Spanish has only one type of [a] sound (gato, casa, etc.) which very appropriately coincides with the letter a, so there is never the slightest doubt as to how to pronounce it. English, on the contrary, has three phonemes that we can identify as a kind of [a]. They are very different from each other and, what’s worse, none of them is exactly the same as that of Spanish. The failure to produce them correctly gives the speaker a strong foreign accent and might lead to misunderstanding. Just think about the difficulties many people have with the irregular verb run – ran – run or with minimal pairs such as cat and cut or hat and heart (remember that in British English the /r/ isn’t pronounced unless it’s followed by a vowel).
Now, before analyzing how the three types of [a] are produced, let’s listen to some examples. The vowels you have to notice are underlined in the text. Then the key words are provided in phonemic transcription.
Now, let’s learn about the three types of [a] sound one by one.
æ This sound is produced with the mouth wide open and the tongue lying flat at the bottom, with its tip touching the lower teeth. It is a short sound but it’s also important to say that it’s the longest of the short vowels (comparison: ban /bæn/ – bun /bʌn/). The lips are spread, almost as in a smile, which causes a small degree of tension to the muscles. Feeling that slight tension is a good indicator that you are doing it right.
- How to do it? Open your mouth, spread your lips and put your tongue at the front, touching or slightly over the lower teeth.
- Spelling. In 99% of the cases, it corresponds with the letter a followed by one or more consonants (man, cat, matter, hand, clash, sand, allergy, chapter, ambassador). There is just a tiny number of very odd exceptions (plait, plaid, meringue, timbre).
ʌ This is the type of [a] which is more similar to the Spanish [a]. There are two small differences, though: 1. it is a bit shorter –actually, it is a very short sound-. 2. It is articulated with the mouth a little closer (not as open as in /æ/ and /ɑː/). The tongue lies down at the centre of the mouth and the lips are neutral (neither spread, nor rounded).
- How to do it? Just say a short [a] without opening too much your mouth. Leave your tongue at the centre of your mouth feeling completely relaxed. This is a very easy sound.
- Spelling. It is a bit more complicated and it might cause trouble. The most typical spelling is an u (up, but, cut, begun, swum), but it is often also found as o (brother, done, glove, company). Other spellings are not so frequent but affect very common words: oo (flood, blood), oe (does) or ou (enough, cousin). Interestingly, the /ʌ/ sound is never produced by the letter a.
The Learys’ house was a big one, with a high flights of steps up to the front door, which was always kept shut (Julian Barnes, reading a story by Frank O’Connor, The New Yorker). /wʌn/ /ʌp/ /frʌnt/ /ʃʌt/
ɑː This is a long sound produced with the mouth open and the tongue low and at the back of the mouth.
- How to do it? The key thing is to place your tongue at the back, with your mouth wide open. You can put a finger into your mouth and push your tongue backwards to feel that position. Another option is to say a long, deep [a] as though you were yawning, which will place your articulators (lips, tongue, jaw, etc.) correctly.
- Spelling. The letter a is found in most of the cases (fast, half, calm, past, father, master), very often as ar (car, arm, part, aren’t), but it is important to know that it can also be au (aunt, laugh) or even ea (heart). Also, the possessive our is pronounced as /ɑː/ very often because of smoothing.
This is the type of analysis I do with my students in my one-to-one classes. I make them practise these processes with exercises until they improve their comprehension of native speakers and are capable of speaking like that themselves. If you are interested in my classes, you can contact me here.
And here are the three types of [a] sound together.
If she’d sung badly and not been funny, I would’ve laughed anyway in a sycophantic kind of way. But, thankfully, it was genuinely funny, and the whole room, cast crew, strangers, everyone was properly laughing (Hugh Grant, BBC4). /sʌŋ/ /ˈbædli/ /ˈfʌni/ /lɑːft/ /ˌsɪkəˈfæntɪk/ /ˈθæŋkfəli/ /ˈfʌni/ /kɑːst/ /ˈlɑːfɪŋ/