I've seen the first part of this diphthong transcribed with an /a/ sound(the most common and traditional one: Cambridge Dictionary for British English,Dictionary.com, Wiktionary...), an /ʌ/ sound ( Oxford Dictionary for British English) and an /ɑ/ sound (Cambridge Dictionary for American English)

I wonder what is the most common pronunciation nowadays for each variety of English. Do English Speakers distinguish between these sounds when someone says this diphthong with a certain vowel or another?

  • 2
    What do you mean by most common? Largest population who use a particular pronunciation? Pronunciation varies by geography, especially the pronunciation of diphthongs. That -a- is produced along a continuum in the throat.
    – TimR
    Mar 18, 2015 at 12:26
  • I mean what is the standard pronunciation for that diphthong nowadays, what would be considered the most widespread pronunciation. In a more accurate transcription,the r, for example, is represented in most accents as an upside r in IPA, but for convenience is represented with a plain /r/ (alveolar trill) . Since there exists a General American Pronunciation (GenAm in IPA) and more or less for British English, I wonder if the traditional /a/ pronunciation has evolved with time, especially in the case of using the /ʌ/ vowel, it's a transcription I have been seeing lately for British English.
    – user18214
    Mar 18, 2015 at 12:40
  • The range of possible vowel qualities is a continuum, yet the IPA only has a finite number of symbols, so there are always going to be borderline cases of sounds that can be transcribed in multiple ways. Additionally, even the same speaker will have different phonetic realizations of a phoneme at different times or in different phonetic environments. Further complicating the issue, this vowel is a diphthong, so rather than having a single pure quality it has a constantly shifting quality. IPA is not a very subtle tool for indicating all of this detail...
    – sumelic
    Mar 19, 2015 at 3:18
  • These are not different sounds. They are different symbols for representing the same phoneme. The OED decided to change the symbols they used to represent some English phonemes. They obviously thought everyone would change the way they transcribed English too. Unfortunately, their changes were so bad that everyone ignored them. There is nothing remotely similar to [ʌ] in the PRICE vowel at all. So you can just think of it as a silly symbol for the PRICE vowel and leave it at that! (i.e. it represents the same English vowel as /aɪ/) Mar 19, 2015 at 15:20

1 Answer 1


The symbols used to represent vowel phonemes are only rough approximations of the actual quality of the of the vowels themselves. We need to have some sort of symbols to represent the vowels in a language when doing phonemic transcription. The symbols in phonemic transcriptions do not represent the specific idealised sounds represented by the symbols in International Phonetic Alphabet. We usually simply take a symbol that represents a sound quite similar to the ones we find in the language we are transcribing in. We usually also take into account other factors, for example the writing of the language that we are transcribing. The standard convention for representing this vowel in English Phonemic transcriptions is /aɪ/. Most phoneticians and phonologists, language textbooks and dictionaries of British English use this symbol.

Now the actual vowels produced by speakers of British English change slowly but constantly over time and differently in different regions. Because of this, some of the symbols used to describe vowels may now be describing a sound that is quite different from the quality of sound it describes when used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

For this reason, very unfortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary hired a man called Clive Upton to adjust the symbols used in the Oxford Dictionaries. However, I think it is fair to say that the general feeling amongst phoneticians and phonologists working with Southern Standard British English is that most of these adjustments were not very good at all, and some were actually very bad. The change of symbol from /aɪ/ to /ʌɪ/ is one of the changes that is heavily criticised for being far more misleading than the original symbol. What we need to realise is that the symbol is not a close representation of the vowel, and that whichever symbol we use, it doesn't affect the sounds that people make when they use this phoneme. Nevertheless, /ʌɪ/ is a very bad approximation of this vowel sound. The starting point for this vowel really is nowhere near the [ʌ] sound represented by the symbol in the International Phonetic alphabet. Because of this almost everyone has ignored the changes Upton made to the transcription system used in the OED. Professional phoneticians, dictionaries and published papers still use the original /aɪ/ symbol.

If you're interested in the system we use for transcribing RP English, then you could have a look at this excellent page written by eminent phonetician Professor John Wells, author of the Longman's Pronunciation Dictionary. It has some very interesting comments on Upton's scheme used in the OED.

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