The AA vowel changes when it’s followed by a nasal consonant – it’s no longer a pure AA vowel. See how it changes and sound very American when you say words like ‘thanks’ and ‘man’.
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This is in response to an email that I recently received: Hi. I’m a little confused about the ‘bat’ sound when it precedes the consonants nn, ng, and mm – that is the N, NG, and M consonant sounds – because in dictionaries they are all written with the bat vowel sound.
But I actually find them to be more like something else. I’d really like to get this straight, thank you very much
This is an excellent point. I had been thinking of doing a blog entry on this myself and had not really jelled the idea and so thank you so much for this email. This is exactly right, that when the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ [æ] vowel sound is followed by an N [n], M [m], or NG [ŋ] consonant sound within the same syllable, the ‘aa’ vowel sound is really not a pure ‘aa’ vowel sound, even though it is written that way in IPA. This case is similar to the dark L sound, which I did a blog on and have since referenced many times. And the dark L sound is written in IPA simply as an L, but when it is at the end of a word or syllable, it is always preceded by a vowel-like sound no matter what else comes before it. Now, this is slightly different in that the case is only with the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ vowel followed by one of these three consonant sounds.
Let’s go ahead and break down an example. The word pan: it is written with the pp consonant sound, the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ vowel sound, and the nn consonant sound in IPA. Pp-aa-nn. Now, watch my mouth as I say the word: pan. The mouth does not open as much as it does on the pure ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ vowel sound. Pp-aa-nn, pan. So what is the vowel sound, if not a pure ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’? Pan. Paa-aa-aa – the first thing you can see is that the corners of the lips, though they do come up a little bit, it’s not as drastic a pull as it is in the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ sound. Pan, pan. It’s much more subtle. The tongue however, stays in the same position. Pan. So the tongue is the same as the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’. The other major difference is that the jaw doesn’t drop quite as much as it does on the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ sound. Pan, pan.
Here we see the two side-by-side. On the left is the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ pure vowel sound being spoken on its own. On the right is the word pan being spoken. So you can see again that the corners of the mouth do not come back and up as much in the word pan as they do in the pure vowel sound, and the jaw does not drop quite as much. However, as you can see, the tongue position is the same. The other thing to note is that it is not a single sound, it is more of a diphthong sound – pan – of this modified aa going into a schwa before the N sound. Paa-uh-nn, paauhn, pan. A few other words that have this ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ followed by the nn consonant sound: animal, tan, and, pan.
This modified aa vowel is the same when it is followed by the M consonant sound within the same syllable. For example, the word Pam. This is the same sound as in case 1 when the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ was followed by an N. It is this modified ‘aa’ sound followed by a schwa. Pam. Other example words: dam, am, ambiguous.
The third case: when it is followed by an NG ng sound. Now in IPA, when these are in the same syllable, again, the ‘aa’ vowel sound is written followed directly by the ng consonant sound. It is not, however, a pure aa sound. In this case, however, the sound is not the same as it is in the previous two cases where it was the modified aa followed by a schwa. In this case, when it is followed by the NG sound, it is actually like the ‘ay’ as in ‘say’ diphthong. Let’s take, for example, the word ‘anger’ and the word ‘danger’. An-anger, dan-anger. To me, the sounds like the exact same vowel sound preceding the ng, NG consonant sound. Anger, danger, ang, ang. Now, in IPA, the word anger is written with the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ sound, followed by the ‘ng’ sound. In IPA the word danger is written with the ‘ay’ as in ‘say’ diphthong. And as I’ve just said, to me, to my ear, these sounds are exactly the same. Anger. So, when the ‘aa’ sound is written in IPA, followed by the NG sound, as in anger, it is really pronounced much more as the ‘ay’ as in ‘say’ diphthong. A few more examples: hang, bang, language, fang.
So, the IPA is not a perfect tool. It doesn’t capture every sound within a language perfectly. And that is understandable, as language is such a complex thing. So the lesson here is when you read a word written in IPA with the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ sound, followed in the same syllable by an M or an N consonant sound, it is actually pronounced as a modified aa sound going into a schwa making a diphthong-like sound. And that modified aa is one in which the jaw does not drop quite as much and the corners of the mouth do not come back and up quite as much. When you see the ‘aa’ as in ‘bat’ sound followed by the ng NG consonant sound, within the same syllable, it is pronounced as the ‘ay’ as in ‘say’ diphthong.