/ɑ/ is called open back unrounded vowel, however it appears in the center bottom of the vowel trapezoid of General American English at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_American#Phonology . Why? If GA English indeed uses that bottom central vowel, why not represent it with /ä/ (open central unrounded vowel)?

The cot-caught merger is out of the scope of this question.

  • In your other question, you were complaining that dictionaries used two different symbols for the vowel of purr: /ɚ/ in AE and /ər/ in BE. Now in this question, you're complaining that dictionaries don't use two different symbols for the vowel of spa: /ä/ in AE and /ɑː/ in BE. The dictionaries are indeed inconsistent about whether or not to use different notation for AE and BE, but it's clear they can't win either way. Jul 2, 2019 at 13:44
  • In my other question, I didn't complain that dicts used two different symbols ( /ɚ/ and /ər/) for "purr", I just didn't realize that the word was pronounced differently in US and UK. Sorry if I was not clear before. IMHO dictionaries should always express the differences of pronunciations between dialects. Jul 2, 2019 at 14:20
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    Well ... I think enough Americans use /ɑ/ that the dictionaries are justified in leaving it the same as the BrE pronunciation—even though Americans more typically use /ä/ and Brits use /ɑ/, this isn't one of the vowels that I perceive as being different in a British accent (nurse, corn, bird, boat, pot, cart, tune are dead giveaways). Jul 2, 2019 at 14:30

1 Answer 1


The phonetic position of vowels in English really depends heavily on the accent. Note that the chart is from a 1982 source, so even ignoring that different speakers use different qualities for vowels, there's been plenty of time for changes to have occurred. You should just think of the chart as showing approximate areas where you'd find vowels. I quote two other charts showing the different positions of vowels in different accents of American English in my answer to /ɑ/ vs /ʌ/ pronunciation (those are from a more recent, 2005 source).

The use of the phonemic symbol /ɑ/ to represent a phoneme that is often realized as a phonetically central vowel could be explained in various of ways: convenience or simplicity of symbols used in transcription is one, consistency with the transcription of other dialects of English (past or present) where /ɑ/ is phonetically a back vowel is another. If there are any theoretical reasons for considering this to behave phonologically as a "back" rather than as a front or central vowel phoneme in the English vowel system, that would be another explanation (I can't think of much that would support that analysis, but there might be evidence for it).

From a notational standpoint, it's considered preferable to distinguish phonemes in transcriptions with different IPA symbols rather than just with diacritics.

The chart is attributed to John Wells's Accents of English, and something else that you need to understand to interpret it properly is that this source makes heavy use of phonemic transcription in order to make it clear which sets of words are being talked about. It would be redundant on a phonetic chart to use the strictly phonetic symbol for the point that you are marking; using the conventional symbol "ɑ" is a way of unambiguously marking that the vowel that is shown at the bottom of the chart is the vowel used in words like lot, stop, sock, father, bra, spa (examples taken from pp xviii-xix, where Wells explains the book's "Typographical conventions and phonetic symbols").

  • I was referring to the GA English standard (I suppose there is one?), so I think that accents are not relevant in this discussion? Additionaly, I do not understand why would someone would like to have two identical phonetic transcriptions of a word in two English dialects that have different pronunciations of it. That only confuses who is reading/learning. Jun 5, 2019 at 11:57
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    @AlanEvangelista: There is no real standard for American English pronunciation. By which I mean that, even though you could probably find people who believe in the idea of a "standard" pronunciation, they would probably not actually agree on the details of the content of that standard.
    – herisson
    Jun 5, 2019 at 12:17
  • I didn't know that. Anyway, in that case, I suppose a specific dialect of the language is considered when building a vowel trapezoid. If John Wells wanted to represent an unrounded central low vowel, he should have used the correct IPA symbol for it. It seems odd to me that such an incorrect mapping of a sound to an IPA symbol in a scientific work was accepted by the scientific community and even more strange that dictionaries follow this terminology until nowadays in IPA transcriptions of GA American pronunciations. This unnecessarily makes foreigners lives harder when learning English. Jul 2, 2019 at 12:25
  • @AlanEvangelista: Dictionaries aren't wrong in using the symbol /ɑ/ to represent the vowel in words like "cot" (American English). Although accents vary, I've measured some formant frequencies of my vowels in Praat and the vowel I use in the word "odd" has a lower F2 than the vowel I use in the word "hood". I wouldn't consider it to be a mistake for a foreigner to use a back low unrounded vowel for the vowel that dictionaries transcribe as /ɑ/.
    – herisson
    Jul 2, 2019 at 12:35
  • Thanks for making it clearer. So [ɑ] (back unrounded low vowel) and [ä] (central unrounded low vowel) are two correct pronunciations in GA English. Is one of them more usual/widespread? Jul 2, 2019 at 14:31

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