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  1. #1
    ancor90 is offline Newbie
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    Default Vowel sounds in English

    Hello.

    I'm currently trying to improve my English pronunciation. Curiously, I don't have any problems with the usual sounds native Germans are known to have problems with, i.e. pronouncing /θ/ as /s/, // as /z/, or mixing up /v/ and /w/. This, I think, is not a problem in my case. Instead, I tend to have difficulties with the correct pronunciation and identification of some vowels. In order to get rid of this problem, I'm learning IPA.

    My plan was this:

    1) learn to identify individual (IPA) vowels in isolation
    2) learn to identify IPA vowels in words
    3) listen to a native English speaker who speaks the "target accent" you want to learn (in my case American English) and remember the pronunciation.

    My problem is that I seem to fail already at step 1.

    I can distinguish all vowel sounds when heard in isolation. However, when I instruct my computer to randomly play a sound file of one IPA vowel, I tend to have trouble identifying them.

    Here are some I have trouble with:

    i) /ɒ/ vs /ɔ/ -- the latter sounds lower in frequency; but if I don't know which one is played, it is hard to really tell them apart.

    ii) /ɪ/ vs /e/ (which is really weird, because both sounds occur in my native German, and I think I pronounce them correctly, but in isolation they sound so similar, and I don't even know why)

    iii) /ʌ/ -- this sound is a real mystery to me. Because I *think* I'm doing it correctly; however, every recording of that sound I can find sounds not only different from my own version of it, but they also sound different from each other.

    /ʌ/ on wiktionary.org: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/92/Open-mid_back_unrounded_vowel.ogg

    /ʌ/ from a different source: paulmeier.com/ipa/vowels.html (you have to click on the vowel to hear it)

    To me, those two examples sound very different. Which is correct? If native speakers cannot even decide on how to pronounce it, what good is transcribing a word which supposedly has this sound in it?

    So, can anybody give me any advice on my problem in general, and the how to correctly identify and pronounce said vowels?

    Thanks in advance.

  2. #2
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: Vowel sounds in English

    The problem with these symbols is that every one of them means an abstract thing: a phoneme. We don't utter phonemes--they exist only in our minds. We realize phonemes in various ways depending on our accents. We call those realizations allophones and none of them is the only correct one.

    There is nothing strange about your problem. The problems with consonants are usually the first a European learner of English overcomes, which has two main causes in my opinion. First, the consonants are mostly the same in all Indoeuropean laguages. There are differences, but they're not numerous. Second, the differences between English consonantal phonemes are usually easier to recognize than the differences between vowels. Vowels form a continuum of sounds and the boundaries of different phonemes often intersect.

    I was very surprised recently to hear a sample of the /ɨ/ sound, which is said to be one of the Polish phonemes. I knew of course which Polish sound it was, but the sample wasn't it. It was a sound no Pole would ever produce speaking Polish.

    It's virtually impossible to give symbols to all possible (or at least all recognizable) vowels, because there are simply too many of them.

  3. #3
    thatone is offline Member
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    Default Re: Vowel sounds in English

    i) /ɔ/ is more closed and a little closer to /u/, while /ɒ/ is basically a rounded /ɑ/. Keep in mind though that /ɔ/ is relatively hard to find in the two major English dialects, because in RP it's closer to /o/ and in American English to /ɒ/ or even completely replaced by /ɑ/.

    ii) I don't understand the problem, because they are indeed quite similar. If it helps, you can try pronouncing /ɪ/ a little closer to /ə/.

    iii) The real problem is that /ʌ/ is used to represent a sound that varies a lot between English varities. For instance, a "real" /ʌ/ is actually used only in two varieties of English, Newfoundland and Philadelphia, perhaps in the US Inland North, though it's further back. In RP and California, the vowel is actually /ɐ/. In Texas and Ohio, it's /ɜ/. In some Southern American English dialects, it approaches /ɘ/. What I'm trying to say is, it's normal to find this kind of variety, so your best bet is to listen to a lot of audio files by speakers from whatever country's English you want to learn, and I recommend www.forvo.com for this, and try to make that sound.
    Last edited by thatone; 18-Feb-2011 at 20:09.

  4. #4
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    5jj is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: Vowel sounds in English

    BC is right.

    There is also the point that, while trained phoneticians can fairly easily identify vowel sounds in isolation, it's not so easy for lesser mortals.

    Unless you are interested in becoming a phonetician, there is little point. We don't go round uttering vowel phonemes in isolation. Even if there were only one pronunciation of, for example, /e/, (i.e. there were no different allophones), no native speaker, outside a classroom would ever utter it without another phoneme immediately following it.

    Try to learn the phonemes in context, surrounded by other phonemes. When you have heard and said ebb, deck, fetch, red, deaf, leg, bell, gem, ten, rep, mess, mesh, bet, rev, fez, and also some minimal pairs - bet/bit, better/bitter - then you will have a clear idea of /e/

  5. #5
    ancor90 is offline Newbie
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    Default Re: Vowel sounds in English

    Wow, thank you all for your replies. It has already helped me a lot.

    I was very surprised recently to hear a sample of the /ɨ/ sound, which is said to be one of the Polish phonemes. I knew of course which Polish sound it was, but the sample wasn't it. It was a sound no Pole would ever produce speaking Polish.
    Yes, I know that feeling. It often confused me a lot and made me question my own hearing abilities.

    Keep in mind though that /ɔ/ is relatively hard to find in the two major English dialects, because in RP it's closer to /o/ and in American English to /ɒ/ or even completely replaced by /ɑ/.
    Does this mean that a native American speaker could forget about /ɔ/ and always say /ɒ/ or /ɑ/ instead, or did I misunderstand you here?

    ii) I don't understand the problem, because they are indeed quite similar.
    Sorry, I read the sentence a couple of times, but I don't know what you're trying to say. Do you mean, "I do understand the problem?"

    The real problem is that /ʌ/ is used to represent a sound that varies a lot between English varities.
    In RP and California, the vowel is actually /ɐ/.
    Oh, thank you so much. This is exactly the sound that I hear and use when uttering a word that supposedly has /ʌ/ in it.

    In Texas and Ohio, it's /ɜ/.
    The Wikipedia article you linked to says that this is

    [t]he most common realization of the vowel transcribed as ʌ in American English.
    I've never realized that. Is the /ʌ/ in blood, flood, mud, etc really realized as the same sound as /ɜ/ as in German, Germany, worry, .. in most of America?

    Code:
    I recommend forvo.com for this
    Thanks!

    Try to learn the phonemes in context, surrounded by other phonemes. When you have heard and said ebb, deck, fetch, red, deaf, leg, bell, gem, ten, rep, mess, mesh, bet, rev, fez, and also some minimal pairs - bet/bit, better/bitter - then you will have a clear idea of /e/
    Good idea, thank you, too. I will do that.

  6. #6
    thatone is offline Member
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    Default Re: Vowel sounds in English

    Quote Originally Posted by ancor90 View Post
    Does this mean that a native American speaker could forget about /ɔ/ and always say /ɒ/ or /ɑ/ instead, or did I misunderstand you here?
    Yes, American speakers either use only /ɑ/ (caught-cot merger) or use something between /ɒ/: and /ɑ/ instead of /ɔ/. A pure /ɔ/ can be found in in some more conservative accents, but it is more closed than what the average American uses.

    Sorry, I read the sentence a couple of times, but I don't know what you're trying to say. Do you mean, "I do understand the problem?"
    I meant I didn't understand what the problem was, because it's normal for them to be very similar.

    I've never realized that. Is the /ʌ/ in blood, flood, mud, etc really realized as the same sound as /ɜ/ as in German, Germany, worry, .. in most of America?
    I'd say it's an exaggeration. Personally I can easily tell that someone is from the South if they use /ɜ/. I'd say the vowel the average American would use is something in between /ɜ/ and /ʌ/, perhaps just a bit more open (i.e. further down the IPA Chart).

    As an example, listen to how this Texan says "buck." To me, that sounds almost like "book."

  7. #7
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    BobK is offline Harmless drudge
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    Default Re: Vowel sounds in English

    Quote Originally Posted by birdeen's call View Post
    ...


    It's virtually impossible to give symbols to all possible (or at least all recognizable) vowels, because there are simply too many of them.
    Totally impossible; the variables are many, and the resultant sounds innumerable. You can get somewhere using the full range of IPA symbols (including the diacritics described in the Principles of the IPA). 40 years ago I could recognize (but not produce) over a hundred vowel sounds, but a trained ear in ideal laboratory conditions could do much better. But as 5jj said, that's a pretty useless skill for anyone but a phonetician.

    Don't be daunted though - you only need a handful of phoneme symbols to describe and discuss English accents

    b

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