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Consider:

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I've been studying the vowel chart recently and I don't understand why ʌ is an open-mid back unrounded vowel. Shouldn’t it be a short low central unrounded vowel like in the chart picture I added? Btw, the chart is from my textbook.

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  • Every book uses its own symbol system. It's common, for instance, to use schwa as the symbol for the English central vowel phoneme, which varies from high to low central, and can be back as well, depending on context. Every non-rhotic vowel that's not front or back in English is represented by a single phoneme. Some books use caret as the symbol for that phoneme when stressed, but a stress mark over schwa does the same job.
    – jlawler
    Apr 4 at 16:00

2 Answers 2

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The short answer is that that is how the symbol is defined. The intermediate answer is that the picture you provide is wrong as a subset of the IPA chart (the vowel letters are not in their standard positions, which you can get by looking at an official IPA chart – but the image also indirectly disclaims being an IPA chart). The somewhat longer answer is that IPA symbols are used not just in idealized IPA standard-pronunciation exercises, they are also used for the pronunciation of actual languages – such as RP English. There is a vowel phoneme /ʌ/ in English which has a range of pronunciations across dialects. If you want to know the reference pronunciation of the IPA letter "ʌ", consult this collection of pronunciations. Your judgment of ideal vowel-position is closest to Ladefoged's pronunciation, and furthest from Esling's. The author of the book has made a judgment as to where, auditorially, the vowel sits in chart in RP, which correctly reflects details of that particular dialects pronunciation.

There are no low vowels in IPA, just open vowels. There is no open central vowel: the closest you can get is the near-open central vowel [ɐ]. You are mixing phonetic systems – as does the book's author (high, mid, low are not IPA concepts).

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What you are looking at are the conventionalised symbols for the phonemic transcription of Southern Standard British English (also known as RP). The phonemic transcription systems for individual languages cannot use the symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) faithfully, especially the vowels. The symbols from the IPA represent idealised points within the vowel space, known as cardinal vowels. Real languages do not have vowel inventories where each vowel corresponds neatly to one of these points. Consequently, phoneticians and the language teaching community have to make principled choices about what symbols to use for language-specific phonemic transcriptions. These may take into account all kinds of things including the orthography of the language concerned and so forth.

The author of the book has positioned the symbols representing the SSBE monophthongs on a vowel quadrilateral to try to show what a typical realisation of these vowels would be.

The [ʌ] symbol within the IPA system proper represents cardinal vowel 14, which is by definition an open-mid back unrounded vowel.

Executive Summary

  • The phoneme known as the STRUT vowel in SSBE is conventionally transcribed using the /ʌ/ symbol, but as shown on the vowel quadrilateral, is usually realised as a half open central vowel. [It does not have the same quality as [ʌ] does within the IPA system.]

  • The symbol to transcribe a typical realisation of this SSBE vowel within the IPA system itself (as opposed to the conventionalised language-specific system for SSBE) is: [ɐ]

  • The symbol [ʌ] within the IPA system itself does indeed represent an open-mid back unrounded vowel. [However, this is not what the symbols represents in phonemic transcriptions of SSBE!]

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  • "Real languages do not have vowels corresponding to these points" reads rather strange - this could only be true if the IPA didn't describe human languages. Many human vowel phonemes include the cardinal IPA vowel points; rather, no natural language has vowel phonemes that are fixed at, and allow no deviation from, some enshrined formant frequency, which is unsurprising given human physiology and the social nature of language. A more informative description of a real vowel space gives vowels as circles, or better, dispersion maps. But this is quite separate from this question Apr 4 at 23:11
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    @Unbrutal_Russian I get what your saying. However, although a trained phonetician might be able to give you a fairly consistent production of a cardinal vowel, these vowels represent idealised points within the vowel space. It's arguable whether, if these points actually exist, any single production of a vowel has ever hit them. It will always be minimally more close or open or back or front etc. Nearly always, a vowel from a language will be realised as not fully front or back, for example, and not maximally close or open. Apr 4 at 23:13
  • These idealised points are idealised human vowels from real languages, they're stored as auditory/articulatory memory. Specifically standard Italian can be cited as a reference for the IPA cardinal vowel points. What a trained phonetician does when they try to produce cardinal vowels is they try to reproduce some real human vowels that they have in mind. Nobody can doubt whether a single production of a vowel has ever hit them, as that would require a fixed and enshrined formant frequency (not in the IPA), and in that case it would be hit billions of times daily through sheer probability Apr 4 at 23:17
  • @Unbrutal_Russian But they aren't idealised vowels from real languages. For example, cardinal vowels 13 and 14 are mathematically 1/3 down the right hand side of the vowel quadrilateral. They aren't borrowed from a particular language, although there are certainly languages with vowels that we might want to characterise as having those qualities (because, in reality realisations might be both more close and more open and more back etc than the idealised point). The points are basically defined mathematically, not by their correspondence to particular languages. No? Apr 4 at 23:21
  • There's nothing mathematical about it. There are no such things as a fully front or back vowel in the abstract. There is no idealised, human-independent configuration of the human vocal tract like there isn't human physiology - this is impossible in principle. The only logically conceivable way to fix IPA vowels would be by formant frequency, and I'm looking at the IPA handbook right now and not seeing anything of the sort. It says: "this [more] extreme [than in En] vowel is taken as a fixed reference point for vowel description". A real human vowel in the heads of many phoneticians Apr 4 at 23:28

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