For a non-native English speaker like me, it's always been hard to sound /æ/ and /ɛ/ differently. For example, "salary" and "celery" are two words that I tend to pronounce identically.

Is it OK to go on like this or should I practice to get it right?

  • 2
    Honestly, I wouldn't worry too much about it. It's exceedingly rare for those learning a second language later in life to achieve native-like pronunciation. Yet people still get along just fine. Probably not worth the untold hours of practice it would require.
    – Alan Hogue
    Aug 13, 2010 at 17:45
  • 2
    many native English accents don't actually distinguish the two sounds, so you wouldn't sound wrong if you didn't either. But a good way to practice is to record yourself, and compare it to the recording of a native speaker. You should get it eventually. Aug 17, 2010 at 0:22
  • @Vincent is correct. This particular phonetic distinguish usually doesn't cause much trouble and even the best foreign speakers of English don't always make this one. Generally, it is more likely to be considered "charming" rather than "confusing". By all means, practice as much as you like, but don't be self conscious about it. :)
    – leoger
    Dec 15, 2010 at 0:35
  • 2
    You should realize that in many varieties of English, including American English, the vowel /æ/ changes before an /l/. If you just confuse /æl/ and /el/, there are native English speakers who do the same thing, and I would say this is not too big problem in speaking and understanding English. If you mix up "mat" and "met", you really do need to work on your vowels. Nov 9, 2011 at 12:03

7 Answers 7


Here is a typical English vowel chart:

English vowel chart

As you can see, /æ/ and /ɛ/ are quite close to each other, and so have quite a similar sound. The difference is in the degree of openness: /æ/ is “near-open” and /ɛ/ is “open-mid”. If you want to make a clear distinction between the two, you need to practice, practice, practice. When I was learning phonetics, I found the best practice was to try to make long continuous vowels that go along the axes, like /iiiiiiiieeeeeeeeɛɛɛɛɛɛɛɛææææææææaaaaaaaa/. Once I was able to master making the entire continuum, it became easier to find individual points along the continuum.


Celery e as in evet Salary as the e in lütfen

You could pronounce salary just as if it were a Turkish word as well.


The /æ/ sound (which in American English is the sound present in words like cat, gap, fan, man) is pronounced by dropping your jaw down as if you were going to say [ä]; then from that position try saying /ɛ/.


As I don't know Turkish, so I'm afraid I can't give you examples of pronunciation in your native language, but this may still help:

salary: SAH - lah - ree

celery: CELL - lair - ree

  • 1
    No wish to be dismissive but the OP doesn't know how to differentiate between the vowels in SAH and CELL. That is their whole problem. Jan 23, 2021 at 18:27
  • Not necessarily. Breaking it down into simpler, better-known words, can often help. I think you presume too much about the OP. (You may or may not be right.)
    – Noldorin
    Jan 23, 2021 at 19:16
  • 1
    "it's always been hard to sound /æ/ and /ɛ/ differently" - That indicates that the OP is well aware that there is a difference, regardless of the word it appears in. Merely adding more words won't make hearing difference any easier - especially if those sounds are not distinct in the OP's native language. Jan 24, 2021 at 12:36
  • I would rather try to be humble and let the OP decide if it helps. If not, no harm done. This is just one of many answers attempting to help. Often, giving specific examples (of familiar sounds or words) helps differentiate sounds in the general case. Also, "those sounds are not distinct in ..." is a self-contradiction. You probably mean that the letters/graphemes do not have distinct sounds/phonemes. Anyway, you've made your point, so good day.
    – Noldorin
    Jan 24, 2021 at 18:05
  • "those sounds are not distinct in ..." is a self-contradiction - I don't think it is. It can be thought of as meaning, "those sounds are not considered distinct ... From reading the question carefully, it seems they are not considered distinct, in the OP's native language. Nevertheless you are entitled to your opinion so I'll leave it there. Jan 25, 2021 at 0:36

The most dictionaries I consulted show that the first e in celery is IPA e (seləri).
Read what the important phonetician Daniel Jones said about æ

The correct sound of æ can generally be obtained by remembering that æ must have a sound intermediate in quality between ɛ and a. In practising the sound, the mouth should be kept very wide open.
The sound may be obtained by imitating the baaing of a sheep which is very like ˈbæː . Those who are unable to obtain the exact quality by practising such exercises should note that it is better to err on the side of a rather than on the side of ɛ (my emphasis) . a is actually used for æ in some parts of the North of England. (Note 401 in this book).

I also noticed the emphasized part from my own experience with words such as happy and laptop.


@Mehper C. Palavuzlar The easiest thing you can do in keeping the difference between [ɛ] and [æ]is to pronounce every [æ] like [a]. I know most people don't even realize a simple fact that for most British people [æ] is quite a foreign sound. In the Midlands, Northern Britain, Scotland, Wales, Ulster and Ireland [a] is the most usual, typical realization of [æ]. The same is true for both Canadian and Caribbean dialects &/or accents.


You might subscribe to a podcast located at speakmoreclearly.com which offers phonological analysis and pronunciation practice of English accents (British, American and Australian). Repeated practice on this sentence will do wonders: 'Yet another white man doomed to rot under the tropic sun!'

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.