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If someone who is a linguistics expert could explain this to me in a way I can understand, I'd really appreciate it. I get that /ʌ/ is used on stressed vowels and /ə/ on reduced vowels, but they sound exactly the same to me.

'Strut' (/strʌt/) is given as an example word for the former, and 'comma' (/ˈkɒmə/) for the latter, but I pronounce both of those words the same. I'm confused as to how these differ from a sound perspective.

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    In my speech – some dialect of AmE – comma (as well as many other words supposedly ending with ə) actually has ʌ rather than ə. See whether the middle vowel of catapult or paramount is different from strut. – Peter Shor Aug 4 '17 at 20:00
  • If the Midwest accent makes little distinction between them, try listening to others who do. A general rule is that TV broadcasters have good, neutral, non-regional accents. The trick is to differentiate the 'UP' sound from 'THE boy' sound. If you say them slowly, you may say the same UH, but said quickly, the ə in THE falls away as an unflavored vowel like the A in away. You could say UH-way, but it's ə-WAY. – Yosef Baskin Aug 4 '17 at 20:02
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"I get that /ʌ/ is used on stressed vowels and /ə/ on reduced vowels."

No. Yes, "/ʌ/ is used on stressed vowels", but there is no phoneme /ə/ in English. There is only an allophone [ə] of various unstressed vowel phonemes, including /ʌ/. (I am giving you my own idiosyncratic opinion here -- some linguists will disagree.) You're not going to be able to deal with the difference you're concerned about until you have some idea of the difference between phonemes and allophones.

Phonemes are perceptual, while allophones are actually pronounced. Unless they have some training in phonetics, or are just naturally very good at phonetics, English speakers don't hear schwa at all, because there is no such phoneme. They will hear a schwa as some similar vowel phoneme, probably caret /ʌ/. But there is nothing intrinsically impossible about hearing and pronouncing both sounds, it is just being stuck with the English phonological pattern that makes for the difficulty.

You have to get beyond the usual limitations of English speakers in order to control both schwa and caret. I suggest taking careful note of your tongue position as you say various unstressed vowels. I find that my tongue is retracted toward the back of my mouth when I say caret, but not retracted when I say schwa.

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    This is an idiosyncratic opinion, and it may apply to some dialects, but I don't think it applies to the American dialect I speak. – Peter Shor Nov 2 '17 at 12:01
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If there is only one central vowel in a language, then for speakers of that language, the difference between /ə/ and /ʌ/ will be very difficult to hear.

Both of these vowels are articulated with the same portion of the tongue (what we call the "centre") being higher—in other words closer to the roof of the mouth—than the rest. The difference between them is that /ʌ/ is more open. In other words the jaw is slightly lower and the gap between the tongue and the roof of the mouth is slightly greater.

The difference in quality between STRUT and schwa, therefore, is akin to the difference between /e/ and /æ/, the vowels in DRESS and TRAP. The vowel in TRAP requires the jaw to be slightly lower than the for the vowel in DRESS.

  • I'm afraid you've again confused IPA /e/ with IPA /ɛ/. That's going to confuse the poor learner terribly. – tchrist Nov 3 '17 at 1:28
  • @tchrist Hmmm. One seems to have a bad case of Uptonitis ;) – Araucaria Nov 7 '17 at 10:39
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    I think I'll be okay. – Jesse Jul 12 '18 at 18:52
  • @Jesse Ah, was that with reference to 'Uptonitis'? That's a joke for tchrist's benefit. I was referring to the fact that the established convention for the transcription of English using IPA symbols uses /e/ to represent the sound in the word set. But one phonetician named Clive Upton decided h had better symbols and used /ɛ/ to represent this sound instead. However, Upton's changes have been roundly ignored b other phoneticians because there are various problems with them. You won't find them in any EFL coursebook, for example. So I was joking, using 'Uptonitis' as the name for an illness! – Araucaria Jul 12 '18 at 21:36
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    I just meant that I wasn't in danger of being confused. I was under the impression that /ɛ/ was adopted for the sake of clarification, because /e/ has been used inconsistently to refer to both /ɛ/ and /eɪ/ – Jesse Jul 13 '18 at 12:52
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In my understanding, the lax, middle \ə\ sound is the "default" vowel with the least oral modification of the vocal air stream, while the \ʌ\ sound is produced with the tongue somewhat lower and is tenser, as evidenced in English by it being found only in single and stressed syllables.

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