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Being Turkish, I think my command of English phonology suffers from L1 transfer.

Consonants seem to be fine, in that I can produce them on command, and can transcribe others' production of them more or less accurately, but vowels are a bit problematic for me. While I am unsure as to whether I produce them or not in natural speech, let me detail the issues I face with each group, and the abnormal mergers in my idiolect:

  • [a], [ɑ], [ʌ]: Merged and indistinguishable. Actual production is probably the variety in Turkish that I have seen transcribed as [a] and [ɑ] both.
  • [i], [ɪ]: Into an [i]. Solved. Realised that 'ship' with the [i] of sheep sounds absurd in contrast to the native [ɪ], which sounds something like [i] and [ə] mashed up together.
  • [ɒ], [o], [ɔ]: Into an [o].
  • [e], [ɛ], [ɛː]: [e], [e] and [eː]. The spread helped me to notice once again that the fancy looking letter of the pair [ɛ] is a bit closer to the schwa. 'Pen' with a [e] sounds atrocious.
  • [ʊ], [u]: Into an [u].
  • [ɜː]: Previously perceived it as short [œ], now indistinguishable from [eː].

How can I learn to hear these as distinct vowels? Particularly interested in the A-group, as it seems Arabic, another language I am learning, had situational allophony classically between [a] and [ɑ], without which it just does not sound right.

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  • For [u] vs. [ʊ] consider pool [u] vs pull [ʊ], and Luke [u] vs. look [ʊ]. Could it also be an orthographical difficulty rather than pronunciation per se? The written u is often pronounced "ʌ" as well (cup, luck, much, etc.)
    – Brandin
    Mar 23, 2023 at 10:45
  • You have to find a book which first gives you the spelling of a sound: like cheat and sheet. Tells you that ee and ea can be the same phoneme: this is the long e sound: i: If you do this systematically, your English will improve.
    – Lambie
    Mar 23, 2023 at 20:52
  • Here is the best book I have ever seen for this: amazon.com/English-Pronunciation-Illustrated-John-Trim/dp/… Please note: there are a few differences with American English but learning most of these will help you. But bear in mind this truism: If you don't hear the English first, you won't know how the word is pronounced necessarily.
    – Lambie
    Mar 23, 2023 at 20:55

1 Answer 1

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Because of the nature of a text-based site, it's near impossible for me to help you distinguish those sounds when you hear them beyond what you could read elsewhere, but I can help a little bit in ways that don't require you to hear me.

In English, the phoneme /a/ only appears in the diphthongs /aj/ and /aw/ (or /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ in many dictionaries), as in the words "sigh" and "out", respectively. The phoneme /ɑ/ never appears in any diphthongs, so the closest words that would contrast with these are "saw" and "ought" respectively, and at your level, I doubt you'd confuse those either in comprehension or production.

Similarly, the phoneme /e/ only appears in the diphthong /ej/ (or /eɪ) as in "pain", and as /ɛ/ doesn't appear in any diphthongs, the closest contrasting word is "pen".

The phoneme /ɛː/ only appears in British English in words spelled with an "r" after, as in the word "pear". There is never any consonant sound in the syllable after it, while /ɛ/ (the short version) always has a consonant after it. In other words, there's no possibility for confusion, so don't worry about this pair of sounds.

Despite what you're liable to see on Wikipedia and elsewhere, the Turkish letter "a" has the sound /ɑ/, and the Turkish letter "e" has the sound /ɛ/. (My source for this is I studied Turkish in Türkiye for 4 years and have a degree in Linguistics)

For the other vowels, yes, you'll just have to learn them. All I can recommend from here is more listening practice generally, and listening to native pronunciation of minimal pairs, which means two words where the only difference in pronunciation is the vowel sounds you're targeting, like "pun" and "pawn". There's pages full of them, including audio files of all the words pronounced correctly. The linked example page here has American pronunciation.

İyi şanslar!!

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  • I had dabbled in attempting to conform to RP some time in the past, so the sigh-saw pair are /saɪ/ and /so:/ and I shall have to ask, with which pair did you intend to include 'out'?
    – murshad
    Mar 20, 2023 at 21:40
  • Additionally, would I be correct in that the pairs [i], [ɪ] and [e], [ɛ], regardless of phonotactics, can be differentiated in production by how wide (left-to-right) the mouth opens, wide open in the former sounds, and barely at all in the latter ones?
    – murshad
    Mar 20, 2023 at 21:52
  • @murshad I've fixed "out". The second one now correctly reads "ought". And yes, those two pairs of sounds differentiate in part by how wide the mouth is. In Linguistics it's called "spread". /i/ and /e/ are more "spread" than their counterparts /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ (though /ɪ/ is still more spread than /e/). Another difference between them is that the more spread sound in each pair is also "tense", while the other is "lax".
    – gotube
    Mar 21, 2023 at 0:01
  • @murshad As for [i] vs [ɪ], personally I feel that my tongue and jaw wants to move a bit lower down for [ɪ]. Example pair: heat, hit. For me, pronouncing [ɪ] somehow seems to demand less energy than [i]. Note: native US English speaker. I suspect though that the sound [ɪ] is probably less common in other languages though, so it could be the opposite situation for you (maybe it takes more effort for you to make the less-familiar vowel sound).
    – Brandin
    Mar 23, 2023 at 10:52
  • @Brandin You're right. The Linguistics term "tense" (see my last comment) means the tongue is stiffer because it's spending more energy more energy. Both /i/ and /e/ are tense sounds, while their counterparts /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ are "lax".
    – gotube
    Mar 23, 2023 at 20:17

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