As a non native english speaker, I'm trying to work on my accent. I've taken a lot of bad habits so I'm trying to go back to the fundamentals meaning learning phonetics. But they seem very imprecise to me. For example the word hand.


Here the UK seems to pronounce the æ like it's really a single sound and the USA pronounce it more like two sounds: starting like hen then joing the ~ha sound. With such a big emphasis on the hen sound that if the word were pronounced quicker I think I would have heard it as hen with a d.

Now if I trust what I hear here, the USA seems to be right.

But this pronunciation seems to be very, very inconsistent. The word cat (same phonetics):


Here we have the same kind of pronunciation variation but "reversed". The USA cat is closer to the UK's than the USA hand but we can still hear a little hen sound at the beginning.

Now, worse : trap


Here the UK and the USA are strongly agreeing on disagreeing with the IPA pronunciation of æ pronunciation I linked before.

So, why two clearly different pronunciations have the same phonetics symbols ?

Why the same phonetic symbol can be pronounced so differently from a word to another within the same "accent" ?

Are phonetics simply unreliable and should only be used to know roughly how a word should be pronounced ?

Would the most effective method to be sure I pronounce a word correctly be to search on internet for video or audio samples of people pronoucing them in context ?

  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Why are "fun" and "hulk" phonetically transcribed with the same vowel but pronounced differently? Bottom line: not all phonetically distinguishable vowel sounds are considered to be distinct "phonemes" of a language (from the answer there). We only need different symbols to distinguish phonemes, not all the possible differences you might be able to hear – FumbleFingers Jan 8 at 15:10
  • 2
    And if you're looking for one, distinct US accent, you are out of luck. Pronunciation varies region by region - and in some cases, even town by town - and there are some sounds that I fear not even the IPA could reproduce accurately. – WordNerdHouston Jan 8 at 15:39
  • 3
    @WordNerdHouston - Pronunciation in the US doesn't vary nearly as much as it does in the UK. – Hot Licks Jan 8 at 15:55
  • 1
    Are you trying to describe vowel breaking, where some speakers (like in Southern American English) will elongate a vowel sound by interjecting a /j/-like break [hæjənd], or /æ/-raising, where the tongue moves up during pronunciation [hɛənd]? – TaliesinMerlin Jan 8 at 16:47
  • 1
    What do you mean "the USA is right"? British people pronounce hand with a British accent (of which there are hundreds of regional variations), and Americans pronounce hand with an American accent (of which there are also hundreds of regional variations). Neither way is "right". – Peter Shor Jan 8 at 17:06