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I just watched YEAR vs. EAR - American English Pronunciation (EAR vs. HEAR), and I hear absolutely no difference between the pronunciations of "ear" and "year", given we should use "a" for "year", can we use "a" for "ear"?

Update: demystified here.

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  • 14
    If you pronounce year and ear the same (native English speakers can tell the difference), shouldn't you want to distinguish between them by saying an ear and a year? Aug 3 at 14:59
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    No. You never use "a" for "ear", and as someone who has learned some words in some other languages, training your ear is part of it. There is a difference between these words. You just have to listen for it. Aug 3 at 15:58
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    Native British English speaker: I hear a perfectly clear difference in the video you linked to (and there is very little difference between the American and British pronunciation of the two words.) As the answers say, the problem is that you have not learned to hear the difference, not that there is no difference.
    – alephzero
    Aug 4 at 1:48
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    Can you hear the difference in “or” and “your”?
    – Jim
    Aug 4 at 7:33
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    I agree with @BeginTheBeguine I don't want to say her pronunciation is bad, but I can normally very much tell the difference but can barely tell the difference in that video
    – Kevin
    Aug 4 at 18:37
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Most native speakers can hear the distinction. Like Peter Shor said, saying "an ear" and "a year" can help the listener understand which one you mean. Words beginning with vowel sounds always use "an", but words starting with consonants ("y" is a consonant here) use "a".

Some examples of "ear" and "year". All I can say is that "year" begins with a harder, tighter "y" sound, while "ear" has a relaxed, smooth "e" sound.

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  • 13
    I would say that all native speakers with normal hearing can hear the distinction.
    – TonyK
    Aug 4 at 12:41
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    Yes, even if they speak a local dialect that pronounces them the same way, they should still be able to hear the difference. Aug 4 at 13:01
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The huge majority of Americans do both make and hear a difference in the sound of the words "ear" and "year." That fact that you do not hear that difference merely means that one of the sounds does not exist in your native language. My daughter-in-law's native language is Cantonese. I cannot distinguish all six tones; my ear was not trained from a young age to register differences in tone.

I assure you that if you say

The girl is six ears old

Americans will understand you, but they will also immediately identify you as a non-native speaker.

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  • Or it might be a particular local dialect that pronounces them alike.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 4 at 0:18
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    @jamesqf Which dialect would that be? I know of none.
    – rsjaffe
    Aug 4 at 0:29
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    Native TexE speaker and trained vocalist here, and I think your specific example is likely to actually be undetected: The tongue moves through "y" on its way from "s" to "e", and so unless the speaker fully stops between "six" and "ears", the phantom "y" will actually be produced. Aug 4 at 2:10
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    @jamesqf There may well be a dialect of American English that treats “ear” and “year” as homophones. I did not say that all Americans distinguished between them precisely because there may be rare dialects that do not. What are they, and approximately what percentage of Americans speak them? Aug 4 at 2:15
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    @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- If the “y” phoneme is actually produced, then what is said is not “ears.” By the way, I have no trouble saying “six years” differently from “six ears.” I suspect you have missed my point. A native speaker of American English may indeed have difficulty saying my example sentence because it makes no sense. But only in Texas will anyone be unable to say “six ears” in a way distinguishable from “six years.” Aug 4 at 2:24
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OP here, I got a perfect answer from a friend of mine who masters multiple languages, including Mandarin and English.

Here's my translated version of the explanation which he originally said in Mandarin:

The reason why you can't hear the difference between "year" and "ear" is that in Mandarin, we don't distinguish the meaning of a character if it's pronounced tightly or relaxed, for example, the Chinese character「爱」(means "love" and is pronounced "ài"), we don't distinguish the meaning of it because it's pronounced tightly or relaxed, the meaning is always "love", but in some languages like Thai, the meanings do differ.

So, for "ear", it's pronounced more tightly, like tightening your throat, whereas "year" is more relaxed.

Now I can really tell the pronunciation difference between "year" and "ear".

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    The difference between "ear" and "year" is just the same as the difference between "or" & "your"; "earn" & "yearn"; "east" & "yeast"; "ess" (S) & "yes". One has a "yuh" pronounced at the start. I don't know what "relaxed" vs "tight" means here.
    – Boann
    Aug 4 at 16:34
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    @Boann: your contrasts with or much more strongly than year contrasts with ear, because the following vowel changes the tongue position significantly. The same is true to a lesser extent for yearn and earn. (But I don't know what "relaxed" vs "tight" means either, at least in the context of "ài".)
    – TonyK
    Aug 4 at 19:10
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Part of the problem is that Americans don't universally pronounce the "Y" consonant with the same stress

Let me be completely honest, Rachel in her video is pronouncing the "Y" in "year" so short that even I, born and raised in the U.S., had to wind the video back and listen a second time to readily hear the difference. I've never heard anyone pronounce the consonant that short. It's so short that I expect that if I heard her pronounce the words "yes" and the vocalization for the letter "S" ("es"), I'd have trouble hearing the difference.

However, I readily admit that I might be an oddity in the U.S. (even though I believe I hear people stress the "Y" much more than Rachel does in her video). For example, I fully pronounce the "wh" sound in "wheat," where (apparently) so many people de-stress the "h" to pronounce the word "weet" that it was made fun of in the animated series Family Guy.

Finally, for full disclosure, the faster a person speaks, the shorter (unemphasized or de-stressed) the stresses become. Therefore, your experience with this problem is excellent, because as you meet people who speak at different speeds, you'll recognize how the consonants become both over-stressed and under-stressed. If you're having trouble hearing the consonant "Y", listen to Kristen from Tipsy Yak pronounce the very Texan word, "y'all." Listen to that "Y." Now pronounce the word "y'ear." Yup, that's closer to how it should sound. Well, at least it's closer to what I think it should sound like.

But, to answer your actual question (Source)

Remember, using a or an depends on the sound that begins the next word. So...

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant: a boy; a car; a bike; a zoo; a dog

  • an + singular noun beginning with a vowel: an elephant; an egg; an apple; an idiot; an orphan

  • a + singular noun beginning with a consonant sound: a user (sounds like 'yoo-zer,' i.e. begins with a consonant 'y' sound, so 'a' is used); a university; a unicycle

  • an + nouns starting with silent "h": an hour

  • a + nouns starting with a pronounced "h": a horse In some cases where "h" is pronounced, such as "historical," you can use an. However, a is more commonly used and preferred.

    A historical event is worth recording.

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    I'm sorry, 'Formally, "an" should be used whenever a word starts with a 'vowel [-letter?'] or an "h" ' is not accurate. An holly tree? An high hill? An unicorn? And the jury is out on hotel, historian. Aug 4 at 10:17
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    "An hundred dollar bill" has never been acceptable, because the first syllable in "hundred" is stressed.
    – TonyK
    Aug 4 at 12:44
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    @EllieK The "ch" in Chicago is an "sh" sound ("sheet" -> "shicago"), but I have heard it pronounced occasionally as an "s" (sicago) and as a hard "ch" as in the word "chore." The human capacity to understand language is amazing because it can be so widely and wildly pronounced and yet we understand it. Aug 4 at 13:48
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    'An' is used whenever the following word starts with a vowel sound. If you are one of the rare English speakers who pronounces 'historical' with a silent 'h' (like 'istorical') you should say 'an' everyone else should use 'a'. Sometimes you find "an historical" in writing because, as I understand it, this was a more common pronunciation in the past.
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 4 at 18:29
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    Your "rules" are WAY too complicated. We use "a" before consonant sounds and "an" before vowel sounds. That's all there is to it. Furthermore, your rules aren't inclusive enough. Nouns have nothing to do with it. For example, in the phrase "an hourly worker", "hourly" is not a noun. Just keep it simple: "a" before consonant sounds, "an" before vowel sounds.
    – user91988
    Aug 5 at 0:25
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To amplify @ludant's last point:

Here's an illustration of the speech organs from Vowels and Consonants by Peter Ladefoged:

Vocal organs

The sound at the beginning of year is called palatal approximant (/j/); the place where it is articulated/produced is the hard palate (as shown in the diagram). Unlike plosives (like p, t, k etc) there isn't any kind of closure of the vocal tract. It involves narrowing of the vocal tract at the hard palate but not narrow enough to produce turbulence, so it can be perceived as ‘harder’ or ‘tighter’.

By contrast, the sound at the beginning of ear is a vowel (/i ~ ɪ/) which means there is no narrowing of the vocal tract. The tongue while producing the vowel in ear is close to the palate but there is no constriction or narrowing of the vocal tract (because if there were narrowing, it would be classified as a consonant). It's produced with an open vocal tract therefore it sounds ‘softer’.

Anothe difference between /j/ and the vowel /i/ is that the vowel can form the peak of the syllable but /j/ can't.

According to this article (University of Manitoba):

I'm fact, there is very little real difference between [i] and [j]. Both can be made with the tongue in the same position. [i] acts as the central part of a syllable, and typically lasts somewhat longer than a [j]. [j] does not act as the central part of a syllable and is typically fairly short. Essentially, [j] is simply an [i] that is acting as a consonant instead of a vowel.

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The word "year" begins with the consonant "y", which is also found in these words:

yard

yes

yield

yours

yule

... as well as in:

bay

boy

buy

pray

May

... as well as in:

mayor

player

employing

enjoying

Whereas the word ear begins with a vowel.

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    In linguistics, vowels are sounds rather than letters. Aug 3 at 18:39
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    These words in your answer don't include the "y" consonant sound: bay, boy, buy, pray, may, employing, enjoying. Notice that "bae" and "bay" are pronounced exactly the same, though "ear" and "year" are not.
    – bjb568
    Aug 4 at 1:27
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    @bjb568 I would add "mayor" to your list in British English. The Oxford UK English dictionary gives identical pronunciation for "mayor" and "mare". The US English dictionary has a different pronunciation of mayor, but that doesn't have a consonant y sound either.
    – alephzero
    Aug 4 at 2:25
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    @Chenmunka what do you see as the difference between the pronunciation of bae and bay in British English? I am a Br. Eng. speaker and I pronounce them exactly the same: /beɪ/ . en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bae lists them as homophones. Aug 4 at 16:10
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    @Chenmuka Really?! Are we talking about "bae" meaning babe, baby, darling, etc? Aug 4 at 19:59

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