Vowel /æ/ phoneme

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The vowel /æ/ is a near-open front, or near-low, front unrounded vowel in English. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet is /æ/, which is an old Latin and Old English ligature of the letters 'a' and 'e';phonologists refer to the letter and sound as "ash." This vowel is less common in the world's languages, and may pose problems for learners. In teaching, it is generally contrasted with the open-mid front vowel /ɛ/, e.g., bad cf. bed. In this article, slash marks like /æ/ indicate a phoneme, while angled brackets like <æ> indicate a letter or spelling, and square brackets like [æ] indicate a phonetic transcription, e.g. with a phonetic variant of a sound.


1 Linguistic description

  • It is described as near-open or near-low, meaning that the jaw is open very low, in between the mid-vowel /ɛ/ as in bed and the low vowel /a/ as in father.
  • It is a front vowel, such that the tongue is as far forward as comfortably possible in the mouth, and the locus of the vowel is the front of the mouth above the tongue blade and tongue tip.
  • It is unrounded, i.e., the lips are not rounded (a rounded version of this vowel is possible, but it is extremely rare in the world's languages).

As a vowel, the glottis (vocal cords) vibrate, producing a fundamental frequency (F0), which provides the basic intonation of the voice, particularly the vowels and voiced consonants. As the F0 bounces around the vocal cavity, other harmonic frequencies are produced, including the so-called F1 and F2, which are responsible for primary vowel quality.

1.1 Cross-linguistic comparison

This vowel is relatively uncommon in the world's languages, so it can pose difficulty for learners, especially for East Asian learners. It exists as a phoneme in a few languages like Finnish, Estonian, and Latvian, and as a phoneme or allophone (phonetic variant) in a few dialects of some European languages. In Korean, this vowel can occur as an allophone of 애 /e/ in a couple of words like 매미 [mæmi] = 'cicada'.

Incidentally, in the Baltic languages, this sound can occur before an /r/, which is a combination that does not occur in English, e.g., in the name of the famous Estonian minimalist composer Arvo Pärt (/ɑrvo pært/).

1.2 Teaching /æ/ production

Many learners of various L1 backgrounds tend to confuse it with /ɛ/, so classroom teaching and practice tend to focus on contrasting /æ/ and /ɛ/. Learners have to learn to practice lowering the jaw more from the /ɛ/, or pronouncing a vowel as if with a tongue suppressor holding down the front of the tongue. If the sound exists as an allophone or phoneme in the learner's L1 or native dialect, this can be used as a starting point, e.g, the Korean word 매미 [mæmi] for Korean learners.


2 Practice materials and activities

Minimal pairs, which contrast a target sound with a sound that is a separate phoneme, are typical starting points for production and practice activities, particularly comparing /æ/ and /ɛ/. These sounds can be contrasted with each other in minimal pair contrasts in syllable-initial or word-initial position, and in medial position, i.e., in the middle of a word. This sound does not generally occur in word-final position. For more on types of minimal pairs activities to train listeners to discern and produce sounds, see the following.

  1. Pronunciation: Listening exercises
  2. Pronunciation: Production exercises
  3. Pronunciation: Controlled activities
  4. Pronunciation: Interactive activities


2.1 Basic practice minimal pairs

Here are a few sample word pairs contrasting /æ/ and /ɛ/.

access      

affluent

alimentary      

cameraman

expansively

excess      

effluent

elementary      

cameramen

expensively

        fanatic      

fanatically      

malady

salary

vassals

phonetic      

phonetically      

melody

celery

vessels


2.2 Practice sentences

For these questions with /æ/ words, respond complete sentences or appropriate phrases.

  1. Do you prefer ham or eggs?
  2. Have you ever been to Indiana or Tennessee?
  3. Do you eat apples or lemons?
  4. Was the weather yesterday bad or pleasant?
  5. Do you want to study math or education?
  6. Will you take a bath, or go to bed?
  7. Would you like Spanish or French food for lunch?
  8. Do you buy black plums or red plums?
  9. Do you prefer salad or apples?
  10. Would you rather go to France or Indiana?
  11. Do you eat bananas or tangerines?
  12. Does the weather today make you feel bad or glad?
  13. Will you take a bath or take a nap?
  14. Do you want to study math or Latin?
  15. Would you like Spanish food or hamburgers for lunch?
  16. Do you buy black plums or blackberries?
  17. Do you like happy movies or sad movies?
  18. Do you wear a hat or a cap? Is your dog bad or well behaved?

Other words: (Do you like...) lizards, iguanas, duck(s), snacks/snakes...

2.3 Practice sentences #2

  1. He is really a fanatic for phonetics.
  2. I slept in a bad bed, and now my back feels really wretched.
  3. I came down with an unpleasant malady, but I'd rather have an unpleasant melody.
  4. I wanted some fatty meat, but all I got was fetid ham and rancid bread.
  5. Can you access the excess supplies? We’re out of black nets, yellow tacks and red paddles.
  6. I can't sing any elegies right now because of my allergies. But February would be fabulous for that.
  7. Can the universe really expand before it expends its energy? Entropy is so depressing.
  8. The king made his vassels fill vessels with gems, and had them lend him their land.
  9. When I applied for the job at the health food store, I thought they said they paid a good salary, but it turns out that they pay me in celery.
  10. A beggar with a battered bag begged us for cash so that he replace his bad bed, but I bet he bagged the money to buy some brandy.

2.4 Practice sentences #3

  1. These are rather elementary disorders. These are rather alimentary disorders. In terms of diagnosis, these are rather elementary alimentary disorders.
  2. Danny is really a fanatic for phonetics, while Denny really fancies fences.
  3. Ned tracks black bats, while Nat treks canyons to study mallows. Nat goes with Betty and they nap in tan tents in the canyon. But Betty's friend Sally tampered with the tempered steel tent pegs.
  4. Someone told me to go to the Annfield train station. Someone else told me to go to the Enfield train station. So should I go to the Annfield or Enfield station?

2.5 Menu task

Order your meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) from the following list. Or discuss with a partner: “Do you like/ eat X, Do you prefer X or Y, Have you ever eaten X, What kind of X do you like?”

anchovy      

apples

applesauce

bananas

black beans

Big Mac

cabbage

candy

cantaloupe      

carrot

clams

crab

crackers

ham sandwich

hamburger      

hash browns

jam

lamb

pancakes

rabbit stew

radishes

ravioli

salad

salmon /sæmən/      

spam

tangerines

yams

yak meat


2.6 Tongue twisters

Now try the following tongue twisters.

  1. Clean yellow clams crammed in clean red cans. How can a clam cram into a clean cream can?
  2. A big black bug bit a big black bear, but the big black bear bit the big black bug back.
  3. How many cans can a canner can if a canner can can cans? A canner can can as many cans as a canner can if a canner can can cans.
  4. How many snacks could a snack stacker stack, if a snack stacker snacked stacked snacks?


2.7 Silly practice questions

Have students discuss the following questions, which are inspired by Dr. Seuss.

  1. Would you eat green eggs and ham?
  2. Would you eat green eggs and spam?
  3. Would you eat them with apples?
  4. Would you eat them with bananas?
  5. Would you eat them with hash browns?
  6. Would you eat them with trash hounds?
  7. Would you eat them with a sad sonnet?
  8. Would you eat them with a ragged bonnet?
  9. Would you eat them before taking a nap?
  10. Would you eat them while taking a bath?
  11. Would you eat them in Indiana?
  12. Would you eat them in Montana?
  13. Would you eat them with potassium?
  14. Would you eat them with calcium additives?
  15. Would you eat them with fellow captives?
  16. Would you eat them with vegetarian activists?
  17. Would you eat them during a combat situation?
  18. Would you eat them in during a wombat altercation?
  19. Would you ever eat green eggs with ham or spam at all?


3 More minimal pairs

Here are more minimal pairs, broken down according to initial or medial word position. The vowel /æ/ does not generally occur in word-final position.

initial medial
Alf elf      

Ali Ellie
alimentary elementary

Allan Ellen
allergy elegy
am M
amber ember
and end
Ann N
Annfield Enfield
aster Esther
ax X
axes X's

back beck      

bad bed
bag beg
band bend
Bass Bess
bat bet
batter better
begat beget
ban Ben
batty Betty
bland blend
brad bread
bran Bren
candle Kendal
canny Kenny
can’t Kent
canyon Kenyan
capped kept
catch ketch
cattle kettle
caveman/-men
clans cleanse
crap crepe
crapped crept
crass cress
dab deb
dad dead
Dan den
Danny Denny
dally Delhi
drags dregs
expand expend
expanse expense
expansive expensive      
fallow fellow
fanatic(s) phonetic(s)
fanned fend
fans fens
fatted fetid
fatter fetter
fattish fetish
fad Fed
flak fleck

flash flesh      

flashy fleshy
flax flecks
gas guess
GATT get
gem jam
gnats nets
hack heck
hackles heckles
had head
Hal hell
ham hem
handyman/-men
hap hep
knack neck
lad lead
lag leg
lambing lemming
land lend
lapped leapt
lass less
latter letter
lattice lettuce
lantern Lenten
madly medley
mailman/-men
malady melody
mallow mellow
manned mend
mansion mention
mantel mental
mat met
mag Meg
minuteman/-men
muscleman/-men
Nat net
overlapped overlept      
pack peck
paddle pedal
palate pellet
pan pen
pap pep
parish perish
pat pet

Patty petty      

plaid pled
rack wreck
radish reddish
rand rend
rant rent
rap rep
racks wrecks
sac sec
sacked sect
sacks secs
sad said
salary celery
salvage selvage
salves selves
sand send
sat set
satyr setter
saxes sexes
schoolman/-men
shackle shekel
shad shed
shall shell
slapped slept
spanned spend
Stan Sten
superman/-men
tacks techs/Tex/tex      
tally telly
tamp temp
tamper temper
tanned tend
tanner tenner
tans tens
taxed text
tack tech
than then
thrash thresh
track trek
trainman/-men
vacs vex
vassal vessel
vat vet


4 Notes


4.1 See also

Portal:Phonology