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For words with the vowel sound in road and coal, Wiktionary:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/road#English https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/coal#English

lists the British pronunciation of the vowel as either: əʊ or ɔʊ, and the American pronunciation as: oʊ

I'm British and I think I say these words in a typically British way, but to my ears there's no difference between the British and American way of saying coal, (and it sounds like the vowel should be oʊ)

In the Wiktionary road example there are actually English and American recorded samples, and I certainly hear one American voice and one British, but I can't convince myself that the difference is in the first half of the diphthong.

I've obviously got myself confused about something.

Is Wiktionary right? Are the American and British pronunciations different? Can anyone help me understand or hear the differences?

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    The "British pronunciation" of /o/ as [əʊ] refers to RP, or the way the Royals (are sposta) talk. It doesn't represent the way everybody says it; nothing does. We don't even say it the same way every time in the States. /o/ is neutralized and varied in many different ways by US speakers. There are ALWAYS more ways to pronounce something than the dictionary will tell you. – jlawler Jan 2 at 20:34
  • Sure, but what is the difference between the two recorded samples for 'road'? Is it the vowel or something else? – John Lawrence Aspden Jan 2 at 20:36
  • As someone whose native language isn't English and has a limited repertoire of vowels, the two "road" audio samples sound like it says on the tin: in the "UK" one, if I concentrate on the initial vowel, I feel somewhere in the neighborhood of /œ/ or /ø/ (I am not good at telling the difference between those, and schwa is also "something like that" to me). I must admit, though, that before getting interested in phonetics, it had never occurred to me that "o" in RP didn't actually represent anything with IPA /o/ in it. – LjL Jan 2 at 23:25
  • Is it the vowel or something else? I think it's the vowel quality and something else. It sounds to me as though the durations differ quite a bit - the F BrEn spkr holds on to the first part of the diphthong far longer than the AmEn spkr and the AmEn speaker seems to have more tension throughout. There's a kind of stress or swell at the end of the vowel in the BrEn sample that isn't there in the AmEn sample. The M BrEn spkr sounds to me to be somewhere in the middle - so I think what the dictionary is trying to say is as accurate as these things can ever be but there's more to it than that. – JD2000 Jan 3 at 7:20
  • a) There's no half of the diphtong. You'd have to specify a measure, unless the change were linear with a trivial midpoint. The slope of the diphtong makes a difference, not so much where it starts. b) The American R is farther back, notedly in midwestern dialects, iirc (cf Peter Shor on ELU). This colors the vowel farther back, and perhaps also the dental stop to become an alveolar. c) The british accent is peculiar. If I try to mimic it, I tend to emulate an overbite and various ways of lip rounding. It's in the uncanny valley. d) What Sumelic said. e) route/route comes to mind. – vectory Jan 3 at 8:19
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The distinctions between IPA pairs such as [o]~[ɔ] and [ɔ]~[ɒ] are not obvious

In the context of the transcriptions for the word coal, the difference between the transcription /ɔʊ/ (for British English) and /oʊ/ (for American English) is not meaningful on the phonetic level. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols /ɔ/ and /o/ represent adjacent vowels.

Theoretically, IPA [ɔ] represents a "mid-open" back rounded vowel, and IPA [o] represents a "mid close" back rounded vowel.

But in actual use, the IPA is vague enough that the qualities of vowels that are transcribed /ɔ/ and /o/ often overlap. So the use of the symbol /ɔ/ vs /o/ is commonly a matter of arbitrary convention, sometimes based the history of a sound or on its value in a particular dialect of a language. If you see a single transcription that uses both symbols (such as "/otɔ/"), you can conclude that the symbols "o" and "ɔ" are meant to contrast, but otherwise, you should think of them as potentially representing the same vowel quality. So far, I haven't seen a transcription of any accent of English that makes a contrast between /ɔʊ/ and /oʊ/.

The distinction between [ɔ] and [ɒ] is similarly vague. Michaelyus posted a comment linking to a blog post by the linguist John Wells that uses a third transcription for the vowel sound found in coal: [ɒʊ].

Even if there is a difference between the two accents in the pronunciation of words like coal, the closeness of the different vowels involved would probably make it difficult for you to hear the difference.

The vowel in "road"

The difference between the final consonants of coal and road is relevant, because for many speakers the word-final L sound in coal causes the preceding "long o" vowel to be pronounced differently from the way it is pronounced elsewhere. That is why Wiktionary provides a "UK"* transcription with /ɔʊ/ for coal, but not for road.


*As user6726's answer says, the labels chosen for these kinds of transcriptions can be problematic since the transcriptions don't in fact represent "British" or "American" pronunciation as a whole. The label "Received Pronunciation" or "RP" avoids that potential false impression—it's pretty clear that not all British English speakers have an "RP" accent—but runs into the issue that people don't agree about who does have an "RP" accent.

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  • In my accent, general London English (between RP and Estuary in features), we have the WHOLLY-HOLY split, and I imagine Wiktionary has included that. Although for some people that is also distinguished from HOLE-Y. – Michaelyus Jan 3 at 12:56
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There is no such thing as "British" vs. "American" pronunciation when it comes to those vowels. [rəʊd] is not northern England. [roʊd] is more general in the US, but [rəʊd] is growing in popularity (California and parts of the Midwest). As a narrow phonetic statement, claiming that one language has [koʊl] and the other has [kɔʊl] is not totally meaningless, but I would be skeptical of such an assertion without substantive evidence (for example formant measurements).

In the three tokens of "road", each speaker has a different vowel quality, differing mostly in F2 (highest in RP, lowest in the third unidentified sample). I think the way to convince yourself (of whatever the truth is) is to gather a number of examples, then edit out the distracting differences (r, d, k, l) using Praat, and both look and listen. Look a as many "owe" words as you can. The ultimate test would be to extract just the vowel, and play them at yourself randomly noting whether you can reliably detect "US" vs "UK", as reported in your sound source.

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