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If /ʌ/ occurs only in stressed syllables, why does punctilious /pʌŋkˈtɪliəs/ have it in an unstressed syllable? Same with upbraid /ʌpˈbreɪd/.

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    | ˌpəŋ(k)ˈtɪliəs | in the Oxford American Dictionary.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 13:29

3 Answers 3

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It is a myth that /ʌ/ can only occur in stressed syllables and that /ə/ can only occur in unstressed syllables. Take the word undone, which has the same vowel in both syllables. Whether that’s /ʌnˈdʌn/ or /ənˈdən/ depends on your accent, but it’s never /ənˈdʌn/, which nobody at all actually says.

In RP speakers there can be a contrast between STRUT with /ʌ/ and COMMA with /ə/, but the paucity of minimal pairs reduces the importance of that contrast.

That’s why in many native accents ranging from Liverpool to Los Angeles, the STRUT vowel and the COMMA vowel are both simply schwa /ə/ no matter where they occur, while in certain other speakers from the north of England, the STRUT vowel and the FOOT vowel are both the same rounded /ʊ/.

It can even be argued that these are just two allophones of the same phoneme, and that they therefore should not be distinguished in phonemic transcriptions as found in dictionaries. (Phonetic transcriptions used by specialists like accent coaches are a separate matter, though.)

Please watch Dr Geoff Lindsey’s Youtube video, “Americans, we need to talk”, in which he comically dispels this silly myth and explains in detail how it came to be. He also references an ELU post from our site on this matter.


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    I strongly disagree! In my experience, nobody actually says /ənˈdən/, whereas I can easily imagine myself saying /ənˈdʌn/ in informal speech. (Southern English RP speaker.) Are you sure you have it right?
    – TonyK
    Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 23:55
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    @TonyK Yes, I am. Notice how you don't say undone as you do done and done even in normal speech. You reduce the and to schwa, but not the un- prefix. Most Americans say /ənˈdən/, as do Liverpudlians. So for us done and done works out the same as in undone. For you it would not. You should really watch that Lindsey video I mentioned.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 0:25
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    note that in Standard Southern British English (the term Geoff Lindsey uses for the variety occupying the same sociolinguistic position today as RP did when it was described), the schwa is phonetically more similar to the FOOT vowel than the STRUT vowel, although minimal pairs for either comMA/FOOT and comMA/STRUT are both hard to find
    – Tristan
    Commented Nov 10, 2022 at 10:15
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While phoneticians are trained on the differences between the phones caret [ʌ] and schwa [ə], most English speakers are not. Furthermore, unlike front and back English vowels -- which contrast violently in several dimensions -- English central vowels do not contrast at all.

That is, while beat, bit, bait, bet, boot, bought all mean different things, there's no difference between but and butt. No minimal pairs exist for the distinction between caret and schwa in English. There is no doubt that there is a pronunciation difference between these phones, but nothing in English depends on it, so anybody can pronounce them any way they like. And they do.

Contrast is what produces meaningful differences in pronunciation -- phonemes, if you like. But [ʌ] and [ə] are allophones of the same English phoneme, and therefore appear in whatever environments their speakers prefer them, which are not likely to be the same for all speakers.

There may even be some speakers for whom there is a contrast, producing separate phonemes. For them. Nobody else would notice.

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    There are definitely minimal pairs between /ʌ/ and /ə/; consider upend and append. You may pronounce them the same, but I certainly don't, and neither do a lot of other English speakers. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:29
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    Some people will distinguish them. But then some people will distinguish anything. And something hasta aspirate the /p/ in append but not the /p/ in upend. I suspect something suprasegmental, but I dunno what. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:35
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    They've merged for a lot of Americans. But that doesn't mean they don't have minimal pairs — horse and hoarse are a minimal pair, as are whale and wail, even if there's almost nobody left who pronounces them differently. And this is how you can tell whether somebody has merged /ʌ/ and /ə/ — you can ask them whether upend and append are homonyms. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:52
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    Or, it could be a way to tell whether somebody has a plus juncture phoneme. Commented Nov 8, 2022 at 16:54
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    @JohnLawler Or phonemic stress. For me, "upend" has stress vaguely on the first syllable, "append" firmly on the second.
    – No Name
    Commented Nov 9, 2022 at 1:44
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3 @JohnLawler Or phonemic stress. For me, "upend" has stress vaguely on the first syllable, "append" firmly on the second. – No Name yesterday

I believe this last answer got the the point. When the symbols schwa ə and ʌ were created, it was meant that ə should represent 3 shades of meanings:

1.Tongue positions: It’s a strictly a middle vowel when the tongue is at a totally relaxed position, while ʌ would represent a vowel somewhere between back & middle. Because certain accents especially in US give a rendition of ʌ closer to the middle than to the back, sometimes even coincide with ə in terms of tongue position, some dictionaries adopt ə in place of ʌ.

2.Intensity of sound of the vowel or energy to be expended in the production of the vowel: ə is weakest in terms energy used to produce the intensity of sound. ʌ is stronger in use of energy in sound production.

3.Open or closed syllables: ə could be in an open or closed syllable while ʌ could only occur in closed syllables.

There are 4 degrees of stress in descending order:

  1. main stress.

  2. sub stress.

  3. unstressed syllbles retaining the full quality of the vowels without any reduction into schwas. Eg 1st syllable in “undone” & 3rd syllable in the verb form of “advocate” as well as the ending syllable of “city”. The purpose of this is to retain some clarity of (and meaning represented by) the syllables.

  4. Weakest schwaed syllables.

So there’s always more or less some stress on ʌ syllables even in the absence of ‘ markings.

In “append”, the first syllable is an open one with the weakest schwa while in “upend”, 1st syllable is closed, thereby reducing the need of aspiration of “p” in 2nd syllable. There’s also a need to retain the meanings in “up” and “end” as 2 separate words before being combined to form the aggregate new word “upend”, by shutting the lips immediately after ʌ and by reducing the aspiration of “p” in a linkage with “end”. Hope this answers the original question.

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