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John Wells’ lexical sets are usually useful classifications for determining differences in the realizations of vowels across English accents. Two of the sets are the NURSE set, referring to a stressed vowel, and lettER, referring to an unstressed one.

Popular symbols for these sets include /ɜ/, /ɜː/, /ə/, and /əː/ for RP, while /ɝ/, /ɜɹ/, /ɚ/, /əɹ/, and /ɹ̩/ are popular for GenAm. The existence of so many symbols, unsurprisingly, seems to cause confusion.

Is there actually any difference in vowel quality between the NURSE and lettER vowels in either of those accents, or is it just a stress and (maybe) length distinction? Is the NURSE vowel actually more open? Are there any accents that contrast these two vowels significantly? If not, why do we need to use different sets and different symbols for them? Most languages with lexical stress don’t use different glyphs for the stressed vs unstressed versions of vowels. What are the best symbols for the NURSE and lettER vowels in RP and GenAm?

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    This is the same question, in a rhotacized version, as the one that came up not long ago about whether there is an English phoneme /ʌ/, or whether it's just a stressed allophone of /ə/. English rhotic vowels occur in the same central vowel space as schwa and caret, and have the same lack of constrast and consequently the same wide variation in pronunciation and notation. Jan 6, 2023 at 18:04
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    I think you're asking whether any dialect has a minimal pair between /ɝ/ and /ɚ/. Right?
    – tchrist
    Jan 6, 2023 at 19:19
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    @tchrist Yes, that is one thing I am asking. I am also wondering if there is a difference in tongue position between the two as well as what the best symbols to use might be.
    – Graham H.
    Jan 6, 2023 at 19:23
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    I don't possess the language of pronunciation symbols, but for what it's worth... If it can be assumed that nurse and, say, turd share the same set, and then I say letter and letturd, I get a different sound. I get a different sound if I say letter and lettered as well. (American English) Jan 7, 2023 at 19:37

4 Answers 4

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The difference in quality as far as sound goes, independently of the intensity or length of it, can be real as /ə/ covers RP /ɜː/ and extend way beyond it, and as it covers also fairly GenAm /ɝ/; the following vowel diagram show that; they are taken from J C Wells' Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 2008 edition.

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It follows that in both languages there can be no difference in sound quality, except for length and strength.

Most languages with lexical stress don’t use different glyphs for the stressed vs unstressed versions of vowels. What are the best symbols for the NURSE and lettER vowels in RP and GenAm?

The opposition is not between stressed and unstressed but between strong and weak. For instance, the word "U-turn", which has the nurse-vowel is not stressed on "ur" but on U; still the sound of "ur" is said to be strong. In "Arthur" it is weak (and, of course, not stressed). No set of symbols is truly better than another on the whole; however, some symbols might make precise some differences.

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I think a good unifying symbol is ɜ(ɹ). The brackets represent the fact that r is always pronounced by Americans but not always by Brits. The schwa also works, but the problem is the schwa is considered by some to never be stressed, which would mean it can't be used in words like early.

The reason why there are so many symbols for it can be seen with the word murderer. Ostensibly all three "er" sounds are the same, but sometimes the second r is pronounced as part of the third syllable rather than the second, and the e is thus pronounced like a schwa. Then you have the pronunciation differences between Americans and Brits. Now you have four different pronunciations for the same word.

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    @tchrist I use r for convenience, as many dictionaries do, even though r is technically the trilled r in ratón.
    – ILEM World
    Jan 6, 2023 at 19:45
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    @fertilizerspike What do you mean?
    – ILEM World
    Jan 6, 2023 at 19:47
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    @fertilizerspike This answer doesn't mention or even imply lexical sets. Do you mean IPA? If so, it's sort of given that everybody here knows IPA or knows how to look it up. Maybe back off a bit, slow down, visit for a while before jumping on people.
    – Mitch
    Jan 6, 2023 at 23:34
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    The set mentioned in OP, which has now been edited to explain them briefly. This is known as constructive criticism, not jumping on people like a wild fire. Why don't you calm down, take a breath and relax. Nobody is attacking you and i upped your answer since the edit to the question because i think it's the best answer. Jan 7, 2023 at 1:55
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    @wjandrea That's a good question. I think I was unclear about which ones were meant to be letters used for spelling ("graphemes"), which were used as broadly abstract phonemes, and which were to be meant to be narrowly precise phones (actual sounds).
    – tchrist
    Jan 7, 2023 at 16:18
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Yes. In Australian English, NURSE is not only longer but higher than lettER.

The reason <ɜ> is commonly used to represent the NURSE vowel is that it was simply an alternative symbol for <ə> until 1993. It doesn't imply that the typical quality is lower. In most rhotic North American accents NURSE and lettER don't contrast (because of the hurry–furry and STRUT–schwa mergers), so the distinction between /ɜr/ and /ər/, or /ɝ/ and /ɚ/, is just a convention to keep the analogy with the notation for BrE/RP.

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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

This is the same question, in a rhotacized version, as the one that came up not long ago about whether there is an English phoneme /ʌ/, or whether it's just a stressed allophone of /ə/. English rhotic vowels occur in the same central vowel space as schwa and caret, and have the same lack of contrast and consequently the same wide variation in pronunciation and notation.

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