/ʌ/ cut, hut, bun, nothing, love, enough, flood, does

/ʊ/ put, soot, foot, good, look, cook

To me the ʌ is a more short, low front (unrounded?) vowel, but the vowel /ʊ/ which sounds like "uh" is a short, high back (rounded?) vowel but this difference is only minor that you could probably swap each sound when speaking and get away with it.

For example, pronouncing cut as /kʊt/ "kuht", instead of the short /kʌt/ "kut". I can do this with the other words too: hut, bun, nothing, love etc.

Edit: I'm talking about British English phonology, not American English...

For example in AmE, you can say soot in 2 ways (sʊt and su:t ?), Merriam Webster:

\ ˈsu̇t , ˈsət, ˈsüt \

  • 13
    The difference is not subtle at all. If it is subtle for you, you're a native speaker of a very particular dialect. – RegDwigнt Mar 31 '20 at 18:19
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    In most American dialects, /ʊ/ is high, back, lax, and rounded; it has a limited distribution, appearing only in stressed syllables. [ʌ] is the allophone of the central phoneme /ə/ that occurs in stressed syllables; it's mid, central, lax, and unrounded. The biggest difference between them in American English is that you round your lips a bit to say [ʊ] and you don't round them to say [ʌ]; that's visible in a mirror. – John Lawler Mar 31 '20 at 18:19
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    @ukemi root, hoot, boot, toot etc all have the /u:/ phoneme, not the /ʊ/. – Cascabel Mar 31 '20 at 18:23
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    @ukemi Yes I can tell the difference between short ʌ (hut) and long vowel u: (hoot), but not the difference between ʊ/ʌ against long vowel u: – mrcurious Mar 31 '20 at 18:26
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    The difference between these pairs is not very subtle to my (pretty standard American) ear: putt/put, luck/look, cud/could, pus/puss. If your native language doesn't have both of these vowels, it's not unusual that you can't differentiate between them, but that's a limitation of your ear, rather than the IPA – Juhasz Mar 31 '20 at 18:28

The sounds of /ʌ/ and /ʊ/ are only moderately similar from a strictly phonetic point of view. However, in the context of phonology, you might feel like the difference is "[so] minor that you could probably swap each sound when speaking and get away with it" for a couple of reasons:

  • the contrast has a low "functional load": in standard English, /ʊ/ is a rare sound, and there are only a few pairs of words, such as buck and book, that are distinguished solely by the use of /ʌ/ vs /ʊ/. (In other dialects, the same pair of words can be distinguished differently by the use of /ʊ/ vs /uː/.)

  • In some fairly widespread British English dialects, /ʌ/ is not normally used and words that have /ʌ/ in standard English instead have /ʊ/.

  • 2
    I would suggest using "received pronunciation" which is the correct term for what you call "standard English", as there isn't really a standard English. Alternatively be specific which dialects you mean (ie dialects of Southern England by and large use /ʌ/ and those elsewhere in the UK by and large don't). – Muzer Apr 1 '20 at 10:20
  • @Muzer: while it's true that a single standard of spoken English doesn't really exist, I don't think my wording is so inaccurate in this particular matter. Dictionary transcriptions could be viewed as indicating a certain level of standardization in the assumed inventory of phonemes. I don't want to say "received pronunciation" because that is also a controversial or ill-defined term, and it's narrower than what I mean: not only RP speakers but the majority of speakers of non-RP varieties in Southern England and also in the United States have a distinction between /ʌ/ and /ʊ/. – herisson Apr 1 '20 at 10:58

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