211: Compare /æ/ and /ɑ/ ('short a' and 'short o')

Words like 'hat' and 'hot' are important to distinguish.


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy’s American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda, and this is our 211th episode.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve been gone a while. Yes, I have, and I am sorry for that. The good news is that I’m back. The even better news is that not only am I back, but exciting things have happened. If you haven't heard yet, Pronuncian.com has had a complete rebuild. Please, check it out and tell me what you think. You can email me at podcast@pronuncian.com.

Rebuilding the site was a lot of work. The original started in 2007 and it hadn’t ever had a total rework before this. Not only is the new site responsive and displays beautifully on mobile devices, it also has fewer bugs and just plain functions better.


But, that's enough about Pronuncian, let's get to talking about 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/.  I mean, why are they so important? They’re important because of the number of minimal pairs they have. Minimal pairs are words that are pronounced the same except for a single sound,. 

The 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/ have 40 minimal pairs, including ‘black’ and ‘block,’ ‘add’ and ‘odd,’ and ‘hat’ and ‘hot.’

If any of those words sounded the same to you, you’ve got work to do. We know that non-native speakers of a language who can’t hear different sounds are probably not pronouncing those sounds correctly. Listening and speaking are extremely related skills that can both be learned.

Let’s compare the 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/, the sounds in the words ‘hat’ and ‘hot.’ Both of these sounds are horribly named because they are NOT quick or ‘short’ sounds. I continue to use their historic names so you can find more information from sources other than me on the Internet. 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/ are just the common names used for the sounds ('short a' /æ/) and ('short o' /ɑ/). The critical thing to remember that neither 'short a' /æ/ nor 'short o' /ɑ/ ('short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/) are quick, little sounds. They’re most likely to occur on stressed or secondarily stress syllables or single-syllable words. 

(See the Introduction to Short Vowels lesson.)

When pronouncing 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/, remember that they are both low vowels, meaning the tongue is held low during their pronunciation.

The 'short a' /æ/ ('short a' /æ/) is a front vowel. This means that the sound is articulated, or said, using the front of my tongue. So my tongue, while being held low and sitting inside my bottom teeth, actually presses into my bottom front teeth. It doesn’t press hard, just enough to allow the back of the mouth and entrance into the throat to stay open. 

Try repeating the 'short a' /æ/ sound and a few words after me.

'short a' /æ/
'short a' /æ/ 
'short a' /æ/ 

I just explained that I want my tongue to press forward for the 'short a' /æ/ so that the back of the mouth remains open. If I don’t do that, I’ll create a 'short o' /ɑ/ sound instead. The 'short o' /ɑ/ is a low-back vowel. When I say this sound correctly, the back of my tongue has a tiny vibration. 

Try repeating the 'short o' /ɑ/ sound and a few words after me: 

'short o' /ɑ/
'short o' /ɑ/ 
'short o' /ɑ/

Now I’m going to compare 'short a' /æ/ and 'short o' /ɑ/ side by side. I’ll say both sounds, then leave time for you to repeat:

'short a' /æ/, 'short o' /ɑ/
'short a' /æ/, 'short o' /ɑ/
'short a' /æ/, 'short o' /ɑ/

And now let’s practice some minimal pairs. I’ll say the word with the 'short a' /æ/ sound first, followed by the 'short o' /ɑ/ sound.

hat, hot
black, block
add, odd
backs, box
rat, rot
stamp, stomp
map, mop
band, bond
lack, lock
rack, rock

The new Pronuncian site has even more minimal pairs like this for you to practice. Just click “Minimal Pairs” on the homepage. I know that to really master these sounds, you need a lot of practice with many, many different words. Pronuncian.com has sound practice, with audio so you can listen and repeat, and I’ll put links to that practice on this episode’s transcript page.

If you want even more practice, you might consider getting your own copy of Pronunciation Pages 2 or the Sounds Drills. Both of these products come with MP3 audio and tons of practice words. I wish that I could say there is an easy and quick solution for learning these skills, but there isn’t, just like there isn’t for anything else that uses muscle memory, such as playing a sport or a musical instrument. To improve, you need practice. But I know you can do it because I’ve seen and heard so many other non-native English speakers do it. 

You’ve got this!

That’s all for today, everyone. You can email comments or podcast topic suggestions to me at podcast@pronuncian.com. You can also can find us on Facebook or Twitter. Just search for Pronuncian. That’s spelled p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.

Thanks for listening everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn to speak better English.