Are əʊ and oʊ the same?

For example are the following pairs pronounced the same:

  • /ɡrəʊ/ vs /ɡroʊ/ (grow)

  • /nəʊ/ vs /noʊ/ (no )

Is there any difference in pronunciation?

  • 2
    Whether they are the same is a different thing from whether they are pronounced the same. They are different ways of representing the same diphthong phoneme in IPA, so yes, they are the same. They are associated with different dialects, though (/əʊ/ with British Englishes, /oʊ/ with American Englishes), so no, they’re generally not pronounced the same. Apr 28, 2017 at 8:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet As an American, I can't figure out what /əʊ/ actually sounds like. Is it KCIII or is it Jason Statham? Is it Billy Connolly or Liam Neeson? Is it Molly Sugden or Molly Sugden? Coronation Street or East Enders?
    – Mitch
    Dec 7, 2023 at 19:22
  • 1
    @Mitch More KCIII than EastEnders, definitely. As a rule of thumb, the posher the dialect, the more schwa-like the start of the diphthong is. The stereotypical EastEnders accent represents traditional working-class London and will have diphthong-initial vowels tending more towards [o], [ɔ], [ɑ] and the like, but rarely [ə]. Dec 7, 2023 at 20:48

2 Answers 2


In my native British English accent, from the south of the UK in Southampton, /oʊ/ [ow] and /əʊ/ [əw] are distinct diphthongs. They may not serve in phonemic contrast (i.e. there are no minimal pairs of these diphthongs), but they definitely both exist in our phonemary. (Note that there is quite a range of accents even within the smallish city of Southampton and its surrounding towns!)

  • /əʊ/ [əw] no, grow, flow, know, toe, bro
  • /oʊ/ [ow] cold, coal, goal, troll, mould, roll

To exemplify phonemic contrast: if these diphthongs were phonemically distinct, the following could be different words:

  • kʰəwɫ vs kʰowɫ
  • bəwɫ vs bowɫ
  • tʰəw vs tʰow
  • ɡləwt vs ɡlowt

Is Dark L /ɫ/ responsible?

From my own considerations, it would appear that this is a phenomenon caused by the dark L /ɫ/ after the diphthong /əw/; the rising root of the tongue pulls the onset vowel /ə/ backwards, producing an /o/.

If the dark L is responsible for this effect, then it would be unimportant to describe this in phonemic IPA transcription. However, I personally still think it should be. Typically, IPA transcriptions are not used by native speakers! They are used by non-native students of English, therefore the transcription should describe distinction where it exists, because such students cannot know which sounds could be misinterpreted as other sounds.

In all honesty, I believe that this phonetic difference exists through all (most) British English accents, and also throughout general American English. (I have not analyzed every single person or accent, hence "I believe".)

IPA in dictionaries... cannot be trusted

If you listen to minimal pairs on the Cambridge Dictionary website, the rimes sound different despite being transcribed using the same IPA symbols. This doesn't hold true for all dark-L coda /əʊ/ rimes in US English [on the Cambridge website anyway], but this could be due to the recordings coming from different speakers.

(This is, I believe, one of the reasons behind Geoff Lindsay's phonetic reanalysis project, CUBE. The IPA system in common use is a) out of date and b) was perhaps never even correct originally.)


Cambridge Dictionary - UK & US YouGlish UK YouGlish US
home /həʊm/ sounds like [həwm] home home
hole /həʊl/ sounds like [howɫ] home hole
goat /ɡəʊt/ sounds like [ɡəwt] goat goat
goal /ɡəʊl/ sounds like [ɡowɫ] goal goal

(I don't have enough reputation to post more than 8 links so you can go search for them yourself :) )

Some contrasting pairs:

onset /əw/ rime /ow/ rime
pose pole
b boat bowl
toe told
code cold
ɡ goat goal
f phone fold
v vote vole
s so soul
ʃ show shoal
h home hole
m moan mole
n note knoll
ɹ rose roll
ʧɹ trope troll
ʤɹ drone droll

If you happen to listen to "roll" on Cambridge Dictionary, you'll notice that the British voice recording does indeed pronounce it as /rəʊɫ/. You'll also notice that his voice sounds like he is over 60 and at least middle class. Compare the pronunciation with "droll", recorded by somebody else, which is pronounced as /ʤɹowɫ/

It should also be noted that the /o/ analysis is more likely to be an /ɔ/ - across the board, not just in this scenario. (I'd recommend Geoff Lindsay's reanalysis of British English. Some aspects of the newer analysis can also apply to other dialects.) In faster and/or more relaxed speech though, all vowels tend towards a more-closed position anyway.

People who've been trained to speak in or closer to RP English rarely pronounce ⟨o*l⟩ as /owɫ/, preferring the more-controlled /əʊɫ/ (or even /əʊl/!). You'll notice this through watching the UK filter of videos on YouGlish.

And the standard linguist disclaimer that all views are my own, based on my experiences, readings, thoughts, ideas, hypotheses, filters of perception, etc. Any similarities to real people or events are purely coincidental 🙃

  • 3
    You mean a "phonemenon", surely :D
    – Joachim
    Dec 7, 2023 at 16:00
  • 1
    If they aren't in phonemic contrast, then they aren't separate phonemes; you shouldn't put them between slashes, only square brackets. Broad phonemic transcriptions (of the kind used in dictionaries) aren't very useful to non-native speakers at all; they're really only useful to people who already know how to articulate the sounds of English but don't know which of those sounds to put in a particular word. So they don't show even obvious cases of allophony.
    – alphabet
    Dec 7, 2023 at 16:08
  • 1
    (And this contrast doesn't typically exist in General American, at least not to the same extent, since the pronunciation is close to [oʊ] even without a following /l/.)
    – alphabet
    Dec 7, 2023 at 16:13
  • 1
    @alphabet Well, It shouldn't be in square brackets because it's not [ow] or [oʊ]!!! It's [ɔw] or [ɔʊ]. But, yes, of course those should be in square brackets! :) Basically, it's a reasonably well-known allophone of GOAT before dark l. OP is basically correct. You therefore get interesting contrasts between say the vowels in Pole and Poland, because the /l/ in the second is in the onset of the second syllable, and so you get a canonical GOAT beginning with a schwa. And for many speakers you'll get the same in many BrE dialects for Pole too when followed by a word beginning with a vowel. Dec 7, 2023 at 17:28
  • 1
    @Farran Of course the transcriptions should be trusted! They are phonemic!!! Nice first post, though. Welcome to UL&U Dec 7, 2023 at 17:42

I think it is the matter of accent. I usually hear /əʊ/ in British English and the other in American accent. This is just my opinion based on my experience in learning English, and I am not a native speaker. Am I right?

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.