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In the English language there are many words where the letter "a" is pronounced as a short (continental European) "e". Or at least very close to it.

However dictionaries point out that in these cases the correct pronunciation is more an "ae" sound. Several websites on English pronunciation take the same view. So I decided to test this assumption. Over a period of weeks, whenever I watched an English or American television program, I payed attention how these "a"-words where actually pronounced by native English speakers, and made notes of my observations. I found out that in fact there are many words that have the pure "e" sound. A few examples: back, cash, cat, fact, relax, track, crash.

So what is going on here? Are this words pronounced incorrectly, or are the dictionaries and websites promoting viewpoints about pronunciation that are outdated? Or has it to do with regional variations (dialects)?

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    Please provide links to examples from the television shows you mentioned. Writing this in IPA would also be helpful.
    – alphabet
    May 22, 2023 at 17:50
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    (Note also that [æ] is not a diphthong.)
    – alphabet
    May 22, 2023 at 17:52
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    AFAIK the only British English speakers who pronounce those words with an 'e' sound are speakers of extreme RP - like the joke about posh people thinking that sex was what coal came in May 22, 2023 at 19:07
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    Once again, it is necessary to remind everyone that (a) English spelling has no regular connection with English pronunciation, and (b) only people make speech sounds; all letters in all English spellings are silent, and are sensible only to the eyes, not the ears, and (c) English grammar and usage refers to spoken English. Also, that discussing pronunciation in writing online is a losers' game. May 22, 2023 at 19:15
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    So, you think "track" and "trek" are pronounced the same? I don't. Probably your difficulty hearing the difference is because your native language does not have this distinction.
    – GEdgar
    May 22, 2023 at 20:49

2 Answers 2

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I found out that in fact there are many words that have the pure "e" sound. A few examples: back, cash, cat, fact, relax, track, crash.

No, they do not. The IPA /e/ sound does not occur in those words. You have confused it for the /æ/ vowel, which does occur in them.

Listen to these Youglish samples for fact and for relax, and try hard to find even one that has an /e/ in it for the given word. Use the "skip-forwards" button that looks a little like ⏭ to move through the thousands of samples, or the "skip-backwards" button that looks a little like ⏮ to move back through the list. You can do the same with the other words you mention.

Where are you thinking you're hearing these? Very few regional accents pronounce the vowel of ash /æʃ/ with any kind of an "e" sound, although a few do. Are you in one of those regions?

If you do not have all three of /e/ and /ɛ/ and /æ/ sounds in your native language as contrasting phonemes, then you may not be hearing them correctly. If so, then you may not be able hear the clear difference between triples like mate with /e/, met with /ɛ/, and mat with /æ/.

Are those three different phonemes for you? What's your first language? I ask so we can look at its phonemic repertoire, the aural lens through which you may tend to hear the world.

You earlier wrote:

For me as a foreigner it is impossible to distinguish the pronunciation of "set" versus "sat". Are native English speakers able to hear a subtle difference between the two?

This shows that you cannot hear those sounds correctly. To us, they are worlds apart, just as meet and mitt and met and mat and mate all are.

One last thing about dictionaries. They never have real pronunciations. So they will always be inaccurate. That's in part because to a large extent, saying that there is one "American pronunciation" or there is one "British pronunciation" is a myth. Better to look at each region for hand, lamb, bath. Each of those has dozens of different regional pronunciations by native speakers. No dictionary ever covers real pronunciations to this degree of accuracy because it will never help anyone to do so. So the idea that the dictionaries haven't caught up to reality is ill-founded: they never shall.

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  • One additional note: in General American, /æ/ is pronounced as something like [ɛə] before nasals. This may trip up the asker if they try to "hear" the /æ/ sound in a word like "camp" or "hand."
    – alphabet
    May 22, 2023 at 21:30
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    @alphabet To some extent, GA is a myth. Better to look at each region for hand, lamb, bath. Each of those has dozens of pronunciations. No dictionary ever covers real pronunciations to this degree of accuracy because it will never help anyone to do so. So the idea that the dictionaries haven't caught up to reality is ill-founded: they never shall.
    – tchrist
    May 22, 2023 at 23:50
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    Fair enough. General American should really be demoted to Colonel American at this point.
    – alphabet
    May 23, 2023 at 0:04
  • But aren't /e/ and /ɛ/ allophones in english? Isn't just a difference based on regional accents?
    – tac
    May 23, 2023 at 17:14
  • @tac No, they are completely separate phonemes, not allophones. Changing one for the other makes it a completely different word: /mæt/ and /mɛt/ and /met/ are not the same at all: mat vs met vs mate. This is unlike Spanish, which does have /e/ but doesn't have /ɛ/, so any [ɛ] that ever shows up there (it mostly does not, unless you're a speaker who drops terminal "s" from a syllable and compensates by opening the vowel remaining there; Andalusians and Carribeans, for example) would be an allophone of /e/. But English does not work that way.
    – tchrist
    May 23, 2023 at 21:51
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Over a period of weeks, whenever I watched an English or American television program, I payed attention how these "a"-words where actually pronounced by native English speakers, and made notes of my observations. I found out that in fact there are many words that have the pure "e" sound. A few examples: back, cash, cat, fact, relax, track, crash.

Unfortunately, all this means is that your ears are not attuned to the difference between a pair of vowel sounds that are distinguished in English. Almost all native English speakers use different vowels in the following 2 sets of words:

  • back, cash, cat, fact, relax, track, crash (set 1)
  • beckon, question, kettle, infection, lecture, trek, thresh (set 2).

There are different conventions about how to transcribe the vowel in set 1 and set 2, but most often you'll see /æ/ and /ɛ/ respectively. But these are just symbols. It isn't certain that either one is the same as a vowel in your language or another European language, although you might hear them like that. English speakers often have trouble hearing the difference between the vowels in French roux and rue, or German "musste" and "müsste", or the German "ee" and "ie" sounds, but French speakers and German speakers find it easy to hear the difference in their own languages.

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    Indeed, native German speakers regularly merge the mat vowel into the met vowel when adopting English loanwords per this Wikipedia article. It's not 100% clear to me what happens with all Dutch speakers or all Russian speakers on this front, but there might be some of that there, too.
    – tchrist
    May 23, 2023 at 2:06
  • @tchrist: I have definitely read some things by Russian speakers who say they hear this vowel pair as the same.
    – herisson
    May 23, 2023 at 2:07
  • Gordon Ramsay said: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are closing the restaurant. Please come BACK in 24 hours when we reopen." He pronounced BACK in a short and clear manner, exactly as a Dutchman or German would say BEK. There was no hint of an "a" sound.
    – M. Wind
    May 24, 2023 at 16:27
  • @M.Wind No, he does not. Germans and Dutchmen often can’t distinguish English /æ/ and /ɛ/ phonemes, thus confusing ᴍᴀɴʏ minimal pairs that rely on those being critically different: men/man gem/jam fen/fan Ted/tad met/mat Bess/bass bed/bad bet/bat Ken/can left/laughed send/sand lend/land fête/fat pet/pat Brett/brat Tex/tax pen/pan bend/band fed/fad med/mad net/gnat beg/bag blend/bland pest/past mesh/mash ex/axe less/lass den/Dan Ben/ban egg/Ag hem/ham heck/hack vet/vat &c&c&c. Just because Germans can hear no difference does ɴᴏᴛ mean it isn’t there!
    – tchrist
    May 28, 2023 at 21:46

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