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If my mouth is open and my tongue is completely relaxed, do I make an [a] or an [ä]? Which one is more common for the TRAP vowel in British English?

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  • Welcome to StackExchange! Given the confusion below, in future I recommend you enclose IPA symbols either in [square brackets] or /slashes/.
    – Miztli
    Apr 8, 2019 at 12:33

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First, I assume you're using those letters according to older dictionary practices, where "a" is [æ] and "ä" is [ɑ] in contemporary IPA-driven usage. Given the physiological conditions you describe, the vowel you would produce is closer to [ɜ], which might most closely match a UK pronunciation of "bird". Both [æ, ɑ] involve some lowering of the tongue. However, if you open your mouth extremely (all the way), you might coerce a lowered tongue, but it's not clear that you can do that and maintain the presumed "relaxed tongue". In that case, the vowel would be closer to [ɑ], not [æ] which is the "trap" vowel, as opposed to the "bath" vowel [ɑ]. However, there are two front low vowels, [æ] and [a] in IPA, so "trap" might have [æ] or [a]. There are expert reference pronunciations of the IPA letters out there – the problem is that one has to judge whether a given vowel is closer to ideal [a] or ideal [æ]. John Wells has a list of dialects and judgments on phonetic value here.

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    Given that the question is tagged "IPA", I would guess that the question is instead about whether the "trap" vowel in British English is front or central. From what I've read, it can in fact be fairly central. Apr 6, 2019 at 17:36
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    Actually I'm talking about [a] and its centralised version [ä]. [æ] is more of an American thing and is found in England as a TRAP vowel maybe only in East Anglia. And [ɑ] is the BATH vowel. I'm talking specifically about the variation of the TRAP vowel in the British accents. Apr 6, 2019 at 17:41
  • You got it right, Sumelic. And I agree, it seems that the central version is more common. Apr 6, 2019 at 17:42
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    Central TRAP is common in the UK overall but not in RP.
    – Nardog
    Apr 6, 2019 at 18:07
  • Makes sense. Anyway, only a minority speaks RP. Haha. Maybe a pure [a] is more common in women speech? Or doesn't it make sense? Apr 6, 2019 at 18:27

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