Is there any pronunciation difference between both? Shouldn't IPA use one symbol per phonem/allophone? Curiously, this happens with the schwa, but not with "true" vowels, eg the A in car [kɑɹ].

1 Answer 1


Most Americans do not pronounce [əɹ] with two different, consecutive sounds (phones), but with one phone. You say "Shouldn't IPA use one symbol for phoneme?" The problem is that [əɹ] is two symbols for one phoneme. So [ɚ] is used instead.

For the other r-colored vowels, many Americans use single phones for [ɑ˞] and [ɔ˞], but many also use two, so [aɹ] and [ɔɹ] are considered to be adequate IPA representations of these. Wikipedia says:

In words such as start, many speakers have r-coloring only in the coda of the vowel, rather than as a simultaneous articulation modifying the whole duration. This can be represented in IPA by using a succession of two symbols such as [ɑɚ] or [ɑɹ], rather than the unitary symbol [ɑ˞].

For the other three r-colored vowels, [ɛɹ], [ɪɹ], and [ʊɹ], even fewer use a single phone than for [ɑɹ] and [ɔr]. (In fact, I don't know whether any Americans use a single phone for [ɛɹ] and [ɪɹ].)

If you try to represent American and British speech with the same IPA symbols, you run into big problems. What vowel do you use for palm, box, cloth, caught? Those are two vowels in American and three vowels in British speech, and there's not any easy way to deduce the American pronunciation from the British, and vice versa. So why not use [ɚ]?

And the American pronunciation of wanderer, /ˈwɑn.dɚ.ɚ/, is indeed different from the British pronunciation, /ˈwɒn.dər.ə/, in the der syllable.

  • Three vowels in AmE as well if you don’t have the cot–caught merger. (Also there’s no reason to assume that /ər/ is one phoneme. It may be pronounced as a single sound, a rhotacised schwa, but that doesn’t mean it’s not phonemically a sequence of two phonemes.) Jul 1, 2019 at 22:34
  • You mean palm and box are different vowels? Or cloth and caught are different vowels? They're not for me. Jul 1, 2019 at 22:40
  • Yes, palm /ɑ/, box and cloth /ɔ/, and caught /ɒ/ (to give phonemes – the /ɒ/ phoneme in particular varies a lot in actual pronunciation). Also to some AmE speakers, I’m pretty sure all four words would have /ɑ/. Can’t think off the top of my head right now which merger that would be, but one of ‘em. Jul 1, 2019 at 22:44
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    The dictionaries say that palm and box have /ɑ/ and cloth and caught have /ɔ/. Which matches my dialect. If you merge cot and caught, they all get the same phoneme. I don't know what dialect you're speaking, but are you sure that some British English didn't get mixed in? Jul 1, 2019 at 22:50
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    @PeterShor The cot/caught merger is not binary. Palm has /ɔ/ on a lot of the East Coast. But I have heard it pronounced with /ɑ/ by people from Upstate New York who pronounce caught with /ɔ/. When I try to put a /ɑ/ between "p" and "l" I wind up with a coughing fit. Or it comes out as /æ/. I don't know how they do it.
    – Spencer
    Jul 1, 2019 at 23:11

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