I'm a Spanish native speaker and to me, all these phonemes sound quite similar.

What are the little details that make these sounds different?


The position of the tongue (high, low, front, back) the length of the vowel and in the case of /aɪ/ the fact that it is made of two sounds merged together.

The sound in "cat" has the tongue further forward than in Spanish "papa", nearly as far forward as Spanish "les" but more open than "les" (as open as papa)

The sound in "up" has a similar tongue position to Spanish "no", but it isn't rounded, you don't purse your lips to say it.

The sound in car is similar to "papa" but longer (and slight further back).

The sound in high is a dipthong, made by blending from an a to an i sound.

In short they are different, and different from the Spanish vowels.

  • I don't think the ai in Adrian's post represents a diphthong. Does it? The ai merely represents the sound of the i in fine. This is a completely different sound than that made by the diphthong ai in the word claim. – EllieK Oct 28 '20 at 12:31
  • 2
    @EllieK It does. The "i" of "fine" is a diphthong. It's a completely different sound from the diphthong in "claim", but both are diphthongs. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diphthong#English – rjpond Oct 28 '20 at 13:33
  • @EllieK: It does. 'Diphthong' is a sound, not spelling. The ⟨ai⟩ in 'claim' is a digraph that represents /eɪ/. You're confusing sounds with spelling. – Void Jan 19 at 4:51

I agree with James K's answer, but I would add:

  • "Acoustically, for speakers of General American English, there’s little to no difference between the two [/ʌ/ and /ə/], and trying to listen to one will only bring you pain... The /ʌ/ is absolutely essential to the word’s identity, whereas /ə/ is the surface result of a phonological phenomenon which reduces some vowels in unstressed syllables. That, right there, is the fundamental difference between these two sounds. It’s not the sound, but the origin of the sound." ( http://wstyler.ucsd.edu/posts/difference_schwa_wedge.html )
  • The key thing about /aɪ/ is the fact that, as James said, it's a diphthong. The quality of the initial vowel can vary. In some accents it is more like [ʌɪ] - hence some British dictionaries use /ʌɪ/ as its phonemic representations. (Having said that, in Texas, /aɪ/ is monophthongised to approximately [a:] and then sounds much closer to /æ/. Learners won't typically want to pronounce it this way unless intending to settle in that region, but it may be useful to be aware of it.)
  • I note in your chart that /ɑ:/ is given as the sound of "bath". But bear in mind that in American English and the English of northern England, the vowel used in the word "bath" is /æ/. So if you are listening to people saying "bath" and trying to detect a difference from /æ/, you may be listening out for something that literally isn't there.

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