Do Americans pronounce "Ellen" and "Alan" in the same way? I am especially concerned with the first vowel.


Here is a quote that may be a case in point:

Being a Brit also, the names "Ellen" and "Alan" tend to sound the same when spoken with an American tongue. It was just unfortunate that the child was very tom boyish and had an ambiguous sounding name

Context: discussion on why they chose a boy-looking girl for the movie "Fatal Attraction"

Link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093010/board/thread/186160978?d=186229310&p=1#186229310

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    The short answer to your question is, "no." I'll let others argue about how to depict the differences using textual characters.
    – J.R.
    Apr 15, 2012 at 10:48
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    Well, I am a New Zealander living in Japan. I used to pronounce Ellen/Alan and celery/salary shell/shall the same until an American friend (named Alan) pointed out the difference to me. Even now I occasionally "slip up."
    – user37099
    Feb 5, 2013 at 6:43

2 Answers 2


Americans don't pronounce them exactly the same.

However, some American dialects change the pronunciation of /æ/ before /l/ in a way that I believe makes it sound more like /ɛ/ to foreigners. In fact, in a few New Zealand and Australian dialects, these vowels become identical before /l/; see salary-celery merger; this merger would indeed also merge Allen and Ellen, but I don't believe it has happened in any American dialects.

UPDATE: the OP was asking why some Brits heard "Allen" when the actors in Fatal Attraction were saying "Ellen". I believe the pronunciation of /ɛl/ is nearly the same in the U.S. and the U.K., but if you're listening to an unfamiliar dialect, you rely more on context, and my guess is that the people watching got the name wrong because they were relying more on context and the girl playing Ellen looked somewhat like a boy.

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    I have downvoted this answer. I have never heard any New Zealander or Australian say anything that could be interpreted as either of "salary" or "celery" - these words have not merged in the Antipodes. With regard to the study of Australians that is referred to on that Wikipedia page - Cox and Palethorpe note that "There is no evidence in this data of raised /æ/ before /l/ as in 'Elbert' for 'Albert' ... ". That is, the page that you cited refutes your point, and so do I, (a native speaker of New Zealand English).
    – user16269
    Apr 14, 2012 at 11:24
  • Maybe Wikipedia is wrong about the salary/celery New Zealand merger, but I believe the rest of my answer is true. On this forvo page, the last speaker, from Texas, pronounces salary in a way that I think sounds close to celery. (He also pronounces celery on the website, and I can hear the difference.) And the second speaker, an Australian, sounds to me like she is saying celery. Apr 14, 2012 at 11:47
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    @DavidWallace The next sentence in the Cox & Palethorpe paper, though, is Instead our results suggest that Victorian girls are more likely to produce “shall” for both "shell” and “shall”. I.e., lowering of /e/, not raising of /æ/. Further, their concluding paragraph does call it a merger. To your point, though, it seems to be a very localized dialect - to wit, younger females in Victoria.This certainly supports that fact you've never heard it! Apr 14, 2012 at 12:50
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    @PeterShor: The Australian woman does sound to my American ear like she's saying celery, approximately. The trouble with phonemes, though, is that unless you hear them in the first year or so of life, it's very hard to pick up subtle differences. The brain's speech processor dumps them all into the "sounds like" hopper and assumes that the closest thing to what you heard is something you already know. I'm willing to allow that DavidWallace's ears may pick up nuances that our ears don't.
    – Robusto
    Apr 14, 2012 at 13:36
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    @MarkBeadles - I have a niece who is a young woman in Victoria, and I've never had any problem distinguishing her salary from her celery. More to the point though, this study was about young women in Wangaratta, which has 17000 people and is situated in the exact centre of fricking nowhere. However, good work supporting this answer. I am reconsidering my downvote in light of your comment.
    – user16269
    Apr 15, 2012 at 12:53

Ellen /ɛlən/ (with variant Helen) is pronounced with an /ɛ/. This is the vowel found in SET and FELL. Alan /ælən/ (with variants Allan and Allen) with an /æ/. This is the vowel found in CAT and PAL.

But the vowels /ɛ/ and /æ/ are admittedly fairly close in sound, and can be difficult to differentiate for those who don't use both vowels in speech. This may be where your confusion lies. As you can see on this general American vowel chart, they are very close to each other on the lower left.

EDIT: To the specific point in your question, "Being a Brit also, the names 'Ellen' and 'Alan' tend to sound the same when spoken with an American tongue" - well, that IMDB commenter from somewhere in the British Islands (an area with hundreds of dialects) may not hear the difference - but Americans certainly pronounce the difference.

  • +1: The problem is compounded when different speakers and dialects add gratuitous diphthongs to plain vowels — which is quite common. In the Australian woman's pronunciation that @PeterShor links to above, it sounds to my ear like she's flirting ever so lightly with /eɪɛ/, a slight y-glide at the beginning.
    – Robusto
    Apr 14, 2012 at 13:47
  • I have edited the page. Please, take a second look at it. Perhaps, you may have some ideas about the quote there.
    – brilliant
    Apr 14, 2012 at 14:01
  • It would help if you said which dialect the vowel chart was for. The AmE and BrE charts are different. Aug 24, 2012 at 15:05
  • @PeterShor This is a Gen Am vowel chart since the question is specifically about American. I'll clarify. Aug 24, 2012 at 15:09

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