sound the same in all the words?

If it should sound the same, may it possibly differ in the recordings because they were taken from people living in different parts of America?



Here is my recording in which I read the words from the list by two ways:

1) the one I heard in an American English phonetics video and from a girl living in Minnesota.

2) the one I taught in school and heard from one guy living in Michigan that said that the first option is more Canadian or something.

Are they both possible ways of saying it and I can choose any? If not, what is most correct way of saying it? And please tell me what sounds I make in the terms of transcription. Thanks!

  • 2
    They all sound correct to me. I think it's just normal variation. I'd suggest listening to the pronunciations in a different dictionary, and see if you hear the same difference in the vowel in these words. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 13:06
  • 2
    The vowel in glass, class, grass seems (or is) a little longer due to the following s sound. The vowel sound of cat and that is the same, but the one in cat starts out more open due to the preceding open-mouthed k sound, verses the th sound of that. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 15:14
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    Looking at some websites on Russian phonology, the American vowel /æ/ is halfway between the Russian vowels a and e. (The British /æ/ is much closer to the Russian a.) So if your ears have been trained to distinguish Russian vowels, an /æ/ that is close to [ɛ] will sound like an e. Similar things may happen in other languages. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 16:41

4 Answers 4


One will need to record and graph in some way the physical sound of each example to get a real understanding of how they may differ.

A person can hear some differences that really are not there. That is because of the way one's brain processes the sound. Hearing is a sense that is not always the same from one human to another.

Some "talking dictionaries" may not use the same sounds as other such dictionaries use.

You have divided these words into two groups based on how you hear a particular vowel being pronounced. I have no opinion as to how close the vowels were in the eight words cited; my brain tends to ignore small differences in vowels. However my brain does not ignore many differences in how a consonant is articulated by a sonant (vowel, although others have a different definition). I am sure other people process some sounds differently than I. There is, thankfully, some approximate agreement among most people as to what different sounds are. Not perfect agreement, though.

The bottom lime is that the "usual" pronunciation of any word is never more than "approximately" how it is usually sounded. And, a symbol (letter) used to indicate a sound NEVER indicates more than an approximation of how that symbol is sounded.


North American /æ/ tensing

I can't really hear any differences there myself — I seem to have semantic satiety of the auditory variety after listening to them over and over again. But you should be aware of something called /æ/ tensing that may be affecting the actual production of the /æ/ phoneme. From Wikipedia:

In the sociolinguistics of English, /æ/ tensing is a process that occurs in many accents of American English, and to some degree in Canadian English, by which /æ/, the "short a" vowel found in such words as ash, bath, man, lamp, pal, rag, sack, trap, etc., is tensed: pronounced as more raised, and lengthened and/or diphthongized in various environments. The realization of this "tense" (as opposed to "lax") /æ/ varies from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] to [eə] to [ɪə], depending on the speaker's regional accent.

And offers this chart (click chart to enlarge):

Wikipedia chart of North American  /æ/ tensing

Given that phonemic /æ/ can be anything from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] or [eə] or [ɪə] or [e] or [ɛ] depending (see the Wikipedia chart), you might well be “hearing” those differently. But native speakers do not perceive those to be different phonemes. They are all just various ways to say the abstract /æ/ phoneme.

  • Thanks. That's interesting. One guy from Michigan told me to pronounce æ in "have" as [e] (at least I understood that sound as [e] like in egg). Okay, so you also think those recordings might've been taken from people living in different places, don't you?
    – Dmitry
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 6:15

It appears that [a] is the newer British sound of /æ/ , as far as the Received Pronunciation is concerned. See http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/sounds/case-studies/received-pronunciation/vowel-sounds-rp/ . The [æ] sound is labeled as "traditional RP" and the [a] sound, as simply "RP".

I've come across this question basically because I had exactly the same question as the OP. That is, I've noticed exactly the same difference between the American and British pronunciations of the phoneme /æ/ . To my ear, the British version sounds more like [a].

Finally, I found this thread:


which states that the Cambridge dictionary shows [mæp] for "map" but the Oxford dictionary shows [map] for "map"!

(Note that my interpretation about [a] being the newer sound for the phoneme /æ/ may be wrong. The British English may have acquired a new phoneme /a/. I don't know. Phoneticians will correct me.)


Here is the phonetic script of those words from the same web site.(http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/part)

The vowel sound in words grass, glass and class is differently pronounced in the UK and the US. In the UK, it is (a:) as in 'art', whereas in the US it is (æ) as in 'ass'.

that determiner UK ​ /ðæt/, US ​ /ðæt/ plural those

capital noun UK​ /ˈkæp.ɪ.təl/, US ​ /ˈkæp.ə.t̬əl/

apple noun [ C or U ]UK ​ /ˈæp.əl/, US ​ /ˈæp.əl/

have auxiliary verb UK ​ strong /hæv/ weak /həv/ /əv/, US ​ strong /hæv/ weak /həv/ /əv/

cat noun [ C ] UK ​ /kæt/, US ​ /kæt/

glass noun UK ​ /ɡlɑːs/, US ​ /ɡlæs/

grass noun UK ​ /ɡrɑːs/, US ​ /ɡræs/

class noun UK ​ /klɑːs/, US ​ /klæs/

  • The vowel sound in words grass, glass and class is differently pronounced in the UK and the US. In the UK, it is (a:) as in 'art', whereas in the US it is (æ) as in 'ass'. It makes sense. And is "a" in "ass" short e vowel sound?
    – Dmitry
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 14:30
  • @Dmitry:I used the same web site to cite examples as the OP did, where the ass is phonetically transcribed as: ass noun UK ​ /æs/, US ​ /æs/ in the Cambridge Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/ass). Also in the Macmillan Dictionary, it is given as 'æs' (macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/ass). But in some other dictionaries, it is seen as /as/. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of Current English by AS Horny also gives the phonetic transcription of 'ass' as /æs/. Nowhere I find it as /es/. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 15:36

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