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This table shows the differences of phonetic symbols between different sources:

IPA AHD MW Sample Words
ɝ û ə work, were, bird, dirt, nurse, stir, courage
ŭ ə but, butt, bud

link to the table

The two Merriam Webster phonetic symbols are the same, so how am I to know the accurate pronunciation when it appears in a new word?

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  • Please link to where you found that. The column headings might be relevant and we need to be able to judge how to interpret the quality of the source.
    – Chris H
    Feb 9, 2018 at 8:24
  • The same vowel in bird and courage suggests a specific accent, and not one I'm used to
    – Chris H
    Feb 9, 2018 at 8:25
  • Presumably they're saying that MW only has one symbol, and doesn't distinguish those two vowels. Feb 9, 2018 at 14:41
  • Do note that vowel sounds are highly dependent on the speaker's upbringing and education.
    – Hot Licks
    Aug 25, 2022 at 12:40

2 Answers 2

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To answer your last question first: Use a dictionary that follows a widely-accepted standard; that's what IPA is for. If you really want to use Merriam-Webster's pronunciation guidance, you'll need to refer to their own notes.

Going back to the source of your table: I wouldn't trust it. There's a lot wrong with that page, which appears to be just a personal opinion. In particular the author has ignored the distinction between \ə\ and \ər\ in the M-W guide.

I think the examples are the author's own, and I don't think the author is a native speaker of a common dialect of English. Some examples only make sense in a rhotic accent (seemingly treated as default by Merriam-Webster), while others don't make sense in the same accent.

Some examples:

  • Oxford has /wəːk/, not the /wɝk/ implied.
  • M-W has \ˈwərk. We can't neglect the r in that transcription as the author of the page you linked does (see p.2 of the pronunciation notes I linked in my first paragraph).

  • As I commented, courage doesn't belong in the first list, in (most) English or many American accents:

    • Oxford: /ˈkʌrɪdʒ/ would put it in the second list (ʌ).
    • M-W gives two pronunciations: \ˈkər-ij , ˈkə-rij\ of which the first does fit the ɝ list. But the second fits the ʌ list. The notes under \ˈər-, ˈə-r\ in the pdf I linked make this clearer.
    • As such a poor example for either list, including it at all is misleading.
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  • In General American, courage and curry have the same first syllable. I think most of the asker's confusion has to do with not knowing to analyse phonemic /r/ as a consonant.
    – tchrist
    Feb 9, 2018 at 13:44
  • @tchrist they share the first syllable in British English too (a definite /ʌ/ though). I suspect you're right about phonemic /r/, but I think the OP has been confused by a confused author, or to put it another way both are relying too much on a misreading of the M-W transcription.
    – Chris H
    Feb 9, 2018 at 14:14
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    There isn’t actually one single standard IPA transcription for English, either. It’s always a good idea to look at the dictionary’s pronunciation guide.
    – herisson
    Feb 9, 2018 at 14:26
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    @sumelic of course. The difference as I see it is that if you follow another dictionary's IPA guide (or Wikipedia's, or a half-recalled combination supplemented by spot-checks) you'll be close, but if you try to interpret M-W's pronunciations using anything other than their own guide you'll get very confused.
    – Chris H
    Feb 9, 2018 at 14:38
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That table is a bit inaccurate: IPA’s /ɝ/ matches \ər\, not \ə\, in MW.

That being said, in MW, \ə\ does stand for both /ə/ and /ʌ/, which is not a problem for most American English speakers, who don’t distinguish those sounds anyway. However, the phonetic guide PDF that’s on MW’s website explains that \ə\ is /ʌ/ when it either has primary or secondary stress, but /ə/ otherwise.

  • append = /əˈpɛnd/ = \ə-ˈpend\
  • upend = /ʌpˈɛnd/ = \ˌəp-ˈend\

Pretty much the same thing goes for \ər\ standing for both /ɝ/ and /ɚ/; most American English speakers do not pronounce “forward” any differently from “foreword”.

  • forward = /ˈfɔːrwɚd/ = \ˈfȯr-wərd\
  • foreword = /ˈfɔːrˌwɝd/ = \ˈfȯr-(ˌ)wərd\

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