This image is the differences of phonetic symbols between IPA (left), AHD (middle) and Merriam Webster (right):

this is the difference of phonetic symbol between ipa and merriam Webster dictionary

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?

  • 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 '18 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 '18 at 8:25
  • Presumably they're saying that MW only has one symbol, and doesn't distinguish those two vowels. – curiousdannii Feb 9 '18 at 14:41

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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 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 '18 at 14:38

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