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What's the difference between how once and wants are pronounced? I don't hear a difference- is there one?

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  • There is a difference, though obviously not the way you and your milieu pronounce it. I suggest you look in a dictionary, preferably an online one with audible pronunciation.
    – Robusto
    May 4, 2017 at 20:53
  • There is definitely a difference in my dialect (Northeastern US) although it is small. The vowel sound is slightly different (sort of "ah" vs. "uh") and the /ts/ of wants is distinct from the /s/ of once.
    – stangdon
    May 4, 2017 at 20:53
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    In my AmE dialect, they are indistinguishable.
    – TimR
    May 4, 2017 at 21:44
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    Central Ohio for the last 50 years (grew up here). I wuhnt one. He wuhnts two. I came here because somebody asked me what I said, "Once what??" And I realized it is the same vowel sound! Weird!
    – Joy
    Oct 16, 2020 at 0:48

2 Answers 2

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They are quite similar, but the vowel sounds are different.

Regional dialects may vary, but I think once rhymes with "dunce", whereas wants rhymes with "haunts."

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    As I hear wants it rhymes with nonce. Midwestern by way of New England.
    – Robusto
    May 4, 2017 at 20:54
  • In my dialect (Northeastern US, specifically NYC) wants doesn't sound like haunts at all. wants is very distinctly WUHnts and haunts is HAWnts.
    – stangdon
    May 4, 2017 at 20:54
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    @stangdon: WUHnts ... I've never heard that pronunciation, or else never noticed it if I did.
    – Robusto
    May 4, 2017 at 20:56
  • @stangdon - So it seems like you view the O.P.'s words more like homophones than I do. Interesting.
    – J.R.
    May 4, 2017 at 20:57
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    Chipping in from Australia; I pronounce them as once/dunce and wants/nonce. May 4, 2017 at 21:34
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JR's answer focuses more on the vowels, I'm going to explain what happens to the consonants in word pairs like wants/once.


Actually, both once and wants are usually pronounced with a /t/, but we may not realise it whilst speaking fast.
Other word that are usually pronounced the same include prince/prints, deviance/deviants, innocence/innocents etc.

So what happens here?

There are loads of English words that contain a nasal (/n m ŋ/) followed by a fricative (/s f ʃ θ/ etc). For instance, once /wʌns/.

Here's a good explanation from English after RP by Geoff Lindsey:

The /n/ is a stop sound, which means that the oral airflow of speech is stopped; the tongue blade is held against the alveolar ridge while breath is re-directed through the nose. As /n/ changes to /s/ [which is an oral consonant i.e the air comes out through the mouth], airflow must be switched from nasal to oral, and at the same time the stoppage at the alveolar ridge must be released,

[...]

Epenthesis is more likely if the fricative after the nasal is voiceless, when the articulatory system has an additional voicing change to handle [i.e. moving from a voiced sound like /n/ to a voiceless one like /s/]. It’s less likely if the fricative is at the beginning of a stressed syllable, e.g. inˈsane [not *in[t]sane].

(pp 63-64)

And it results in an epenthetic stop (/t p k/), homorganic (having the same place of articulation) with the nasal and creates [wʌnts] in this case which may be indistinguishable from 'wants' in some accents (not all). Another common example is prince which is usually pronounced the same as prints. Epenthetic stops between a nasal and a fricative are very common and natural and may be barely perceptible.

This phenomenon is called epenthesis (excrescence).

Other examples include len[k]th, stren[k]th, youn[k]ster etc.
Bilabial examples would be warm[p]th, Thom[p]son, some[p]thing etc.

In many varieties of English, once and wants have the same vowel, so both of them may be indistinguishable.

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