To my non-native ears, they always do even though the dictionary says otherwise. Do you say the two words in the same way in your speech?

Additional information that might be useful:

I understand and recognize the difference between the two. It's just the difference seems to vanish in fast-paced native speech. I'm asking about whether native speakers ignore the somewhat subtle difference in their casual fast-paced conversations, and produce the two words/sounds in the same way. I wanted to confirm whether that was true or I was just hearing things.

My native language is Arabic. I can tell whether the speaker's accent is American, British, Canadian, etc., but honestly, both Brits and Americans gave me the same experience. I can determine from context which word is meant. Because my ears are not well-trained to hear a British accent, the difference is almost impossible for me to grasp in British casual fast-paced speech.

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    bawl and ball are the same, but bowl is different. They might be the same in some dialects (vowels can do funny things before /l/ in English), but if they always sound the same to you no matter who's speaking, you need to train your ears better. Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 3:14
  • Not always. I recognize the difference. It's just the difference seems to vanish in fast-paced native speech.
    – Rose
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 3:22
  • 1
    As others have noted, there are a lot of dialects in British Eng! To my ear 'ball' and 'bowl' are very clearly distinguishable, but there are areas round north Manchester where 'bowl' would be pretty close to 'ball' - and for ex, 'spare' and 'spur' would both be pronounced 'spur' (I've actually heard that one cause confusion in RL)
    – peterG
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 13:11
  • What is your native language, and do you know what accent of English you're hearing?
    – sumelic
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 19:10
  • 1
    This question would be better if it were more specific regarding the OP's problem, rather than just "I can't hear the difference". This will only return the general rule to follow.
    – user3169
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 20:48

4 Answers 4


English has a lot more vowels than most languages, so most learners need to re-train their ears to recognize the additional vowels. In both British English and American English, the difference between ball and bowl is small, but significant. It is easy for native speakers to recognize because their ears are trained to do so.

In ball, the vowel is a long vowel: that means that it sounds the same all the way through. The same long vowel occurs in law- /lɔː/ in BrE and /lɑː/ in AmE.

In bowl, the vowel is a diphthong, which means that there is a glide between two different sounds. The same diphthong occurs in low- /ləʊ/ in BrE and /loʊ/ in AmE.

You can see the difference clearly in this spectrogram of a British English speaker saying ball and bowl. In the first word, ball, the long vowel is the same all the way through. In the second word, bowl, the diphthong sound changes, starting at the red cursor line.

Ball bowl spectrogram

Regarding your comment about casual, fast-paced conversations: when people speak casually, and when they speak quickly, the parts that lose clarity are the function words: the little words that provide the structure for the language.

Take the word and, for example: the strong form is /ænd/, but most of the time we use the weak form /ənd/. As speech gets progressively faster and/or more casual, it becomes /ən/ and finally /n/.

Meanwhile, the important words- nouns like ball and bowl- are usually stressed, and don't soften up in the same way. The central vowel in a stressed word is about as protected as you can get.

You might get some de-stressing if the noun is preceded by an adjective (the red ball) or when it's part of a compound noun (a furball), and this might weaken the clarity a little, but not, in my opinion, enough to make it impossible to discriminate for a native listener with the same accent.

  • 4
    I don't think it's true that bowl has the diphthong of low. For me at least, low ends with a much higher and closer vowel (with much more tension in the lips) than anything in bowl. Nonetheless, I agree that bowl is definitely quite distinct from ball and bawl; I can't imagine mishearing one as the other in even the most casual speech, as long as the speaker is a native speaker with one of the accents I'm used to.
    – ruakh
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 6:22
  • «English has a lot more vowels than most languages» really? I thought it had fewer, which is why it’s a good language for immegrants (at least in the European family).
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 7:00
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    @JDługosz: It's hard to make a claim that's too precise -- there are thousands of languages, some of which are barely known, and even for very well studied languages like English, it's often hard to say exactly how many vowels they have; but even considering all of that, I think JavaLatte is definitely right that English has many more vowels than most languages. See wals.info/chapter/2.
    – ruakh
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 7:25
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    @JDługosz, According to this summary of European languages, eupedia.com/linguistics/…, English is in sixth position out of 32 for the number of vowels and diphthongs. From the pronunciation point of view, I would not say that English is an easy language. People learn English because it is useful, not because it is easy to pronounce.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 7:54
  • 7
    For me (20s, British English, mostly southern but with some north western influences), "bowl" rhymes with "hole", but "low" uses a completely different vowel, rhyming with "no". Ball and bawl sound the same, and rhyme with hall, etc.
    – Muzer
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 9:58

I'm non-native speaker too. I think ear-training is important. In America English, there is obvious difference between [ɔ] sound and [o] sound. The [o] sound has a hidden [w] sound ending, sounds like "Oh", produce it by bringing your lips forward and mouth from opening to closing. The [ɔ] sound sounds like "Awe", produce it by keeping your mouth round.


They are definitely different. My wife (a native Mandarin speaker) has said “ball” for “bowl” in contexts where it was confusing, and initally learned some words wrong because she didn’t hear it correctly (e.g. a “light ball”).

I disagree with the ascessment that they are so similar that native (American English) speakers can confuse them in listening. “oh” is said with rounded lips, and the sound in “ball/hall/call” is not. Does “on“ (put on a hat) and “won” (she won the contest) sound or spoken the same to you? (Other readers: if so, which accent is that?)

  • 1
    Many British English speakers use rounded lips in all of "ball", "bowl", and "on". I don't understand how lip-rounding would be used to distinguish the vowels in that case.
    – sumelic
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 19:12
  • I don't understand why "won" is relevant. Is the idea that you are talking about an accent where "on" is [ɔn] and "won" is [wʌn], so the vowel in "on" is just a rounded version of the vowel in "won"? And how does this apply to ball/bowl? Do you pronounce these as [bɔʊl] and [bʌʊl] or something like that? Personally (Californian English speaker), I say something like [ɑn] and [wɐn], [bɑl] and [boəl]. Many British English speakers say something like [ɔn] and [wɐn], [bol] and [boʊl] or [ɒn] and [wɐn], [bɔl] and [boʊl].
    – sumelic
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 19:39
  • «don't understand why "won" is relevant» because it’s the same thing, just at the beginning of the word. The “oh” in the middle of bowl, the rounding of lips, makes a /w/ sound at the end of the dipthong. I’m pointing out the round lips, not necessarily the exact same vowels.
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 30, 2017 at 20:06

As an illustration, I worked with a person who grew up in New Jersey. I heard him try to teach my sister how to bowl (at a bowling alley). Roll, ball and bowl all ended in what sounded like "...owl". I can see how that could be very confusing to someone from another language basis.

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