I don't quite understand the difference between /a/ and /æ/. Google gives the transcription for 'add' as /ad/, while Wiktionary returns /æd/.

Are these sounds actually distinct or is this just two different ways of writing the same one?

  • 1
    There are different pronunciation methods in use. – Robusto Apr 14 '20 at 16:42
  • 2
    I think /æd/ is the correct pronunciation of add. This site has written /a/ in the word hot (AmE). So the vowel sound in 'add' is the same as in 'hot'? :/ – Decapitated Soul Apr 14 '20 at 16:53
  • 1
    Here's the point: antimoon.com/how/pronunc-soundsipa.htm æ is the IPA phonetic sound. – Lambie Apr 14 '20 at 17:12

There are many different ways of writing English phonetically. Linguists and people interested in language (such as you often find on this site) often use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) system.

According to that system, the vowel sound in add is written /æ/.

Google's transcription isn't incorrect, it just doesn't use IPA symbols.

Google, of course, isn't a dictionary. It outsources those tasks, and then, for some reason, integrates the information into its search results in such a way that it appears to be Google's information.

Beneath the "Dictionary" box that they display, there's a link that says, "From Oxford", which takes you to the Lexico website. This site appears to use the New Oxford American Dictionary transcription method, or "NOAD" in this list: Traditional respelling systems

If you look at that handy chart, you'll see that IPA's "æ" corresponds to NOAD's "a"


Unfortunately, I managed already to lose access to the account from which I posted this question. Since new accounts can't comment, I can only reply to @Juhasz by adding an answer. I understand that this is not what answers are for, but, unfortunately, this is currently my only option.

I don't think Google uses the NOAD system, since it doesn't, say, use /ē/ or /ä/ in its transcriptions. According to this page, Lexico doesn't use /æ/ for its UK dictionary at all. All other symbols, however, appear to be the same as they are in the IPA. I find this rather weird. Searching for 'aid' gives /eɪd/, by the way.

The US dictionary entry gives "/ad/ /æd/" as transcriptions, but the UK dictionary entry only gives "/ad/". This probably means that google uses the transcription from the UK dictionary, despite linking to the US counterpart.

It seems tempting to assume that /æ/ and /a/ are two symbols representing the same sound, but according to the IPA Vowel chart that LPH linked to, this isn't the case. Could it perhaps be that /æ/ isn't used in RP?

I'm still rather confused which sound best fits words such as 'add' or 'cat' pronounced in RP, but /a/ seems more like how I pronounce it. Even though Cambridge gives /æd/ as the transcription, the audio sounds more like /ad/ to me.

  • Aha, the plot thickens. So your Google results differ from mine. When I search for "aid" I see /ād/, and likewise /hät/ for "hot", and /hēt/ for "heat". Using the Google results as a reference is probably throwing us off track, since we don't know the reasons behind Google's apparently location-specific dictionary behavior. As to whether /a/ or /æ/ is correct in RP, I can't say being a North American English speaker, but I do see that there's purportedly a shift in younger RP speakers from /æ/ to /a/: bl.uk/british-accents-and-dialects/articles/… – Juhasz Apr 14 '20 at 21:50
  • No, /æ/ is the RP symbol in LPD for RP short a (Longman Pronunciation Dictionary) and as well for the GenAm short a. Most sources give /æ/ and the pronunciation for this symbol is always very nearly as in the IPA reference I quote (also howtopronounce.com/map). You are right for the vowel quality of /æ/ from the source "Cambridge", which we both quote: I listened to it again and I noticed that it tends towards the cardinal vowel. – LPH Apr 14 '20 at 22:04
  • Hello John. You can use the contact form to ask a staff member to merge your accounts so you'll be able to access all your content. – A Rogue Ant. Apr 15 '20 at 1:39

The best is to refer to IPA pronunciation, which you can check here. /æ/ is the typical pronunciation of "a" in English, the so called short pronunciation (as in "hat", "man", "bat"). It is the symbol retained for short "a" in Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (Cambridge, successor of Jones's dictionary), which dictionary reproduces faithfully RP pronunciation (including as well GenAm and widely used in France and all over the world). /a/ is not found in English; it is a vowel found in French, for instance; it is a so called cardinal vowel, that is, a vowel that phoneticians have chosen for reference (ref.).

Complement suggested by the comments (user john Doe)

Does this mean that Google's transcription is incorrect? I am mostly interested in RP, by the way.

I wouldn't say "incorrect"; it means rather that the people recording the pronunciation wanted to take into account a variant, which diverged from main stream pronunciation or from what use to be main stream and has been more or less replaced. I listened to google's pronunciation (add) and I must conclude that the sound is faithful to the transcription: this /a/ is an allophone of the French /a/ (meaning "very similar" to it). One problem is the lack of reference to any accent (Is that international English? I don't know.). I must say too that this corroborates my finding elsewhere of both pronunciations side by side; this means that there is a tendency, that is more or less important, of a shift towards the cardinal vowel. Nevertheless, most dictionaries do not record this pronunciation and mention only /æ/, the traditional or RP sound (which is still pronounced normally). Moreover they do take into account the accent, as in this source (Cambridge) where you can see that the vowel quality is the same in RP and in AmE, although the length has not been taken into account as the transcription for AmE should have been /æ:/ (the sound is even a little too long, other sources do have a shorter sound).

  • Much of your paragraphs reads like French, in fact. – Lambie Apr 14 '20 at 17:09
  • @Lambie How are you? What do you mean, reads much like French? I really don't get it. If you mean inspired by French words, I'm bound to agree ; it's true to a point, I'm still prone to be influenced by my native language. – LPH Apr 14 '20 at 17:16
  • Yes,I'm fine, thank you. Not inspired by French words, exactly, but rather reflecting French sentence structure. I gave up on the French site. Neophytes make me nervous. I am sick of arguing with people whose English (I don't mean you) is ten times worse than my (pretty damn fluent) French. Ze ozzer a's arr: ɑ: British/ʌ, Ame/ and ə, in both I think. :) C'est plus ou moins ça. Stay safe. – Lambie Apr 14 '20 at 17:34
  • @Lambie Yes, that as well (structure); I didn't want to go into details. I've been completely ostracized from that site for three months, third time (7 days, 1 month, 3 months). I wonder whether they are not trying to get rid of me forever. – LPH Apr 14 '20 at 17:41
  • Alors, on est tous les deux au rancart. Franchement, je m'en fou. Je passe mes journées au téléphone avec mes amis en France ce qui me fait plus de plaisir que de mâcher mes mots sur le site français. Que ce fléau (le covid-19) finisse et tout le monde ira mieux. – Lambie Apr 14 '20 at 17:48

The vowels [a] and [æ] are close to each other.

Some phoneticians consider that the vowel of add or shack in modern British English has changed from [æ] to [a], and so some (not all) British dictionaries now represent it by /a/. See Lexico. The vowel has not changed in American English, so /æ/ is the vowel in add or shack in American English. See Lexico's U.S. pronunciation.

See this blog entry for some sound clips demonstrating how this vowel has changed.

  • If that’s true, I find it very /ad/. – Jim Apr 15 '20 at 0:30
  • 1
    @Jim: Odd is pronounced /ɑd/, not /ad/. – Peter Shor Apr 15 '20 at 2:32
  • Yeah, I didm’t try for that character on my phone. – Jim Apr 15 '20 at 2:34
  • 1
    Odd is pronounced /ɒd/. /ɑd/ must be some variant in some accent. – Rosie F Apr 15 '20 at 6:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.