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Looking up the words "soccer" and "father" in both Dictionary. com and Merriam Webster, I found that the phonetic transcriptions for these two and other similar words contain different vowels to represent-- I gather-- the same (American English) sound (short o) depending on which of the two dictionaries you use:

Merriam Webster:

Soccer: \ˈsä-kər\ Father: \ˈfä-thər\

Dictionary.com

Soccer: /ˈsɒk ər/ Father: /ˈfɑ ðər/

It is kind of confusing to see three different symbols referring to one or two sounds . So what's the difference in the pronounciation of /ä/, /ɒ/, and /ɑ/ (if there's one)?

Which of these symbols can I use to accurately represent the American English pronunciation of the two aforementioned words and others sharing the same vowel sound?

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MW uses their own form of phonetic notation, but what most linguists use is the IPA (International Phonetics Alphabet (or Association, as some would have it). IPA is usually more precise, but it requires some study. Also, there is a difference in AmE and BrE pronunciation. For example, /ɒ/ is not in general use in AmE.It is used in words like "got" which in BrE is a very deep back of the throat sound. Usually that vowel is pronounced either as /ɔ:/ (like "awe") or /ɑ/ (like "ah"-same as /ä/ in MW) depending on which region of the US you grew up in. So, in answer to your specific words, /ä/ and /ɑ/ are both right, but never /ɒ/.

  • In my dialect--Californian--"soccer" and "bother", or the prototypical "father" versus "bother", have the same initial vowel. Similarly, "cot"/"caught" are homophones to me. It varies even within American English. – Myria Feb 18 '16 at 4:33
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North America has what we call the father-bother merger, where /ɑ/ and /ɒ/ often end up as the same sound, oftentimes /ɑ/.

So thus /ɑ/ would be a better choice in North America.

Merriam-Webster's system is a bit unique. I don't like to use it in a linguistic discussion. /ä/ = IPA /ɑ/.

IPA is the more universal option for phonetics as a science, even though several symbols will trick English speakers (e.g. /a/, /e/, /o/, /y/ don't exist alone in major English dialects, and /j/ is not the English J, it is the Y consonant, and people love to eschew the standard rhotic sign in English for the trill symbol /r/, which does not exist in most English speech).

Across the pond, British and other dialects don't merge "father" and "bother" vowels like that, thus you get /ɒ/ to accommodate (by the way, /ɒ/ is the rounded version of /ɑ/.) Which transcription is "correct" would depend on the dialect of focus, in this case American English.

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