I'm a native Korean speaker, and I somtimes have trouble pronuncing some of the sounds which is not used or not distinguished in Korean.

For example, ɛ and e are equivalent to Korean phoneme ㅐ and ㅔ. But all Korean people, including me, don't distinguish these vowel's pronunciations. When I talk to native English speakers, they seem not to care about it either. I have no idea even after listening to their audio files.

IPA chart says ɛ is open-mid whereas e is close-mid. But I don't know anything about phonology, and I can't tell if my tongue is high or low.. Can anyone tell me how to pronunce it exactly?

  • I second this question. I suspect the difference is like between Russian э and е based on closedness-opennes description. But when I asked English-speaking linguists to pronounce the IPA e, they pronounce it totally differently from what I expected ( they pronounce it as /i/).
    – Anixx
    Jan 7 at 16:20
  • @Anixx It happens because actual pronunciation of the Russian е and э is /ɛ e̞ ɪ/, e.g.: лес /lʲe̞s/, в лесу /v lʲɪsu/, этот /ɛtot/, and this is different from plain /e/: additionally, English speakers can substitute /eɪ̯/ for /eː/ and /e/. It must be mentioned.
    – T1nts
    Jan 9 at 16:56
  • @T1nts this makes no sense for me, as the sounds in лес and этот are exactly the same for me from the point of view of listening and pronunciation. And this is across all Russian dialects. I cannot imagine how one can find any difference there.
    – Anixx
    Jan 9 at 16:58
  • @Anixx I was editing my answer when you answered to me. Read it
    – T1nts
    Jan 9 at 17:00
  • @Anixx Are you heard all dialects?)
    – T1nts
    Jan 9 at 17:02

2 Answers 2


I like the answer given by user6726, but want to address some other issues.

Generally, any kind of /e/ will be "halfway" between /a/ and /i/ as you divide the "vowel space" into three. To distinguish [ɛ] and [e], you generally have to divide the same space into four, so that [ɛ] will be noticeably closer in sound to /a/ and [e] will be noticeably closer to /i/. As user6726 mentioned, the specifics will vary from language to language and even dialect to dialect, generally depending on what kind or kinds of /a/ and /i/ exist in the language and what other sounds exist as well.

Here is my experience. I am more or less a native speaker of General American English and have studied a number of other languages and dialects to varying degrees of fluency.

First, I find there is both a physical and psychological element to distinguishing phonemes like these. In my own case, I have no trouble distinguishing them in languages that clearly require the distinctions, but in languages that either don't clearly make the distinction in all cases (e.g., French) or in which they don't make the distinction at all (e.g., Spanish), I also have trouble. In other words, in such cases I am unsure what vowel system "standard" speakers use or what vowel system I use even if I can achieve a "good" accent overall. I think this is because I hear so much variation among speakers that exhibit the same variation.

If you are specifically interested in the vowels of English, you should appreciate that its vowel system is pretty complex and has extreme variation between dialects. If you go to this link on Wikipedia and scroll down a little bit, you will see three charts showing the IPA vowels of the Received Pronunciation (i.e., the "standard" pronunciation of England), General American, and General Australian. Of the approximately twenty vowel and diphthong phonemes listed, there is not a single vowel where the phonetic description and symbol line up exactly across the three dialects. In other words, speakers of these dialects don't pronounce a single vowel the same way in the same words across the three dialects.

More specifically to your question, you will see in the charts that where one English dialect has [ɛ], one or both of the others often has [e] for the same phoneme. That is why no English speaker is going to care or maybe even particularly notice whether you pronounce "dress" as [drɛs] or [dres], besides the accent it might give you. There is also significant variation within American and English accents, so that speakers are generally used to hearing a great deal of variation in the pronunciation of vowels, even though most individuals will pronounce them consistently in only one way according to where they grew up.

You should also notice that among the three dialects listed, none of them has a simple opposition between [ɛ] and [e], except General Australian in the long varieties: [ɛ:] and [e:]. In General Australian, but not in the other two dialects, the only thing that distinguishes "bared" and "haired" from "bird" and "heared" is apparently that the former has [e:] and the latter has [ɛ:]. In my General American accent, I use lax/short [ɛ] with "r" coloring in "bared" and "haired." For "bird" and "heard," I use [ɚ], which is a symbol that does not appear in the charts, but only in footnote C and later in the text on the same Wikipedia page.

When I try to learn the vowels of a language, I try to read the most specific phonetic descriptions I can find; however, I then leave this analysis behind and try to imitate, not the sounds, but the overall accent. I find the two approaches work best for me and might work for you.


The only effective way to produce IPA sounds in a standard manner is to listen to and imitate expert productions. The IPA kindly provides a collection of such recordings, which you can get here. There are a number of knock-offs on the internet if you aren't interested in standard values. As you will notice, there are differences in the productions of the experts (Wells, Esling, House, Ladefoged), which tells you that IPA sound values are a range of targets: they are not exact acoustic points.

For vowels, you can also get expert recordings of the cardinal vowels here, produced by Jones and Ladefoged. The cardinal vowels are the first (surviving) set of standardized sound productions for all languages, and are the foundation of current IPA analysis of vowels.

Phonology will not tell you whether your tongue is high or low, but phonetics might. From the practical perspective, the first step would be to learn the correlation between vowel symbols and their description ("close front unrounded vowel") including supposed articulatory states (not an officially sanctioned part of the IPA). This page has MRI and ultrasounds of vowel productions by another expert. However, the physical reality of vowel production is minimally useful in figuring out what to do. Instead, you'd be better served by imitating vowels produced by an expert and also (this is the really hard part) getting coached by an expert trained in IPA (U. College London has training courses, which might be of interest to you).

The problem of [e] vs [ɛ] that you mention brings together all of the problems of auditory phonetics. First, there is substantial variation in Korean in how the purported vowels [e] and [ɛ] are pronounced (they are not distinct for all speakers / dialects). Second, even when a speaker makes the distinction, remember that IPA is a range, not an exact measurement, so a person's [e] may be (is, probably) lower than Esling's standard [e]. You could then wonder whether the lower vowel in Korean should be transcribed [æ] – in lieu of a three-way contrast, there is a certain degree of arbitrariness in deciding which two vowel symbols to use out of {e,ɛ,æ}. This article (paywalled) by H.B. Lee uses the standard choice [e,ɛ], but looking at the vowel charts is also informative because authors of illustration articles locate the vowel in the language under discussion on a standard vowel chart, and it is somewhat meaningful to compare across languages to see where authors place their dots. Note that long and short vowels are positioned very differently (the short vowels are almost merged). The same issue of JIPA also has an illustration of Thai which also has [e, ɛ] and the vowels are (said to be) much more separate compared to Korean. Bear in mind though that just as the experts differ in their productions of "Standard IPA vowels", authors will differ in their judgements as to where to position the vowels of the target language.

  • Thank you! I'll visit the websites and find them out. Jan 7 at 12:10

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