A Pronunciation Guide to /a/.


In standard British (GB) English /a/ is made with the tongue to the front of the mouth, and the jaw open, have a go:

As you can see from the examples, it’s spelt with the letter ‘a’ with a consonant sound after it, though there are a handful of imported words like TIMBRE that are spelt with a different vowel.

/a/ is considered a ‘short vowel’ along with /ɪ, ɛ, ʊ, ʌ, ɒ/ though it is sometimes lengthened in GB English. Some words that end in voiced consonants like BAD, LAND, HAM and RAG are often pronounced [].

Long /a/ is also used as an exclamation in English to show terror, or surprise.

It’s what you might say if you were reading a serious pronunciation article about a vowel sound when suddenly a green, multi-eyed, monster jumps out of the page with its tongue sticking out.   


Accent Variations of /a/

In Cockney /a/ is pronounced with the jaw less open [ɛ]: HAND, FAT, PACK, BAD:

A very similar variation appears in old fashioned posh (Upper RP): HAND, FAT, PACK, BAD:

In West Country accents /a/ can be heard even longer and more open than in GB:

Many northern accents including Scouse use the /a/ mouth position for both short and long ‘a’, so in word pairs like CAT/CART, LAD/LARD and PAM/PALM, the only difference is the length:

If you listen to BBC broadcasts from the 1950s, you might notice that this sound is closer to /ɛ/ so BAT sounds a bit like BET. You will still hear this in some older speakers today like the Queen, but very rarely on the wireless.


The TRAP-BATH Split

In southern English accents a change gradually appeared from the 17th century where some common /a/ words became long /ɑː/, such as GLASS, LAUGH and CAN’T.

The change did not occur in northern accents, so they maintain the short /a/: /glas, laf, kant/. The variation is known as the TRAP-BATH split and remains one of the key differences between northern and southern accents in England today.


Tips for Learning /a/

Short English ‘a’ is phonemically transcribed as /a/ in some dictionaries and /æ/ in others. The sound itself is not different, it simply depends on the system the author has chosen.

At Pronunciation Studio, we changed from /æ/ to /a/ in the 2018 edition of our IPA chart and course book with the aim of keeping the chart as easy to approach as possible for those who are new to learning English sounds. 

Mouth Position

/a/ can be a difficult mouth position for learners, as most languages do not have a sound that is as open and front as this. The common error is for /a/ in BAT to merge with /ɛ/ in BET or /ʌ/ in BUT.

To see if you’re getting it right, say these sounds and words, you should hear a clear difference in each column:

If the sound is proving difficult, a route that often works for learners is to start at mid-open /ɛ/ gradually opening the jaw to /a/ making sure the tongue does not pull back as the jaw opens. Then practise minimal pairs with /ɛ/:


This article uses IPA (phonetic) symbols – you can learn them in the free Pronunciation Studio Starter Pack containing pronunciation notes and diagrams for each sound with audio, and an English IPA chart. 


By | 2019-07-17T10:53:18+00:00 July 16th, 2019|Pronunciation, Pronunciation Guides, Sounds|3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Cynthia Maza July 17, 2019 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    It is nice help for teachers who are learning how to teach the English sounds and for students who must learn the correct pronunciation of the IPA. Thanks for it!!!

  2. Adil Saleh July 17, 2019 at 7:39 pm - Reply

    I love it thanks

  3. Michael P. Jordan July 27, 2019 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    The /a/ sound is very easy to spell because it is almost always depicted by the letter ‘a’, the Scottish ‘plaid’ perhaps being the only domestic word that does not do this. But the /a/ sound is not easy to spot because the letter ‘a’ can indicate: five short vowel sounds, the ei diphthong and two ‘r’-related sounds, e.g., ‘awry’, ‘ant’, ‘any’, ‘cribbage’ and ‘want’; ‘apex’; ‘call’ and ‘water’. It also forms parts of digraphs, trigraphs and melds with vowels and auxiliary vowels to indicate different vowel sounds, e.g., ‘late’, ‘goal, ‘taunt’; ‘almond’, ‘car’, ‘cheetah’, ‘law’, ‘hay’, ‘chalk’, ‘vary’ and ‘war’. Knowing how to spot the /a/ sound amongst such apparent possibilities is not simple.

    In Finnish, the short /a/ sound (as in ‘angry’) is indicated by the letter ‘a’ with the umlaut, and the ‘r’-related /a:/ sound (as in ‘answer’) is indicated by the unaccented letter ‘a’; both can occur as double vowels to lengthen the vowel sounds. GB English typically does not rely on accents or double vowels to help readers to distinguish between these and other closely-connected sounds, but there are indicators that help us to do that..

    The addition of the silent ‘e’ to words like ‘mat’, ‘cam’, ‘fat’, ‘Sam’ and ‘tap’ changes the vowel sound from /a/ to the ei diphthong. When such resultant words are followed by another vowel sound, the silent ‘e’ is elided but the diphthong often remains (e.g., ‘fatal’, ‘status’ and ‘taping’) though not consistently (c.f., Cambridge with Tamworth). To retain the original /a/ sound, the double consonant is required, e.g., ‘planner’ and ‘tapping’. Occasionally, the four versions occur for the same base word, e.g., ‘mat’ – ‘mate’ – ‘mating’ – ‘matting’. In the set ‘car’ – ‘care’ – ‘caring’ – carry’, only the last word is the /a/ sound, the others being ‘r’-related sounds. With such sounds, the first vowel sound (a) can form a digraph with the auxiliary vowel ‘r’ (as in ‘car’), (b) can blend (separate sounds) with the consonant ‘r’ (as in ‘carry’), or (c) can do both (as in ‘caring’), with the letter ‘r’ serving the dual functions of auxiliary vowel and consonant. The /a/ sound occurs only when blended.

    Like other short vowel sounds except the schwa, the /a/ sound cannot appear at the end of a syllable. It therefore cannot occur as the final sound of a word, whereas the schwa, the ei diphthong and all r-related sounds do. As the schwa never takes emphasis, it is used at the ends of nouns and adjectives, and the /a/ sound occurs at the ends of verbs (e.g., the two versions of ‘entrance’ and ‘moderate’). In melds, the /a/ sound occurs only when it is stressed and attached to the following consonant(s) to form a syllable (e.g., ‘diagonal’, ‘kayak’, ‘meander’, ‘react’ and triathlon’, but not ‘diaphragm’, ‘real’, ‘rhea’ or ‘Austria’)..

    At the ends of words, the schwa overrides the /a/ and /a:/ sounds for all unstressed final syllables, e.g., ‘capable’, ‘palace’, ‘salad’, ‘Jonah’, ‘opal’, ‘herald’, ‘woman’, ‘certain’, ‘Caspian’, ‘balance’, ‘garland’, ‘elegant’, ‘compass’ and ‘aggregate’. When such endings occur as stressed syllables as or within words (e.g., ‘able’, ‘add’, ‘Utah’, ‘rain’, ‘Al’, ‘corral’, ‘locale’, ‘man’, ‘land’, ‘ass’ and ‘gate), the /a/ sound or ei diphthong is used.

    There may be other ways of spotting the /a/ vowel sound…

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