What is the difference between the pronunciation of "a" and "e" in a closed syllable? For instance, between the words than and then? I was told the first should be pronounced with [æ], and the second with [e].

I was studying English from the age of 7, initially before school, then in school, and then in a university. And I still do not know the difference between the two. I have asked several teachers about it, but nobody could answer me. Some of them tried to reproduce the difference by pronouncing the "a" with a widely open mouth and showing the difference with mimics and effort on the face, but the sounds they produced were exactly the same for me. Honestly I think they did not know the difference themselves.

In the university we had some lectures in English by foreigners (I do not know whether English was their native tongue though), and still I did not hear the difference, but the foreigners often could not understand me.

Please tell me the difference.


Fortunately, in Russian, you already have experience making the sound of English ă (“short a”, IPA /æ/). If you take notice of it, you might be able to learn to hear ă as a distinct vowel. Once you can hear it, you will probably be able to produce this vowel yourself in English, in which the vowel appears in places where it does not occur in Russian.

In Russian, the vowel represented by я and a can have a very different sound in different words, but is heard as “the same” vowel. In English, you must hear these different sounds as different vowels.

The words below illustrate the differences. Pay attention to the sound of the vowel, not the palatalization of the preceding consonant.

я грязный пьяница     Russian я = English ä (IPA /a/), close to father, bar, car

мясо мячик                 Russian я = English ă (IPA /æ/), as in than, cat, trap

мастер мать                Russian a = English ä (IPA /a/), close to father, bar, car

это здесь                    Russian э,е = English ĕ (IPA /ɛ/), as in then, met, tell

The vowel chart on this page shows how the different vowel sounds differ from each other, and includes audio for each vowel sound. Note that Russian я and а do not correspond in any simple way to any English vowel or even to any IPA vowel. Russian vowels have very different sounds in different contexts, English vowels vary much less in different contexts, and IPA sounds are defined to not vary at all.

This sentence spoken by the Google Lady might help.

  • In мастер and мать there is clear а.
    – Anixx
    Dec 28 '14 at 13:52
  • @Anixx Excellent! That's how it sounded when my friend pronounced these. Can you hear the difference from мясо and мячик?
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 28 '14 at 13:55
  • from what? мясо and мячик use ['а] мать uses [a].
    – Anixx
    Dec 28 '14 at 13:57
  • 1
    @Anixx The Google Lady definitely says /æ/ in мясо and мячик, and /a/ in /мать/. (Her vowel in мастер sounds to me like English "oi".)
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 28 '14 at 13:59
  • 1
    @Anixx Remember, the way to succeed is not to categorize the vowels in the familiar Russian way, but to learn to hear the sounds as different vowels, in the English way.
    – Ben Kovitz
    Dec 28 '14 at 14:00

In the weak form "than" and "then" have the same pronunciation with "weak e" (indefinite vowel). Only when stressed "than" is pronounced as æ.



  • I suppose it is in American English only?
    – Anixx
    Dec 29 '14 at 12:03
  • As you can see OALD gives the BrE and AmE pronunciation and they are the same.
    – rogermue
    Dec 29 '14 at 16:14

If your question is how to produce the sounds in your throat/mouth, try this:

For "than" -- lower your jaw, opening your mouth much wider than you'd normally do; exaggeratedly wide, and produce the sound in the back of your throat.

The "then" -- jut your jaw forward, exaggeratedly, and make a breathy sound like zombie. ehhhh...

Then, try to un-exaggerate these facial positions gradually, listening to how the vowel changes as you reposition your jaw bit by bit. See if you can produce two distinct sounds without having to exaggerate the jaw position.

P.S. In rapid speech, the difference between the two sounds can be almost lost.

  • "lower your jaw, opening your mouth much wider than you'd normally do; exaggeratedly wide, and produce the sound in the back of your throat." - I can produce nearly any vowel with widely opened mouth, they just would be somewhat distorted (but if I try to produce /e/ wil an open mouth it will be just like normal /e/, without distortions). Should I try to produce /e/ with an open mouth or /a/ or /o/ or /i/?
    – Anixx
    Dec 27 '14 at 13:35
  • "jut your jaw forward, exaggeratedly, and make a breathy sound like zombie. ehhhh..." - what sound the zombies do? If I extend the jaw, I still get clear /e/. In fact whether my mouth is opened or the jaw is put forwars does not affect the /e/ sound at all.
    – Anixx
    Dec 27 '14 at 13:37
  • Look I actually can distinguish two variants of the e vowel (and produce them independently or in the word beginning), the one is that follows soft consonants in Russian, the other that follows hard consonants. I do not know whether they correspond to the English wowels, but I can produce them totally independently of whether my mouth is opened widely and where is my jaw. But I cannot produce the "soft" vowel after a hard consonant and a "hard" vowel after a soft consonant. In "then" and "than" the consonant "th" seems to be hard in both cases, so I can produce only one variant in both cases.
    – Anixx
    Dec 27 '14 at 13:55
  • It is very difficult to say the -e- in "then" with the jaw dropped far down and retracted. Conversely, it is very difficult to say the -a- in "than" with the mouth almost closed with the jaw jutting forward. Can you distinguish between "man" and "men"? Dec 27 '14 at 14:00
  • The -a- [æ] vowel is not a variant of the -e- vowel. -a- [æ] is a "back vowel" -e- is a mid-to-front vowel. Dec 27 '14 at 14:01

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