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Phonetic symbols are different for the same word Port.

  1. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary on the Internet:

port noun (1)

\ ˈpȯrt \

Definition of port (Entry 1 of 10)
1: a place where ships may ride secure from storms: HAVEN

  1. Merriam-Webster's Advanced LEARNER'S English Dictionary, 2016 updated edition, paper:

port /'poɚt/ noun, pl ports
1 : a town or city where ships stop to load and unload cargo

As far as I know, ɚ (one of r colored vowel) is something like ə + weak r.

So for the Internet dictionary, the pronunciation is just p + o + r + t. For the paper dictionary, the pronunciation is p + o + ə + weak r + t.

The biggest difference for me is the presence of 'ə' in the paper dictionary.

Aside from the word 'Port', I am much more curious about the fact that the two dictionaries didn't coincide.

I heard that Webster is one of the most renowned dictionaries representing the United States. So I believe both of the phonetic symbols are for American English, not British.

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  • @LPH That's an answer. Please use the correct box to write an answer.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 6:32
  • Generally speaking, you're better off using the phonetic transcriptions in the English-to-<Language> section of any good bilingual dictionary. They're fast and simple and don't care at all about traditional spelling or Webster. Plus, you can use the rest of the dictionary. As I note in another comment, American monolingual dictionaries are useless for pronunciation and should be avoided. Merriam-Webster actually publishes the standard phonemic pronouncing dictionary by Kenyon and Knott, but refuses to use it. Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 18:47
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    /ɚ / is not a /ə/ followed by a weak /r/ in American English. It's a single phone (one sound that doesn't change) and I would say it's an /r/ being used as a vowel, although it's not pronounced exactly the same by all Americans. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 0:41

2 Answers 2

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Of course they are. Different dictionaries use different notations because they're aimed at different groups of users. If you look up the pronunciation key of each dictionary, i.e. this and this, you can see that \ˈpȯrt\ and /ˈpoɚt/ mean the exact same thing. (Note, also, that transcriptions seen in most dictionaries of English, including the ones you mention, are phonemic, not phonetic, and represent not the exact qualities of physical sounds but abstract categories deduced from the distribution of sounds in the language.)

Merriam-Webster.com uses a simplified version of the traditional lexicographic notation used in older Webster dictionaries (still used by American Heritage) mixed with a couple of IPA symbols (\ə\, \ŋ\) because it and the dictionary it's based on (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary) are aimed at native speakers of English in the US, who have little familiarity with the IPA (Edward Artin, the pronunciation editor for the 1961 Webster's Third pushed for using the IPA but the Merriam top brass rejected it, fearing it would alienate users; he devised the simplified notation as a compromise [Morton 1995: 127ff]).

Advanced learner's dictionaries, including Merriam's, are aimed at, well, advanced learners of English as a foreign language, and typically use their own applications of the International Phonetic Alphabet because, as the name implies, it has cross-linguistic currency and thus is more accessible to learners (or at least better conveys the typical phonetic qualities, which learners may need to learn but native speakers certainly don't). I must stress again that a transcription found in one dictionary cannot be expected to mean the same thing in another (or in other words, the same sequence of phonemes cannot be expected to be represented exactly the same way in two dictionaries) just because they use the IPA (or just because they don't, for that matter). "The IPA does not provide a phonological analysis for a particular language, let alone a single 'correct' transcription, but rather the resources to express any analysis so that it is widely understood" (Handbook of the IPA, p. 30), and each dictionary has its own system laid out in the front matter.

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The Merriam-Webster Learner's dictionary is using IPA, which is the international standard for phonetic notation. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary uses Merriam-Webster's own phonetic symbols, which it has been using for the last sixty years, and which Americans are used to. So they're naturally different.

You can go one step farther and ask why Merriam-Webster doesn't use the notation /pɔrt/ in its Learner's dictionary; this would correspond to /pȯrt/, as the IPA symbol /ɔ/ and /ȯ/ both stand for the vowel in caught. The reason is that they've eliminated the vowel /ɔ/. In order to keep the pronunciation as simple as possible, they've chosen to represent an American dialect with fewer vowels than in their regular dictionary, and treat the words cot and caught as having the same vowel, as they do in the West. This means that they can't use the symbol /ɔr/ for port, because /ɔ/ isn't one of the symbols they use. And they can't use the vowel of boat, /oʊ/, for port, because there's no /ʊ/ in the pronunciation of port. So they've introduced five new combinations of symbols for the r-influenced vowels: car: /kɑɚ/, bare: /beɚ/, near: /niɚ/ port: /poɚt/, and tour: /tuɚ/.

There's something to be said for treating all the r-influenced vowels similarly to each other, as this is a natural, separate class of vowels in American English.

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  • One of the problems with Webster's system is that it changes frequently, so that schoolchildren and teachers who are sposta benefit from it never get good at it. For one thing, all American monolingual dictionaries use non-IPA systems, built off Webster's spelling-based one, but nobody else uses exactly the same system as MW. And their parents grew up with different systems, which they didn't learn either. So everybody thinks spelling is the most important and distinctive thing about English. This is about as irritating as theories that even numbers have rounded tops. Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 18:43
  • As I said in my answer, M-W's current scheme is only ~60 years old.
    – Nardog
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 12:44
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    @JohnLawler: if M-W's current scheme is 60 years old, it's much older than the IPA systems some dictionaries use for British English, which have recently changed /eə/ to /ɛː/ and /oʊ/ to /əʊ/. (Note that I'm not defending Webster's system; I prefer IPA, as well.) And remembering the pronunciation symbols in the 2nd International Webster's dictionary, which we had in my childhood, the current scheme is greatly superior, so they had a better reason for changing it than the British dictionaries did for changing their IPA. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 12:53
  • Thank you very much!
    – imida k
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 1:15

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