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Can someone tell me how to pronounce the following:

  • Irishman/Irishmen

I have read carefully, according to the online Oxford Living Dictionaries, the pronunciation of words like Irishman/Irishmen: the singular is the same as the plural, both are phonemically**/ˈʌɪrɪʃmən/** in standard IPA.

Please check Merriam-Webster, which uses a non-standard, custom pronunciation scheme: Irishman = ī-rish-mən and Irishmen = ī-rish-mən

For example, here's the entry for Irishman/Irishmen from the Cambridge English Dictionary, which is also using IPA to denote which broad phonemes people hear in their minds when these words are said aloud:

Irishman

noun [ C ]: UK /ˈaɪə.rɪʃ.mən/ US ​ /ˈaɪə.rɪʃ.mən/ ᴘʟᴜʀᴀʟ -men UK ​ /-mən/ US​

However, several native speaker experts from EL&U assure me that in natural speech the two pronunciations are different:

  • In practice they will end up the same. When a native speaker is enunciating carefully (ie artificially), they will sound different: the singular will rhyme with Spider-man and the plural (which is the sound you’re actually hearing for both) with Goldman in Goldman Sachs. @Dan Bron (link)

  • Did you google pronounce irishmen and pronounce irishman
    It's a subtle difference. @aparente001 (link)

What is the actual case here: should Irishman and Irishmen be true homophones in reality?

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    In practice they will end up the same. When a native speaker is enunciating carefully (ie artificially), they will sound different: the singular will rhyme with Spider-man and the plural (which is the sound you’re actually hearing for both) with Goldman in Goldman Sachs. In fact, Jerry Seinfeld, a comedian, does a bit about pronouncing Spiderman as Spidermuhn, in accordance with how typical Jewish surnames ending in -man are pronounced. – Dan Bron Dec 25 '17 at 15:08
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    @DanBron I would say that a native speaker enunciating carefully will pronounce the singular to rhyme with ‘Goldman’ and the plural with a clear /ε/ to rhyme with men. I’ve never heard a native speaker pronounce Irishman/Dutchman/Frenchman/ABCman (where ABC is a nationality) to rhyme with Spiderman/Superman/XYZman (where XYZ is a superhero). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 25 '17 at 15:24
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    @aparente001 Erm, well OP had done some research, hadn't they? They'd looked the two words up in various dictionaries. That would seem to be sensible research. However, intuitively doubting the accuracy of the dictionaries, they came to get some expert authentification. You've not only doubted the veracity of the dictionaries, you've closed the question because it seems plain to you that a little googling would have shown the dictionaries to be wrong. Your links, however, make no sense :( ... – Araucaria Dec 27 '17 at 10:07
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    For me, the difference between Irishman and Irishmen is the difference between sermon /ˈsərmən/ and vermin /ˈvərmɪn/. This is a distinction which not all native speakers make, and is quite hard to hear even when they do make it. But this would explain why some people insist they're pronouncing them differently. – Peter Shor Dec 27 '17 at 14:22
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    @PeterShor That's the classic distinction between Rosa’s with the mid central unrounded vowel [ə] versus Roses with the close central unrounded vowel [ɨ]. Spoken slowly and carefully, meaning unnaturally, I (can) produce the ever so slightly different phonetic sounds there you mention. I'm far from sure I normally do so in connected speech, and when listening to others my brain would fill in the word that contextually “should” be there no matter which had been said. So I can’t even tell whether those are separate phonemes for me; they may well not be. Reduction is such a variable thing. – tchrist Dec 27 '17 at 14:34
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As one word: both [ˈʌɪ̯ɻəʃmn̩]

Yes, they really are homophones — but only when said as compound words rather than as two separate words in succession. As compound words, the American pronunciation of Irishman and Irishmen alike is usually just [ˈʌɪ̯ɻəʃmn̩] in connected speech, no matter whether singular or plural. Only the stressed syllable has a distinctive, non-reduced vowel, as is the normal case in English.

The other two syllables are very short, and the final syllable has been further reduced so that it has only a syllabic consonant [n̩], not a vowel proper.

As two words: [əˌnʌɪ̯ɻəʃ ˈmæə̯n] vs. [səˌmʌɪ̯ɻəʃ ˈmɛn]

It’s the unstressed reduction that makes all the difference. These are pronounced differently than one would pronounce “an Irish man” [əˌnʌɪ̯ɻəʃ ˈmæə̯n] or “some Irish men” [səˌmʌɪ̯ɻəʃ ˈmɛn].

Only when separate words giving man/men primary stress does it work differently, because that’s the only way for the distinction between [ˈmæə̯n] and [ˈmɛn] to appear. Plus the singular man is a little bit longer because of its stressed [æə̯] diphthong under ae-tensing, something that doesn’t happen in the unstressed part of compound words.


But what about Rosa’s roses?

Peter Shor comments that for him, the singular Irishman has what is in effect the unstressed vowel of Rosa’s, while the plural Irishmen has what is in effect the unstressed vowel of roses.

For many people, [ə] and [ɨ] are alternate phonetic allophones of the same underlying phoneme /ə/. It is a matter of some controversy whether there actually exists a distinct /ɨ/ phoneme instead of just an [ɨ] allophone of /ə/; for those who hear Rosa’s and roses as different words, there may well be. For those who do not, there isn’t.

For more about this, see the highly cited 2007 linguistics paper Rosa’s roses: reduced vowels in American English” by MIT’s Edward Flemming and CalTech’s Stephanie Johnson.

That same unstressed vowel [ɨ] might also occur in some utterances of Irish, so [ˈʌɪ̯ɻɨʃ]. The degree of vowel reduction in English unstressed syllables is always highly variable, and words said in isolation don’t sound the same as words said in connected speech.


Notational Notes

If we’re going to discuss actual sounds, and it seems we must, then we’ll need to use the phonetic notation used by specialists not the phonemic notation used by dictionaries. This can be quite complicated, but it’s the only way to show what we mean in writing. I provide three references to help reading, writing, and listening:

  • [READING] The Wikipedia page on the International Phonetic Alphabet.
  • [WRITING] A way to type those symbols using the Full IPA Keyboard.
  • [LISTENING] The University of Edinburgh’s incredibly useful Sound Comparisons website as mentioned by phoneticist John Wells on his blog. See for example how these words are actually said in different accents including Irish ones, with narrow phonetic transcriptions and actual sound clips provided:
  • Remember how I'm supposed to learn phonetic notation at some point? (Re Spanish Language SE.) Which one? Also is there a tutorial or something that will make it relatively painless? – aparente001 Dec 27 '17 at 15:16

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