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Are 'a' and 'ʌ' pronounced the same?

For example, there's 'write' /rait/ and 'nice' /nais/

and then there's

'up' /ʌp/ and 'must' /mʌst/.

I don't seem to find any difference between the first set and the second.

The vowels in the pairs are spelled very differently and the links say they are different but I can't hear any difference.

Is there a difference?

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  • 3
    write has a diphthong, and up has a single vowel. Do you mean: "Is the first part of the diphthong in write pronounced the same way as up?" This depends on your dialect; it can be, but it's not in many dialects of English. Or do you mean: "is the whole diphthong in write pronounced the same as in up?" If you pronounce it that way, then right and rut are probably homophones, and you are speaking a rather strange dialect of English. Aug 18, 2021 at 16:58
  • Please clarify your question. If you do, it should be reopened and you might get a much more detailed answer than my comment above. Aug 18, 2021 at 17:03
  • I think it is clear for whom is aware of certain facts. You must happen to be aware of the system used in the SOED. What's being heard corresponds to the OP's symbols (bar the imprecision found in them) ; in some Oxford accent, a variant of RP, you do find this pronunciation. It is the standard pronunciation in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1995) write /wrʌɪt/, nice /nʌɪs/ up /ʌp/, must /mʌst/.
    – LPH
    Aug 18, 2021 at 17:09
  • Though this seems like a simple 'look it up and see that they're different', since it is not apparent to the OP, any combination of the current comments could support an answer.
    – Mitch
    Aug 18, 2021 at 18:30
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    @Mitch: The first element in the diphthong of write varies enormously in different dialects of English, as does the vowel of strut. They're not very close in most American accents, but I suspect they are quite close in some British accents. You probably need to be a phonetics expert to give a real answer. Aug 18, 2021 at 18:45

2 Answers 2

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No, the sounds of [a] and [ʌ] are not pronounced the same. But you’re taking dictionaries much too literally here. They aren’t meant to be used that way.

Please take dictionary pronunciations with a grain of salt. Their intention is to indicate to native speakers which phoneme is used. They do not represent exact phonetics suitable for non-native speakers. It isn’t possible to do that in the space allowed, or with the nuance needed.

Two different publishers will frequently make two different choices of representation for the same phoneme. For example, Oxford uses /rʌɪt/ for all of the UK and /raɪt/ for all of the US. Cambridge uses /raɪt/ for both. Neither of those is what people really say. Those are merely broad conventions. They could quite possibly represent the very same thing even though written differently under different conventions. That’s what’s happening here.

For what people really say, you should look at, and listen to, these pronunciations of the word right. Notice that:

  • RP has [ɹäɪtʰ].
  • Canada has [ɹʌ̈ɪt̚].

Also notice that nobody there except for some of the Scots and Welsh actually has that /r/ that you found in the dictionary you looked in; most of us have merely [ɹ]. That should tell you how inaccurately these dictionaries are showing things to you! (The [r] sound is the fully rolled or trilled R that a native Spanish speaker uses speaking Spanish with words that start with R like rata.) The vowels in a dictionary are in general no more accurate than this poor mangled R consonant — sorry. They only represent very loose conventions.

Listen to these to hear the real differences between vowels in various dialects:

  • right vs nine.
    Very broadly speaking, all of those are the “ai” phonemic diphthong, but exact sounds vary considerably by dialect. The diphthong in right is more apt to be raised a bit to an ʌ at its start compared with the one in nine. But you have to learn to ignore those tiny phonetic differences. A native speaker doesn’t consciously distinguish the two the way they would two different phonemes: phonetic side-effects don’t count even when predictable.
  • thunder and hundred.
    Most of those have [ʌ] in them.
  • father vs daughter.
    The first of those probably has [ɑ] (not [a]!) for most people, and the second one usually has [ɔ] but might have [ɑ] in Southern California. It really varies a lot.

Cultural Considerations

One other thing is that from your last name, it’s possible that you’re a native speaker of Spanish or Portuguese. If this is the case, these two sounds may be hard for you yourself to hear being said differently, especially when they’re close the way they are in allophonic variations of the same underlying “ai” diphthong.

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Consult this handy table, IPA chart for English dialects and look at the lexical sets for STRUT and PRICE. These two rows correspond to your two examples, 'write' and 'up', in the two primary standard dialects of English, BrE and AmE. The rows are /aɪ/ and /ʌ/.

Comparing the two rows you can see that though the GenAmE and BrE columns show different vowels, many of the other dialects show much more similarity.

For example, in:

description in following text

looking at the GenAmE column, the two vowels are specified as exactly the diaphone labels for the rows. But the alternate given on the PRICE /aɪ/ entry, affected by Canadian raising gives a pronunciation of /ʌɪ̯~ɜɪ̯~ɐɪ̯/ which is just a diphthongized version of /ʌɪ̯/. This effect is not universal among GenAmE speakers (and is not standard) but it does occur enough. And by inspection you can see lots of other (non-American) dialects where the two vowels are similar.

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  • Your source says: Canadian English has raising of both diphthongs, but most dialects in the United States only have raising of /aɪ/. In monosyllables, raising occurs before voiceless consonants, so right [ɹʌɪ̯t] and out [ʌʊ̯t] have raised vowels, but eyes [aɪz] and loud [laʊd] do not.
    – tchrist
    Aug 19, 2021 at 19:21
  • @tchrist Things are always more complex than the clean methodical chart might show.There are a number of splits shown in the chart but you mention another one that I don't think is there. Also, even moreso than published, professional-lexicographer-written dictionaries, wikipedia as compiled by amateurs so that is extra grains of salt. The main lesson is that some things sound the same, some sound different but in different distributions among different communities. Also the OP is not wrong, just maybe not what the majority do.
    – Mitch
    Aug 19, 2021 at 19:53

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