John Wells' Lexical Sets define a FOOT vowel /ʊ/ for words like 〈full〉, 〈look〉 and 〈could〉, and a STRUT vowel /ʌ/ for words like 〈cub〉, 〈rub〉 and 〈hum〉. However, I am from the North of England and do not have the FOOT-STRUT split and am having a hard time identifying and hearing the difference for words in each group.

I can look up each word in a dictionary to find that e.g. 〈hundred〉 has the STRUT vowel, however I want to be able to identify the STRUT vowel when people are speaking it (e.g. on recordings of Public Domain books on LibriVox, or on TV).

According to Geoff Lindsey, in Standard British English the STRUT vowel is actually [ə]. In his blog post on the STRUT vowel, he notes that old RP speakers (esp. Queen Elizabeth) use [ɐ] for the STRUT vowel. I can recognise the difference in the more pronounced examples, but not generally.

Lindsey transcribes 〈governing〉 pronounced by Kasia Madera as [ˈgəvnɪŋ] and 〈up to〉 as [əp tə] on his STRUT vowel page. Here, I can recognise the [tə] in 〈to〉 but am having difficulty identifying the STRUT vowels as [ə]. Is this because they are actually shifted slightly toward the [ʊ] vowel and thus harder to identify as [ə] (e.g. when comparing COMMA and STRUT vowel pronunciations), or is it my brain being trained to think that 〈up〉 is pronounced [ʊp] so does not hear the [ə] as a [ə]?

For the TRAP-BATH split I can identify when people exhibit this and use [ɑː] for BATH. Is this because the FOOT and STRUT vowels are closer together than TRAP and BATH, thus making the difference less noticeable? Is it because there isn't any (or marginal) free variation/difference in the BATH vowel sound, making it clearer and more consistent?

How can I learn to recognise where people are using the STRUT vowel?

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    As a Southerner who has lived in the North for more than twenty years, I find that when Yorkshire people try to put on a Southern accent, this is the most prominent giveaway. Sometime the hypercorrect, for example pronouncing "put" with the STRUT vowel. But even if they get the instances right, it is very common to use a schwa - and for me, this is an immediate giveaway that they are Northerners trying to talk Southern. I have encountered the idea that STRUT is phonemically the same as schwa (though I don't agree); but phonetically they are certainly distinct. – Colin Fine May 6 '14 at 16:08
  • I heard a speaker with a Welsh accent on BBC Radio 4 this evening, and noticed that she regularly realised STRUT as a schwa. – Colin Fine May 7 '14 at 23:05
  • @ColinFine I believe the merger between the STRUT vowel and schwa mainly occurs in American English. I agree that the two are definitely distinct in Southern England, with the STRUT vowel being more open – Tim Foster Jul 8 at 14:43

In "Northern English", the phoneme /ʌ/ of RP and of general "Southern English" does not exist; it is instead part of the phoneme /ʊ/. Historically of course, this is part of a complex split of post-Great Vowel Shift English /uː/ and /u/, usually dubbed the FOOT–STRUT split, named after the lexical sets for /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ respectively. This Wikipedia article on the phonological history of English high back vowels shows how the FOOT–STRUT split emerged and gives a brief guide to which orthographies represent which phoneme: in short, the spellings "o" and "u" usually indicate /ʌ/.

As this is a clearly defined and well-documented development of the English language, it is found in dictionaries and other authorities which are consulted by learners of the language. These phonemic renditions of English words are of course invaluable for second-language learners of standard English (whether that is Received Pronunciation or General American, which both contain the split).

However, the necessary skills in listening out for these phonemes requires the development of phoneme awareness. From copious studies on children, phonemes further removed from the "native" phonemic system are more easily distinguished (e.g. foreign accents are more readily distinguished by primary school children than native accents according to Floccia & Goslin [2009]), but that sensitivity to accents decreases with age (see this 2012 article from Cristia & Floccia).

With novel phoneme distinctions for second language learners then, three situations are generally identified (as per Eckman & Iverson (2003)):

  1. Both phonemes are novel.
  2. One phoneme is novel, but the other phoneme is present in the first language.
  3. Both second language phonemes are present as allophones of the same phoneme as the first language (hence the phonemic distinction is novel whilst the phonetics are more-or-less familiar).

For native Northern English speakers trying to negotiate the FOOT–STRUT split, the second situation is applicable. The problem of language transfer, especially interference from the orthography in this case, is especially relevant. Both are associated via the "interfering" similarity with the first 'language' and through the orthography with the one phoneme /ʊ/.

Interestingly, as with the comment, when /ʌ/ is compared with phonetically similar vowels from different language systems where the possibility of interference is so low as to be negligible, e.g. Russian's [ɐ]/[ʌ] or Korean's [ʌ]/[ɘ], the native language transfer mapped it to a different vowel completely, Northern English's /a/. This shows the difference between phonemic and phonetic similarity very clearly: it is very likely that your familiarity with written English and the close affinity of Northern and Southern English that you associate the sound of [ʌ] with /ʊ/ at all; otherwise you associate it with /a/.

Incidentally, while the two sounds [a] and [ʌ~ɐ] are allophones in Russian, in Korean the two are contrastive phonemes (with great ramifications for the grammar too), although of course the phonetics make [ʌ] lean toward [ɘ] or even [ɔ] - there is also a moribund length distinction creating two allophones in quality. In urban Southern English, data seem to suggest change in both STRUT and FOOT, although it seems to be a bit of a chain-shift: STRUT is moving towards [ʌ] (whereas it had been closer to [ɐ]) being backed and raised; while FOOT is being fronted towards [ɵ], as Torgerson, Kerswill & Fox (2006) report.

In short then, perhaps combining your knowledge of English orthography (i.e. its spelling with a single "o" or "u" and occasionally with "oo") with a recognition that it sounds a bit like /a/ will help you to isolate the STRUT vowel.

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  • Thanks. My approach thus far has been: listen to videos producing [ʌ]/[ɐ̟] (e.g. Rachel's English), and trying to focus on the STRUT words when they are being spoken (which requires knowing which words are STRUT words). The latter is harder, and I really need to compare FOOT, STRUT and commA words, but I am making slow progress. I'm also considering using spectograph tools (e.g. praat) to compare words/phonemes more systematically -- i.e. comparing the Formants of the vowels. – reece May 7 '14 at 12:53

In RP, and in general in the South of England, there are minimal pairs like “look” vs. “luck”. Do you not hear this difference in Southern speakers?

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  • As I said, I can notice it in pronounced RP accents like early recordings of the Queen, but not with the example shown by Lindsey from Kasia Madera (i.e. the [ə] in 〈up〉 [əp] sounds more like [ʊ] different to the [ə] in 〈to〉 [tə]). In youtube.com/watch?v=WHBYoc8SBfE (London/Estrury accent) at 1:51 〈butter〉 sounds like a [ʊ] and 〈football〉 a [ə], which is the other way around (also, it may be that the [ʊ] has been reduced in this instance). Do you have audio with someone exhibiting the difference? Do you have better examples? – reece Apr 5 '14 at 21:55
  • Try de.forvo.com. Lots of speakers of different dialects. – fdb Apr 5 '14 at 22:13
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    @reece It may just be a notational matter. My impression is that American phonetic books, as well as Webster dictionaries, tend to write them using the same phonetic symbol even when their STRUT vowel, when they're actually saying the word, is more open than schwa. – user58955 Apr 6 '14 at 14:20
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    @user58955 Some English-language dictionaries reserve [ə] to unstressed positions alone, and use [ʌ] in stressed position. So the STRUT vowel would there be [ʌ]. I would transcribe the 〈up to〉 in “It’s not really up to you” as [ˈʌptə] broadly — and perhaps something like [ˈɐ̟p̚tʰɵ] more narrowly and depending on the speaker. – tchrist Apr 6 '14 at 15:55
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    @MilesRout There is a distinction in your accent because you have the FOOT-STRUT split, just like others make the distinction between NORTH-FORCE, TRAP-BATH, MEAT-MEET (e.g. some Scottish/Irish accents), FIR-FUR-FERN (also some Scottish/Irish accents) or BAD/LAD (some Australian accents). For the specific IPA vowels like [ɐ], it is possible to differentiate them. However, when listening to radio, TV, etc. I find it hard to differentiate FOOT and STRUT (unlike the TRAP-BATH split), so I am having to consciously identify STRUT words to train myself to pick up the difference. – reece May 6 '14 at 0:58

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