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I see many words in English have the same phonetics but I don't know why they sound different.

It means if we read the phonetics and pronounce, it will be wrong. Here are the examples.

  1. fun : /fʌn/
  2. hunt : /hʌnt/
  3. luck : /lʌk/
  4. hulk : /hʌlk/
  5. bulk : /bʌlk/

As you can see, the vowels in the words above are spelled with the same letter ("u") and transcribed with the same phonetic symbol ("ʌ"), but all of them sound different. Fun and hunt sound similar, but they sound quite different from hulk or bulk.

If I pronounce the u vowel on hulk ~ luck or fun, it might be wrong

Why? What's the role of the phonetic symbol "ʌ" and how do I pronounce these words correctly based on reading phonetics?

4

As Hot Licks said in a comment, and Peter Shor said in his answer, the pronunciation of a vowel may be altered by the surrounding sounds. But not all phonetically distinguishable vowel sounds are considered to be distinct "phonemes" of a language. When the difference in pronunciation is predictable from the context, a pair of vowel phones may be considered to be "conditioned allophones" of a single vowel phoneme, and an English dictionary will write them with the same symbol, even though they don't sound exactly the same.

Many English vowels have some kind of allophony that is conditioned by a following "dark l" sound [ɫ]. But the phonetically distinct vowel sounds used before "dark l" are not considered to be phonemically distinct in most accents. (In some accents, mergers may occur before dark l, which suggests that there is a phonemic change in these accents. For example, some American English speakers may pronounce "hulk" the same as a hypothetical word "hoolk" /hʊlk/ or "hawlk" /hɔlk/.)

Other examples of vowel allophony that is conditioned by a following "dark l" [ɫ]

This isn't just something that's applicable to /ʌ/. For example, my /u/ is central [ʉ] or even front [y] when it's not before [ɫ], but back [u] before [ɫ]. (There is a blog post by the linguist Geoff Lindsey that talks about the existence of this kind of allophony in British English: "GOOSE backing"). To a lesser extent, my /ʊ/ is also backer before [ɫ] than in other contexts. Likewise, the front vowel phonemes /ɛ/, /æ/ and /ɪ/ are backed for me before [ɫ].

My /o/ ("goat") seems to be somewhat backer before [ɫ] than in other contexts, but to me, the most noticeable difference is in the trajectory of the vowel—in most contexts, it sounds like a closing diphthong that I would transcribe as [oʊ̯], but before [ɫ], it sounds like an opening diphthong that I would transcribe as [oə̯]. There is a similar pattern of allophony for me for /e/ and /i/—before [ɫ], the way I pronounce these sounds somewhat like [eə̯] and [iə̯] respectively.

So I don't use exactly the same phonetic vowels in fool and soon, pull and put, bell and bet, pal and pat, bill and bit, bowl and boat, fail and fate, heal and heat. But these pairs of words are still considered to have the same vowel "phonemes".

The distribution of the "dark l" [ɫ] allophone of /l/

The distribution of "dark l" follows different rules in different dialects. As far as I know, in all dialects that make any use at all of a "dark l" sound, it is used for /l/ before word-final consonants, but Peter Shor's answer mentions some words where the "l" is between vowels and may be dark or light depending on the dialect. A prior question asks about this topic: L in the middle of a word: dark l or light l?

"An amphichronic approach to English syllabification" (Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero, 2013) describes some relevant data and analyses.

Mr Beelik’s paradox (Bermúdez-Otero 2011: 2038-9)

§29 Kahn’s prediction:
Kahn predicts that, unless the segmental context is different, a liquid will have the same allophonic realization in word-final prevocalic position (e.g. seal in) and in foot-medial intervocalic position (e.g. Sealey)

§30 [...] The Midwestern US dialect described by Sproat and Fujimura (1993), henceforth ‘the SP dialect’.

  • Midwestern speakers ➩ canonical (Kahnian) pattern of /t/-flapping
  • /l/-darkening data:
    Beelik /l/ ambisyllabic by Coda Capture ➩ [l] i.e. clear l (coronal lead)
    Beel equates /l/ ambisyllabic by Onset Capture ➩ [ɫ] i.e. dark l (coronal lag)

∴ In the SP dialect, Kahn’s syllabification works for /t/ but not for /l/
(already noticed by Sproat and Fujimura 1993: 308)

[...]

The cyclic solution to Mr Beelik’s paradox (Bermúdez-Otero 2007b: §18-§20, 2011: 2039)

§34 English syllabification is onset-maximal at all levels (see §5 above). [Therefore, word-final consonants are in the coda at the word level, but they are detached from the coda and resyllabified into the onset at the phrase level when followed by a vowel-initial word.]

[...]

§46 The dialectal signature of rule generalization:

  • In the SP dialect, stop lenition applies in weak positions in the foot, [Σ …V́…__…], whereas /l/-darkening is still confined to weak positions in the syllable, __ σ]

    However, there do exist other English dialects where /l/-darkening is more advanced, having become a foot-based process:

    e.g. ye[ɫ]ow, vi[ɫ]age.

    For American English, see e.g. Olive et al. (1993: 366), Hayes (2000: 95-96);
    for British English, see Carter and Local (2003, 2007).

Apparently, Peter Shor's dialect has the same rule as the "SP dialect" that Bermúdez-Otero mentions, while my dialect has the "foot-based" rule.

There is also a blog post by John Wells that describes a similar phenomenon in some accents of British English: "newly minimal" (2012).

The realization of vowel allophones, as well as the existence of vowel mergers, varies between accents

It's certainly not the case that all American English speakers merge /ʌ/ with /ʊ/ (the vowel sound of "book") before [ɫ], so I wouldn't agree with the idea that it's "wrong" to pronounce all of fun, hunt, luck, hulk and bulk with a vowel phone somewhere around [ʌ].

  • Waitaminute. Ball and bat have the vowel phoneme?! – John Y Jun 14 '18 at 22:19
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In many dialects of English, the vowel /ʌ/ is typically altered when it is followed by an /l/. In some dialects of American English, the word color is usually an exception to this rule (probably because col is not a root word), and if you listen you can hear that color and duller sound different, even though they are phonemically /kʌlər/ and /dʌlər/.

In British English, just from listening to a few dictionary pronunciations, even though it seems that an /l/ after /ʌ/ in the same syllable may change the vowel slightly, it looks like the vowel is not changed if the /l/ belongs to a different syllable, so color and duller rhyme.

EDIT: as Araucaria points out in the comments, the pronunciation depends on whether a clear [l] or a dark [ɫ] follows the vowel. In British English, the rule for which to choose seems fairly clear ... a dark [ɫ] follows the vowel if it's in the same syllable (so if it's VlV, the [l] is clear, but for Vl or VlC, the [ɫ] is dark).

For American English, it's much more complicated. I don't think there's a way of predicting which pronunciation you should use in the case of VlV. You use a clear [l] for color and a dark [ɫ] for dully. But listening to online pronunciations, the words sully and gully appear to be pronounced both ways. In fact, I pronounce sully and Gulliver with a clear [l] and gully with a dark [ɫ].

  • 2
    To me, "color" and "duller" seem to rhyme, even though "slowly" [sloʊ.li] and "holy" [hoə̯li] don't. – sumelic Jun 12 '18 at 18:19
  • @sumelic: To me, slowly and holy rhyme, but holy and wholly don't. Changed my answer to add some dialects above. – Peter Shor Jun 12 '18 at 18:20
  • So it means copying the phonetic from word to word is wrong? Like fun and bulk has the same ^ but they can't be pronounced similarly, right. I see many friends was taught to pronounce a word by this way – TomSawyer Jun 12 '18 at 18:23
  • I wonder if this has to do with some consistent difference between how intervocalic /l/ is treated in different accents. Would you say a similar distinction would exist for /ul/ before a vowel; e.g. like the ruler (person) vs. ruler (tool) contrast mentioned in this blog post by John Wells? – sumelic Jun 12 '18 at 18:26
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    @sumelic: No, I pronounce ruler the same for both meanings. Although now that you mention it, cooler, meaning more cool, is pronounced differently from cooler, meaning something to store drinks in, so I guess I don't treat either meaning of ruler as having rule as a root word. – Peter Shor Jun 12 '18 at 18:31
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I believe this issue has to do with l taking over the vowel sound as a syllabic consonant, which could be better represented in IPA as [l̩], or if keeping it written strictly as a vowel, /ɔ/ is a closer approximation to the u in hulk than that in fun, as it is further back than /ʌ/ while still being an open-mid back vowel.

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In American English there is a vast difference between the ten non-central vowel phonemes,
viz.

  • /i, ɪ, e, ɛ, æ, a, ɔ, o, ʊ, u/

and the single central vowel phoneme (variously represented as /ʌ/ or /ə/,
with the other symbol as an allophone). I normally use /ə/ for the phoneme symbol,
with [ʌ] as the stressed allophone, and other central vowels in other contexts.

One of the big differences is that the non-central vowels contrast strongly with one another, and occur in very limited areas in phonological space, whereas there is no phonemic contrast in the central vowel space (i.e, there is no minimal pair between [ə] and [ʌ]). Consequently there is no single IPA symbol for the English central vowel phoneme. Simply put, it varies too much.

Another big difference is that all unstressed vowels are centralized and often shortened,
converted to syllabic consonants, or even deleted, leaving a vast number of unstressed schwas
in a transcription (many of which are actually [ɨ] or [ʉ], depending on speech rate).

Finally, there is the fact that individual speakers follow their own patterns of vowel allophony, especially with the central vowels. Why shouldn't they? There's no phoneme difference to worry about; everybody understands whatever central vowel one uses.

The upshot of all this is that there is simply no point to worrying about the pronunciation of English central vowels, unless one is doing phonetic research with appropriate instruments. Certainly nothing can be said about them usefully if the discussion is limited to IPA symbols.

  • I might agree that there's not much point in worrying about pronunciations of unstressed vowels. But book and buck both have central-ish vowels in them, and you definitely don't want to pronounce them the same. See chart. – Peter Shor Jun 14 '18 at 22:26
  • Book has a lax high back rounded vowel in American English: [bʊk]. See the relevant entry in Kenyon and Knott. – John Lawler Jun 15 '18 at 18:07
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    Look at Kenyon and Knott under their entry just. They give two pronunciations: /dʒʌst/ and /dʒəst/. They say lightly stressed adverb often /dʒəst/. If they thought that there was no difference between /ʌ/ or /ə/ except stress, this comment would make no sense at all. So clearly, Kenyon and Knott think that /ʌ/ and /ə/ are two different sounds. – Peter Shor Jun 15 '18 at 18:38
  • And I agree that book has /bʊk/, but for me /ʊ/ is around the same distance from /ə/ than /ʌ/ is (above and back of it rather than below it like /ʌ/, but they both feel central to me). – Peter Shor Jun 15 '18 at 18:45
  • @Peter, that's not a contrast, just a lectal allophone variant. I say [dʒɨs] for just most of the time, but that doesn't mean it's not a /ə/. We're talking phonemes, remember? Minimal pair? As for your /ʊ/ placement, there isn't a great deal of room in the physical "high back" space, and it's easy to see why it would feel central. It is pretty central. Those abstract rectangles don't show the real volumes. Almost everybody's /ʊ/ gets centralized even when stressed. – John Lawler Jun 15 '18 at 19:48

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