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For example, the /ɑ/ in the audio examples on this site and in this recording of the GenAm pronunciation of the word "cot" sounds very [ɔ]-like to my ears.

my native Georgian language has /ɑ/ which sounds like this, which sounds completely different from the aforementioned examples

I know that the same vowel phoneme might have different allophonic realizations between different languages and even among different speakers of the same language but this kind of stark acoustic difference just seems strange to me.

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  • "the same vowel phoneme might have different allophonic realizations between different languages" is not the right way to phrase this. If two phonemes exist in different languages, they CANNOT be the same phoneme, even if the phonetic realizations are exactly the same. A phoneme is not a sound, it's a structural unit that exists within the context of only one particular language.
    – Graham H.
    May 24, 2023 at 13:25

2 Answers 2

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Many American English speakers, myself included, have no phonemic distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ (and /ɒ/ for that matter). This means that it's not an issue for us to realize an /ɑ/-like vowel in a very [ɔ]-like way or vice versa: there's no phonemic boundary there to run into.

In Georgian, on the other hand, there's only one low vowel. It's not an issue for Georgian-speakers to realize an /ɑ/-like vowel in a more [æ]-like way, since there's no separate low front vowel to worry about. As a result, it seems plausible to me (though I have not studied Georgian phonetics in particular) that Georgian /ɑ/ would be more [æ]-like, and American English /ɑ/ more [ɔ]-like.

In terms of what a true phonetic [ɑ] should sound like, the recordings from the International Phonetic Association are as authoritative as it gets. To me it sounds like your /ɑ/ is pronounced somewhat farther forward than the IPA [ɑ]—which fits what I know of Georgian phonology and the recordings I've found with a quick google search.

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    wait, my /ɑ/ is actually [æ]? damn I never noticed it, always thought that it was something around [ɑ̟~ɑ̈~ä] range. Aug 31, 2022 at 2:14
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    @LinguisticsFanatic More in the direction of æ, but not an actual æ. ä is a good way of writing it, but I'm avoiding diacritics here for the sake of people being able to search the characters and find recordings.
    – Draconis
    Aug 31, 2022 at 2:17
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    ah, it's understandable now, an actual [æ] for /ɑ/ would sound way too similar to Georgian /ɛ/ to be honest. Aug 31, 2022 at 2:37
  • There's a lotta room at the front in a wide-open mouth. Without contrast, you get sounds like English schwa that goes from top to bottom of the central vowel space, with significant front/back and round/unround allophones.
    – jlawler
    Aug 31, 2022 at 12:34
  • It's all right with your /ɑ/ vowel. It will be said that your one is canonical /ɑ/. The female voice above pronounce cot with slightly more open more forward realisation /ɑ˖/. I don't understand why you hear all that sounds as ɔ-like, because all these sounds, including your, are a-like:)
    – T1nts
    Sep 1, 2022 at 19:36
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The pronunciation of the sole low vowel, in languages that have just one low vowel, is highly variable compared to mid and high vowels, and this is related to the fact that back / round contrast in low vowels is rather marked, whereas most languages have at least a two-way contrast in higher vowels w.r.t. backness or roundness. The reason for this asymmetry is that the difference between F1 and F2 (which is how you tell apart front/back vowels and round/unround vowel) is rather small for low vowels (because low vowels have a higher F1). It is much harder to tell [ɑ] and [ɒ] apart because the formant difference is small (a little above 100 Hz).

When there is only one low vowel, the specific choice of symbols given <æ a œ ɑ ɒ ɐ> is phonologically underdetermined. We generally do not opt for a round vowel symbol unless there is good evidence that the vowel is really a round vowel, and one should not put much faith in the fact that an author uses the letter æ vs a vs ɑ vs ɐ: there should be some independent evidence, such as a formant measurement or at least an explicit comparison to another language (e.g. the phonetic difference between "a" in Spanish vs. the "a" or Arabic). My judgment is that the most frequent "single low vowel" pronunciation across languages is "a" and not "æ" or "ɑ". Any yet, Arabic has canonical [a], a clearly front vowel.

Esling's production of [ɐ] best matches "typical actual a" that is the single low vowel of most languages that have one low vowel. Listening to various examples of ა on Forvo, I find that they frequently (not always) best match Esling's [ɐ] production. It does help to use real words, when exemplifying the sounds of a language. Since there is just one low vowel in the language, speakers have available a wide range of realizations without endangering comprehensibility. Linguists typically do not resort to more-obscure transcriptional practices especially when they intend to write thousands of words in a language (instead, we often say things like "a is used for the vowel that is closer to IPA ɐ").

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  • actually, I had to re-record the audio recording for /ɑ/ because I pronounced a more [ə]-like vowel instead of /ɑ/. Aug 31, 2022 at 10:50
  • would you say that my /ɑ/ sounds similar to Esling's [ɐ]? Aug 31, 2022 at 18:02

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