pronunciation: æ or a: [eg, rather, father, bath, sample]

daniar

Senior Member
Bulgarian
Hello everyone.
I have a question about the sounds 'æ' or 'a:'. Usually, dictionaries give the pronunciation of words such as: rather, example, grass, bath, sample, etc. with an 'a:' sound in BrE and 'æ' sound in AmE. Nonetheless, my teacher gave the transcription of the words 'bath' as /bæθ/, sample /'sæmpl/ and example /ɪɡˈzæmpl/. I asked her and she replied that both 'a:' and 'æ' in this examples sound fine to her in BrE, and the native speakers from Britain who taught her pronounced it both ways. I talked to another teacher about this and she asked me why I think this is not how a native from Britain would sound and said it's just how my teacher is used to pronouncing these words . She also mentioned that during her education at university she'd heard differences in pronunciation of such words said by Britons. I found this article in Wikipedia http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_English that shows that people usually pronounce these words with a short vowel in the north part of England and people in the south with a long vowel. What's your opinion about that?
P.S. The other teacher I asked told me that 'father' is pronounced as /ˈfɑ(ː)ðə/ both in AmE and BrE although some Scots might say something like 'fedir'.
Appreciate all your answers.
 
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  • ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Hullo Daniar. This is generally known as the trap-bath split ~ you can start reading about it here, for example.

    In fact the areas that use /æ/ are much bigger than those that use /a:/ ~ the whole of the Midlands, North and Southwest of England, the whole of Wales and Scotland, the whole of Ireland. /a:/ is only native to the Southeast, which, of course, includes London.

    Yes, some Scots say /ˈfeɪðər/ for father:thumbsup:
     

    daniar

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Hullo Daniar. This is generally known as the trap-bath split ~ you can start reading about it here, for example.

    In fact the areas that use /æ/ are much bigger than those that use /a:/ ~ the whole of the Midlands, North and Southwest of England, the whole of Wales and Scotland, the whole of Ireland. /a:/ is only native to the Southeast, which, of course, includes London.

    Yes, some Scots say /ˈfeɪðər/ for father:thumbsup:
    Thank you for answering my question. From now on, I won't worry about this anymore.
     

    aasheq

    Senior Member
    English (Estuary)
    Perhaps you should worry about it a little bit more. I have a few objections to ewie’s remarks. First, it is not exactly true that /a:/ “is only native to the Southeast”. Let us not discuss what “native” means in this context; this is in fact a fairly thorny issue. But we must stress that the distribution of /a:/ and /æ/ is not simple and that there are pockets of /a:/ and of /æ/ all across the British Isles. Second, it is a fact that many people in, for example, Edinburgh emulate the “received” pronunciation of English rather than the local variety. Third, to say that “the areas that use /æ/ are much bigger than those that use /a:/” is not really of any significance insofar as in linguistics we are not concerned with “areas” but with people; do not forget that the largest portion of the British population does actually live in the Southeast. And fourth (and this is my main point), I do not think that learners of English are well advised to pick up random bits of disparate dialects, but should instead attempt to acquire one particular, if possible wide-spread, variety of English in a systematic and consistent way. I should think that our friends in Bulgaria, our fellow Europeans and our partners (however much these might displease some politicians on our septic – as ewie so eloquently puts it – isle) in the European drama might have good reason to emulate our “received” pronunciation rather than some other one.
     

    daniar

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    I'm sorry for posting after quite a long time but I want to know, is the pronunciation of rather, bath, sample, etc. as /ˈræðə/ , /bæθ/ and /' sæmpl/ considered standard English?
     

    wandle

    Senior Member
    English - British
    It is a good question. The traditional answer is that received pronunciation (RP) uses the long 'a'. This is also called the BBC English or educated English pronunciation. This has traditionally been regarded as standard on the basis that it is non-regional, making it suitable for professional purposes, and that for foreigners learning English it is a single pronunciation, which gives a standard answer to your question.

    I grew up in the North of England, with a Scottish father and an Irish mother. Learning from them and local people, I used to use the short 'a', until at the age of seven I had an English teacher (in Liverpool) who was from London. She pronounced the word 'command' with a long 'a'. I puzzled over this for some time and eventually decided that because she was the English teacher, she must be right. I then adopted the long 'a' for 'command' and 'demand', but I still stuck to the short 'a' in other cases, such as 'path', 'bath' and 'grant'.

    As I went through further stages of education, including Oxford, where I found my northern accent mocked by Old Etonians, I felt the need to rationalise my pronunciation and decided in principle in favour of the long 'a'. Even now, though, after years of living in London, I am still liable to revert to the short 'a' from time to time.

    My father's term for RP was 'southern counties Cockney', by which he meant it was used by middle-class suburban people thinking themselves proper, but who were really imitating Cockneys (the London working class), with the long 'a', the diphthongal 'o' and the disappearing 'r'. His influence means I still pronounce the letter 'r', where RP does not.
     
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    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Rather and father have the long 'a' in almost every version of English; demand and command have the same vowel in most of Britain. The USA may be different.

    Bath and sample have the short 'a' in most versions, except for southern British. This was an affectation introduced in the 18th century by people wishing to differentiate themselves socially from the working population, and so of course they were imitated by others of a like disposition. In recent years the BBC (the present best indicator of good English) has corrected this bias, and the short version is heard as often as the long (on BBC Radio 4 at least).

    Regardless of Aasheq's advice in #4, I would suggest that for foreign leaners the main thing is to be moderately consistent, using either of the two; both are good. Above all, avoid the 'Oxford drawl'; this is an exaggerated elongation of the /a:/ which will immediately label you as a fake.
     

    daniar

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    I see. So even though the Received Pronunciation is the standard British English and it uses the long 'a' as in 'father', we cannot say /ˈræðə/ is non-standard when there are quite a lot of people using the 'æ' sound in such words. But 'nothing' pronounced with an 'ɔ' sound is definitely not standard.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I think the notion of the standard should be restricted to the written language, although you can talk about high prestige and low prestige accents. Saying /ˈnɒθɪŋ/ or /ˈraðə/ just marks the accent as Northern English.
     

    PaulQ

    Banned
    UK
    English - England
    I may be naïve, but I should imagine that in Bulgaria there are regional accents and asking how to pronounce a troublesome word would elicit similar discussion as above. I think the only way to describe a pronunciation is probably via saying "You do not pronounce it like this." (e.g. rather is never pronounced /ˈreɪθər/).
    I should think that our friends in Bulgaria, ... might have good reason to emulate our “received” pronunciation rather than some other one.
    I'm not sure I agree with this. A one-size-fits-all approach never works. A non-native speaker (with some praiseworthy exceptions) rarely entirely looses their native accent but often can reduce it significantly. If this reduced accent is then thrown in with a local accent, it is less likely to be remarked upon.

    Some time ago, I mentioned a language teacher who temporarily took over a class of Arabs who all imitated the pronunciation of their Glaswegian teacher: I should imagine that whatever native speakers took the Arabs to be when they spoke, it would not be Arabs but perhaps a local from some area around Glasgow.

    When my conversational German was significantly better, I was often mistaken for a person from around the Cologne area where I had built up most of my school German.
     
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    daniar

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    In Bulgaria we have so many dialects that I doubt I could understand everything a person says if he comes from a region with a really strong accent, e.g. a villager from the Rhodopi Mountains( or Rhodope Mountain - I've seen both ways of spelling and I've heard two ways of pronouncing - with a stress on the first and the second syllable). Nevertheless, we have standard pronunciation and such issues about a pronunciation of a word can be very easily stopped just by looking in a dictionary or by asking a Bulgarian teacher, of course he/she should be (a) native( is the indefinite article necessary?).
     
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    daniar

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    I'm sorry to post after quite a while, again...But, I wanted to say that I've talked to my teacher about the trap-bath split and asked why she's not consistent when transcribing words like 'sample', 'bath',etc. She said she'd learnt about it but in her opinion, even native speakers aren't consistent all the time. I've been listening to native speakers of English very closely because I wanted to hear how people from different parts of Britain pronounce such wordsand I have to say I've heard natives from the South use the [æ] sound with words like 'example', 'dance' and the [a:] with 'last', 'fast'. We use 'My Grammar Lab' - Pearson Longman together with Teesadale School to compare our results(but they are native speakers???) and it has an online version where a woman who I'm absolutely sure is a native English speaker with an RP accent pronounced 'ask' , 'answer', 'fast' and 'last' with an [a:] sound and 'example' with an [æ] sound.On YouTube, I regularly watch vlogs by native English speakers and one of the British vloggers said 'rather' with an [æ] sound and 'ask' and 'answer' with the long [a:] sound. Another British YouTuber used an [æ] sound for 'faster' and 'dancer' in one of his videos and in another one he pronounced the same words with an [a:]. I've also heard native speakers from the north of Britain use an [æ] with all the words I've listed above but say 'can't' with an [a:]. It looks like even native speakers use [a:] and [æ] depending on their mood from time to time, don't they?
     

    Keith Bradford

    Senior Member
    English (Midlands UK)
    Daniar, I think you're right. I was interviewed on this topic on BBC Radio 4 a few years ago, when a novelist had scandalised Liverpudlians (people from Liverpool) by suggesting that they learn to lose their regional accent, which is very distinctive. Some people felt that would be treason to their local origins.

    My view was that nobody is born with an accent -- we all learn a local accent and can choose to use it or not. In the same way that I wear rubber boots in the country and polished shoes in the city, so I pronounce the "-ing" ending with a loud g when I'm talking to my family in Wolverhampton and as /iŋ/ when I'm speaking in public. I must admit that I never alter my "flat" a's into long ones, but it doesn't surprise me at all if some people do.

    What does bother me is that some (usually middle-class people from the London area) who speak with a long /ɑ:/ imagine that that is intrinsically superior to the pronunciation of others (usually working-class people from north of London) who use the flat /æ/. Both are good. There is no reason for a foreign learner to reject either.

    And in case I've given the impression that this is an either/or decision, let me make it clear. Almost every accent in Britain uses the short a for words like "hat" /hæt/ and almost every one has a long a in "father", "rather" /rɑ:ðɘ/ etc.
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    You're absolutely right: native speakers aren't always consistent, or don't always conform to their 'local rules'. It may be because they're trying to sound more upmarket [post #6] or occasionally more downmarket than they would ordinarily, or it may be because they're simply making slips of the tongue, or they're merely reflecting the current vowel shiftings that are going on in English (disappearance of old-fashioned RP [æ] to be replaced by [a], etc.)

    Also: there are some words, not often used, which some people just aren't sure how to pronounce. The two that come to mind are Elastoplast (a brand of sticking-plaster: 'elastic' + 'plaster') and aftermath:
    The first can theoretically only be pronounced with either short+short vowels /iˈlæstəplæst/ or short+long /iˈlæstəplɑ:st/ ... but I've also heard long+long /iˈlɑ:stəplɑ:st/, which doesn't really make any sense at all because nobody says /iˈlɑ:stɪk/.
    Aftermath is even worse: both vowels can be either long or short ... and I've heard all four possible combinations, frequently from people who obviously just aren't sure how to pronounce it:D
    She said she'd learnt about it but in her opinion, even native speakers aren't consistent all the time.
    :rolleyes: ~ a somewhat feeble excuse.
     

    daniar

    Senior Member
    Bulgarian
    Thank you guys, you're a great help, as always!!!
    P.S.
    ~ a somewhat feeble excuse.
    I absolutely agree with you ewie. Something makes me think she hadn't heard of what I was explaining to her. Well, no-one knows everything about any language, even native speakers(fortunately, we have this amazing site where we, both learners and natives, can share our experience and knowledge and learn something new every day) and non-native English teachers are far from perfect, but who is? And although native speakers aren't consistent themselves, I'm going to follow (actually, continue following) your advice and use only the [a:] in all the words I've written in my previous posts(not that I don't like the [æ], which is now [a], but [a:] is the sound I've been using for a very long time, perhaps since I started learning this wonderful language). Oh, I almost forgot, -ing pronounced with a loud [g], this will be the very next thing I'll(going to??) start a new thread about.
     
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    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    but I've also heard long+long /iˈlɑ:stəplɑ:st/, which doesn't really make any sense at all because nobody says /iˈlɑ:stɪk/.
    Dangerous being categorical ... /ɪˈlɑ:stɪk/ is the normal pronunciation here, ewie. Also, /ˈtrɑ:nspɔːt/ and all trans- words generally. (My own pronunciation is more BrE influenced, so I have /æ/ for elastic and transfer.)

    When I was growing up, using /æ/ was seen as putting on an accent, and someone in my class was taken to task for saying /dæns/. :eek:
     

    ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    Dangerous being categorical ... /ɪˈlɑ:stɪk/ is the normal pronunciation here, ewie.
    :eek: My apologies, Nat ~ I've never been to Singapore. (I dare say if more people were paying attention, we'd be getting floods of posts saying, "Yes, we pronounce it like that in Basingstoke / Pretoria / Louisville / Wagga Wagga [etc. etc.] too":eek:)
     
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