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Are the words "Aural" and "Oral" usually pronounced the same? Does it vary by dialect? Are there strategies that people use to differentiate them when listening to spoken English?

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    What does your dictionary say? Does it give the same IPA transcription for both? – Chris H Dec 5 '18 at 12:35
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    I pronounce them with an A and O respectively, but it would be hard for a third party to clearly distinguish one from the other in a word stream. Webster's and Oxford give the same pronunciation for both, which I find a bit odd. – Hot Licks Dec 5 '18 at 13:10
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    In American English, as given in Kenyon and Knott, both are pronounced /'ɔrəl/, and in addition, oral may also be pronounced /'orəl/ -- if, of course, tense and lax vowels are not neutralized before /r/, the way they are in most rhotic American lects. – John Lawler Dec 5 '18 at 23:30
  • I have the cot-caught merger, and use the cot vowel for aural and the force vowel with oral. That may be because I learned them from reading rather than hearing, however. – choster Dec 6 '18 at 3:09
  • @HotLicks What vowels exactly do you mean by that? Are you saying you pronounce aural with the same vowel as father? Or like Harold without the h and d? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 22 '19 at 22:01
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Since this question asks about whether people can tell the difference I am going to answer for myself and my dialect rather than referring to a dictionary.

I speak Standard Southern English English and I pronounce them the same as far as I know. I cannot tell the difference when I hear them whatever accent the speaker has.

There is one exception and that is that I sometimes hear aural with the same vowel as now. Sometimes it is clear they are deliberately pronouncing it that way to distinguish it but sometimes I am not sure if they know how to pronounce it.

I never hear them pronounced slightly differently.

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  • @andyt My mistake. I thought it was a recognized term. Research shows it isn't. I mean the standardized version of the language of southern England that is close to what is sometimes called BBC English. Standard Southern English English would be clearer so I have edited my answer, but this term is unwieldy and often avoided. The term Standard British English is sometimes used but many find that objectionable as it appears to prioritize southern England over the rest of the country and and the other nations of Britain. – David Robinson Dec 5 '18 at 14:35
  • @DavidRobinson Whether it's clearer or more politically accurate, it is more common in language circles to say 'British English'. 'English English' sounds even more 'little England' than 'British English'. – Mitch Dec 5 '18 at 14:52
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    Yes, @mitch, I agree I speak a dialect of BE, but the problems are with the adjectives Standard and Southern put in front of the term. People here in Scotland get offended (quite reasonably) when they hear the term British used as the adjective for England which is why I am not going to use it when describing what part of England my accent is from. – David Robinson Dec 5 '18 at 15:06
  • @DavidRobinson You may have a very good case, I'm just pointing out that it is out of the mainstream and that others outside of Scotland might get confused at your usage. – Mitch Dec 5 '18 at 15:56
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    From my side of the pond, "Southern English" is the dialect whose speakers address people as "y'all" and in which "bless your heart" is a dig. – shoover Dec 5 '18 at 22:34
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They are “supposed” to be pronounced the same in almost all accents of English (the exception would be accents without the “north-force merger”). It’s not unheard of for people to pronounce them differently, but none of the possible ways of differentiating them has become recognized as standard: they all involve pronunciations that many would consider “mispronunciations”. And I don’t know of any dictionaries that mention distinct pronunciations for these two words.

Aural has the long north vowel as the outcome of the thought vowel before /r/

Words with "au" followed by /r/ are not that common, so it's a little hard to describe their pronunciations in terms of a general rule. Dinosaur, Minotaur, centaur, thesaurus, tyrannosaurus are other words where "aur" is standardly pronounced as the vowel found in north.

Laurel has a pronunciation with the "short o" vowel in British English, /ˈlɒrəl/, which can be considered irregular. (A few words spelled with au before another consonant also have irregular pronunciations with "short o" in British English, such as sausage /ˈsɒsɪdʒ/.)

As mentioned in David Robinson’s answer, aural is sometimes pronounced with the sour diphthong. The phonetician John Wells made a blog post mentioning the "ˈaʊrəl" pronunciation of aural, and the comments below it have some more discussion: "trauma", John Wells's Phonetic Blog.

From an American English speaker with the cot-caught merger, “aural” might be heard with the unrounded back vowel of “caught” (vs. a rounded vowel in “oral”). For anecdotal evidence, see the posts here: http://www.verduria.org/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=73&start=200 as well the comments left below your question by Hot Licks and choster.

Oral has the long force vowel as the outcome of the "long o" vowel before /r/

Oral is an -al adjective, a class of words that come from Latin and that generally are pronounced in a way consistent with the "traditional English pronunciation of Latin words". In the case of oral, the relevant part of the traditional Latin pronunciation rules is a rule saying that a vowel letter represents a "long vowel" when it comes in the second-to-last syllable of a word and is followed by only a single consonant letter. Since the O in "oral" meets these criteria, it is regular for it to be pronounced as a "long o" sound, which before a /r/ is normally modified into the force vowel.

There are exceptions to the traditional pronunciation rules: the most relevant one is moral, which British English speakers pronounce as /ˈmɒrəl/, with a "short o" sound. (Coral also has a "short o" in British English pronunciation, but it is not an -al adjective.) But oral doesn't seem to be a well-established exception. The Teflpedia article "Pronunciation exercises: /ɒrV/ vs /ɔːrV/" points out that the Collins Dictionary entry for "oral in British" lists the variant pronunciation /ˈɒrəl/ after /ˈɔːrəl/.

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  • It's hard to take your Teflpedia article seriously when they purport that Americans have the same vowel in all of thought, cloth, north, force. Rather, they're in pairs, with the former pair sharing lax /ɔ/ and the latter pair sharing tense /o/. They even admit they’re lying: “Many people pronounce /ɔː/ and /ɔːr/ with different vowels (e.g. "sauce" as [sɔs] and "source" as [sors]); however since the difference is predictable there is no problem using the same symbol in both cases (e.g. /sɔːs/ and /sɔːrs/).” That’s idiotic. Different sounds, different symbols, duh. – tchrist Sep 22 '19 at 23:20
  • @tchrist: They're usually predictable, except some New Yorkers pronounce aura, Laura, and possibly aural with the sauce vowel, and core, Lora, and possibly oral with the source vowel. – Peter Shor Sep 22 '19 at 23:24
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I have always lived in Southern England, and am a bit of a language pedant. I don’t know if others would consider it correct, but I always distinguish by pronouncing aural like choral, and oral like coral. I hate it that so many pronounce them both like choral. And pronouncing aural like “owral” makes it sound like a German word.

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    I find this answer to be very interesting in a slightly bewildering fashion because as far as I know, "choral" and "coral" are exact homophones; so I am very curious as to what distinction you actually make between the "-oral" parts. – Hellion Sep 22 '19 at 21:56
  • @Hellion Choral (being derived from chorus) has a long vowel, /ˡkɔːrəl/, while coral has a short vowel, /ˡkɔrəl ~ kɒrəl/. Well, in theory at least. Even in BrE, many people pronounce them the same (like aural and oral). The distinction between /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ is disappearing before /r/. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 22 '19 at 22:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Is the distinction as a whole really disappearing? I hadn't heard of that: although I had heard that certain words with ambiguous spellings, like florist, may show variation, I thought that words like horrid, horrible, sorry, sorrel, borrow, sorrow, torrent were firmly /ɒ/-only words in British English, and words like story, gory, glory, adorable were firmly /ɔː/-only words. – herisson Sep 22 '19 at 22:15
  • @sumelic I think the distinction is on its way out, at least among many younger speakers. An at least partial merger of the two, with non-distinctive vacillation in vowel length and often a complete merger of vowel quality, seems anecdotally to be very common in younger speakers; less so in older speakers. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 22 '19 at 22:19
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Oh, which direction is the neutralized quality? Would speakers with an indistinct or merged quality use a vowel in sorrow, sorry, horrible that is more [o]-like than the vowel in lot, or a vowel in gory, glory, adorable that is more [ɔ~ɒ]-like than the vowel in gore or adore (which I understand to be pronounced as [oː] by many southern British speakers)? – herisson Sep 22 '19 at 22:24

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