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Pronouncing "a" or "ah"

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Joined: 01 Mar 2003
Posts: 1
Location: Switzerland

PostPosted: Sat Mar 01, 2003 3:36 pm    Post subject: Pronouncing "a" or "ah" Reply with quote

I live in Switzerland. Last night I got into a very interesting conversation with my daughter's English Reading and Writting class teacher. She was telling a mother that her child was reading "a" wrong. For example " I gave a man a book" "a" man pronounced as in the letter a, not "ah". It is hard to explain by writing it but please bear with me.

I learned English as a second language in the States. I have a B.A. degree. I remember clearly being taught that it is rather correct to pronounce the "a" as in the letter a. Most Americans will pronounce "ah" man or "ah" book...but saying it the other way is not wrong, or so I believe. I have asked other people, mainly those who also learned ESL and they also believe that it is correct to pronounce it like the letter a.

I need some feedback because it troubled me that the teacher was determined to say it was wrong, period. I need expert opinions so I can put this matter to rest Surprised)

Thanks for reading!


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Joined: 16 Jan 2003
Posts: 1195
Location: Aguanga, California (near San Diego)

PostPosted: Sat Mar 01, 2003 4:19 pm    Post subject: "a" or "uh" Reply with quote

Hello Iliwer,

Your instincts are most definitely right on the money. Very Happy

Your daughter's teacher may be a fine teacher in most respects. However, I'm afraid it's rather common for teachers of English who have learned the language not as a native speaker to be somewhat stubborn in their belief of certain aspects of English and how it is used. They often forget that English, just like their native language, is an organic, living whole, and is subject to variety in use and changes in form from time to time. The style of English use today is simply different in certain ways from how it was used long ago or even a few years ago. New words come into the language all the time. A few fade away. Since English is the official and native language of not only England and other parts of British Isles, but also Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, it is of course natural that differences spring up in the way the language develops in each place. Even within these countries, there are wide differences in the way English is used. Yet it can hardly be denied that all these different styles remain real English. None of them is wrong!

I have seen attempts to make rules governing the pronunciation of "a" in English sentences. Some of them are in older textbooks, but modern books rarely try to be firm about it. The truth is that there are a variety of acceptable ways to do it. And the actual pronunciation in any particular case depends on the speaker's exact intentions at the time of speaking. He or she may wish to emphasize something (within the context of the discussion taking place) by pronouncing "a" (or, for that matter, other words in his statement) in particular ways. "A" can be correctly pronounced as the letter "A" in the alphabet. It can also be pronounced as "uh" (generally called schwa by teachers and linguists) with complete correctness. There are also regional variences in the way "a" is pronounced. All of them are correct. What is important is that the person or persons to whom the speaker is talking clearly understands what is being said, and to a large extent, that depends also on the degree of expertise held by those persons.

You can safely tell your daughter's teacher that you have backing by native-speaking English teachers that there is nothing wrong with"uh man uh book" in many speaking situations. Nor is there any mistake in saying "a man a book", where "a" is pronounced like the first letter of the alphabet.

Larry Latham
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Joined: 17 Jan 2003
Posts: 174
Location: USA and/or Korea

PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2003 7:24 am    Post subject: Both sounds are correct. Reply with quote

The article "a" can be pronounced /ei/ (as in the name of the letter A), or it can be neutralized into a schwa sound (to sound like 'uh').

Usually, the schwa sound is used. However, the /ei/ sound can be used as well, at the discretion of the speaker.

The /ei/ sound is often used to create contrastive stress. This would occur when emphasizing that there is only one noun rather than several, or when emphasizing that the noun is one out of many rather than being the only one in existance. The /ei/ sound can also be used in other contexts, such as when someone is deliberately speaking slowly and clearly. However, that is rare. The schwa sound is much more common.

For example:
What do you have there?
I have a ('uh') bag.

You must have a lot of bags, right?
No. I have a (/ei/) bag. That's all.

Do you have the bag with the money in it?
No. I have a (/ei/) bag, but not the one you want.

What was that, young man? You have a pad?
No! I said, "I HAVE A (/ei/) BAG!"

Hope this helps.
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Joined: 16 Jan 2003
Posts: 1195
Location: Aguanga, California (near San Diego)

PostPosted: Sun Mar 02, 2003 6:13 pm    Post subject: More than one sound for "a" Reply with quote

Hope this helps.

It helps lots. Cool Your examples quite clarify the essential point, namely that there are at least two sounds (perhaps more) that are not only acceptable, but are used regularly by English speakers. I agree that the schwa sound is the most common in ordinary context, at least here in the U.S.A. The "letter a" sound, or /ei/, is used for emphasis by creating a contrast with schwa. Both sounds are totally "correct."

Larry Latham
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Joined: 09 Jul 2003
Posts: 1
Location: Canada

PostPosted: Wed Jul 09, 2003 11:25 pm    Post subject: Pronouncing "a" Reply with quote

Hi, interesting discussion........In Canadian "colloquial" English pronunciation the most common way to pronounce "a" is a third way.....not "ei" and not the schwa, but the same sound as the "a" in the word "as" or "ask" or "anti-". (Sorry, I can't use the correct "short" symbols on this keyboard, so I'll call it ~a~) We say it that way almost as commonly as the schwa, and even to replace the emphasis of "ei", hence ~a~ bag, ~a~ man (in this case the ~a~ and the "a" in "man" are identical). I think in formal English teaching it should be pointed out to students that the "non-ei" sounds are completely colloquial and their use usually may only be learned by listening to the users in different countries and using the language the way they do !
Question By the way, does anyone out there have an easily accessable list of minimal pairs?? Or ones that are difficult for Japanese-speakers to pronounce and differentiate ?? Or for Korean-speakers ?? I've been trying to put one together but it is difficult to organize in a utilitarian manner. "Ennybuddy got s'jestyuns ??"
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