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The IPA symbol /ʌ/ name is "open-mid back unrounded vowel" and the IPA vowel trapezoid shows it as the unrounded version of /ɔ/, but its sound in English sounds very different from [ɔ] to me. It sounds to me identical to [ɜ] (open-mid central unrounded vowel). Am I listening right? If so, why are 2 different IPA symbols used for identical sounds?

Example: [ɜ] in search [sɜ:t͡ʃ] (RP English) (https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/search) vs [ʌ] in butter [bʌɾɚ] (https://en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/butter). I would compare the GA English pronunciation of "search" but I have been already told that ɜ is pronounced differently in that word in GA English.

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    The IPA symbol /ʌ/ has not been changed since it was first assigned to that vowel. The vowel has changed. Further, it differs quite a bit in American and British English. There are some British songs where it sounds like very much like [ɑ] to me. Of course, in British English, /ɑː/ is longer, so people can distinguish them that way (unless you're singing). Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 13:33
  • Your examples of search and butter sound like different vowels to me. Of course, that British pronunciation of search is probably not using the IPA [ɜ:], while that American pronunciation of butter is also probably not using IPA [ʌ]. Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 15:06
  • Take a look at this IPA vowel chart from Wikipedia. It's a little farther back than and a little below central, according to Wikipedia. (But it varies a lot.) Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 18:42
  • @PeterShor It never has been there (I believe)! Commented Jul 2, 2019 at 21:46
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    In terms of the STRUT vowel, /ʌ/, it is indeed nowadays a central vowel and would be transcribed in IPA proper as [ ɐ ] - definitely not [ ʌ ] (although as has been mentioned there is a reasonable amount of variation in its realisations). Commented Jul 3, 2019 at 14:55

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@Araucaria - Not here any more. (Jul 3, 2019) gives much information that oughtn't be unsearchable or lost to comments:

The symbols from the IPA refer to sounds of a specific quality. In terms of vowels, they refer to one of Daniel Jones's 14 cardinal vowels, or a few other defined places on the vowel quadrilateral (an idealised vowel space). The symbols borrowed from the IPA for the transcription of phonemes in language specific-transcriptions no longer represent those same sounds when used for these purposes. Most often, a symbol is chosen for phonemic language-specific transcriptions taking many things into consideration -frequently the orthography of the language involved.

This symbol in its language-specific usage now represents a phoneme. A typical canonical realisation of this phoneme will only roughly correspond to the cardinal vowel that the symbol represents in the International 'alphabet'. So, for example the British English phoneme /e/ is much more closed than cardinal vowel [e]. If we have several vowels plotted close together in the vowel quadrilateral, we will have to go further afield to find a cardinal vowel symbol from the IPA set.

In terms of the STRUT vowel, /ʌ/, it is indeed nowadays a central vowel and would be transcribed in IPA proper as [ ɐ ] - definitely not [ ʌ ] (although as has been mentioned there is a reasonable amount of variation in its realisations).

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As Geoff Lindsey explains, in American English there is generally no contrast between /ʌ/ and /ə/. However, dictionaries insist on pretending that this distinction exists even in AmE, causing people to make the odd claim that /ə/ never occurs in stressed syllables.

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  • I just saw this answer again, and I don't think you should blame the dictionaries. Merriam-Webster dictionary has eliminated the distinction between /ʌ/ and /ə/ in its pronunciation. And American Heritage Dictionary has a different philosophy — their pronunciations maintained the distinction between horse and hoarse until this distiction got so rare that only a handful of people in Boston were pronouncing these vowels differently. Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 12:28
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@alphabet has answered your basic question, but I am going to try to answer your other question of why the STRUT vowel is represented by < ʌ >, which if you look at its official IPA definition is the unrounded version of the THOUGHT vowel. I don't believe that the IPA vowel [ʌ] has ever been used for the STRUT vowel, /ʌ/.

This webpage looks at the pronunciation of RP by six speakers early in the 20th century, and shows that for two of these speakers (Harold MacMillan and Ian Fleming, both born around the turn of the century), the frequencies of the formats of the vowels of BATH and STRUT are nearly the same. They would have been distinguished largely by length.

So, assuming that when the IPA symbols were assigned to English vowels, they were aiming for this pronunciation, the STRUT vowel really should have been labeled /ɑ/ and the BATH vowel /ɑː/.

I suspect that the people who assigned the symbols didn't want to assign the same symbol to different two vowels, leaving them only distinguished by the long symbol /ː/. There were, however, two pairs of vowels which were mainly distinguished by length: NURSE and lettER, and STRUT and BATH. For NURSE, they used /ɜː/ rather than /ə/, which doesn't matter much since these vowels are quite close on the vowel chart. For STRUT, they had already used /ɑː/ for BATH, so the nearest unused symbol was /ʌ/, which is the unrounded version of the THOUGHT vowel, and which as far as I can tell, has never been used for pronouncing STRUT.

Since the early 20th century, British pronunciation has changed. While there are a few speakers who still pronounce STRUT as a short /ɑ/, many more people pronounce it somewhere between /ɐ/ (the near-open central vowel) and /ə/ (the mid central vowel). I actually suspect that lots of English speakers used these pronunciations at the beginning of the 20th century, but that they were not incorporated in the IPA symbols because they were not RP — they were less prestigious pronunciations.

However, for some reason, nobody has bothered changing the IPA symbol for STRUT, even though it does not reflect the pronunciation of this vowel.

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