A (grapheme)

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For a note on how AWE organizes its group of articles on vowels, basically by aspects of sound and of writing, see category:vowels.

A a ɑː

Thanks in large part to the historical phenomenon of the Great English Vowel Shift of the late fifteenth century, English is not a language with predictable ways of writing down sounds, particularly vowel sounds. This page attempts to group some of the ways in which the letter 'A' is used.

  • As a simple letter (monographic), it may be:
    • a short '-a-' IPA /æ/) in 'man', 'cat' and 'as' - though the actual sound varies in spoken accents, such as the so-called 'flat '-a-' in north-west England, particularly in Lancashire, where it is associated with the local pronunciation of 'flat cap', which has a vowel akin to IPA /a/ of German Mann, etc.
    • a long '-a-' (/ɑː/) as in (RP) 'father', 'dance' and 'bath'.
    • As a diphthongal vowel, it is usually understood as the sound of its name, and such words as 'late', 'name' and 'same': /eɪ/; but there are many other possibilities, and great subtleties in its precise pronunciation. For more on this, see Speech sounds represented by the letter A.
  • There are at least four ways in which '-a-' can be combined to represent the /eɪ/ phoneme:
    • before a consonant with a silent '-e-' ([ ] a + [C] + e ), as in 'ate', 'pale', 'hate' and 'waste';
    • with '-i' (ai), as in aid, pail ( a homophone of 'pale') and maintain (some words, such as 'again', 'said' and 'against', are pronounced with an /É›/ vowel, like that in 'get', by some speakers.);
    • at the ends of words, the ai spelling is replaced by ay - for example in 'play', 'way' and 'day' (as in the 'said' example above, 'says' may be realized with the /É›/ phoneme (as 'sez');
    • in four words, the /eɪ/ sound is represented by ea: 'great', 'break', 'steak' and (archaic) 'yea'.
  • With u (au), it represents the /ɔː/ phoneme, as in 'sauce', 'author' and 'because' (note that in North American accents, this may sound far more like the /É’/ sound of 'got' and 'dog' - the same is true in the RP realization of such words as 'Austrian' and 'Australian);
    • the same pattern can be represented by the 'double u' of w (aw) as in 'aweful', 'sawn', 'law' and 'drawl'.
  • -a- lengthens the vowel sound when it follows
    • o (oa, /əʊ/), as in 'boat', 'road', 'soak', 'soar' and 'goal' -
      • - confusingly, this can be the different 'longer' vowel of 'caught' (/ɔː/) in 'broad', or the /əʊ/ diphthong in 'B road', 'subsidiary highway'.
    • e (ea), as in 'beat', 'feast', 'near' and 'meal'. (N.B. ea can represent three different sounds (this one, /iː/, that in 'great', /eɪ/ above, and 'bread', (/É›/) below. This is particularly confusing with read, where both verb forms, the present tense and the past forms, are spelled the same way but pronounced differently, the present with the 'long -ee' (/iː/) and the past with the 'short -e' /É›/
      • With e (ea), it may also represent the short vowel /É›/ in such words as 'bread', 'ready' 'jealous' and 'sweat'.
  • Sometimes a combines with other vowel letters in strange spellings such as aisle' ('EYE-l', IPA: /aɪl/), 'aunt' ('AHnt', /ɑːnt/), 'beauty' ('bYOU-ti', /bjuːtɪ/), 'guinea' (GHINN-y, /gɪn ɪ/), 'laugh' ('LARf', 'lɑːf/) and 'quay' ('kee', /kiː/).
  • In words borrowed from foreign languages, a occasionally has foreign uses:
    • aa, always in recognizably foreign words, represents the 'long a' /ɑː/ in such Afrikaans words as 'aardvaark', and /eɪ/ diphthong in the RP British English realization of Semitic names such as 'Aaron' and 'Baal'.
    • ae usually has the value of long '-ay-' (/eɪ/), as in Dutch 'maelstrom', Celtic 'Gael' (but see Gaelic) and Hebrew 'Ishmael' and 'Israel'.
    • in 'bureau', 'gauche' and 'fauve', etc, the au digraph (in 'bureau' a trigraph eau) has its French value of /o/, or its nearest English equivalent, /əʊ/ (/oÊŠ/ in North American).
    • In most other European languages, au has its phonetic value 'ow' (/aÊŠ/), as in German 'Frau' and 'Strauss, Spanish 'gaucho' and 'auto-da-fe', and the Italian pronunciations of 'Claudia' and 'Laura'.
    • Sometimes digraphs which represent diphthongs in English (that is, proper diphthongs, or vowel glides) represent two separate monophthongs in their original languages, and academic speakers should try to maintain the distinction. The French 'Naive', for example (and its masculine equivalent 'naif') have two syllables: 'nah-EEVE', IPA: /na ˈiːv/ ('na-EEF', IPA: /na ˈɪf/). This may be shown by a diaeresis, as in naïve (naïf).
You may also want to see Speech sounds represented by the letter A or long vowel - short vowel.
Much of the information on this page has been taken from McArthur and Bell (2004).