English Pronunciation: Difference between the sounds /e/ and /æ/

Miriam Herud

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Let’s take a closer look at a common pronunciation mistake, namely the difference between the sounds /æ/ such as in cat and /e/ such as in mess. You may look at them and say: “they sound pretty much the same to me”, but what you consider a subtle, unnoticeable difference can cause confusion and misunderstanding in speech, so don’t dismiss it so quickly.

First of all, there this simple short sound /e/ such as in friend, pen or get. To produce this sound, your mouth should be mid-open – not too much, not too little. Spread your lips a bit and place the sides of your tongue against the upper back teeth, but do not press – the muscles in your tongue should be relaxed. And make the sound: /e/. It’s pretty much the same as the Slovak /e/. Try to practice it: heavy metal / elegant dress / next Wednesday / get better

And now comes the pain (for many of you J). The sound /æ/ such as in bank, laugh or apple. For the Slovaks, this sound is not natural since we don’t use it very often in the Slovak language, so from experience I know that students tend to feel uncomfortable and awkward when they have to open their mouth that much to make it. To produce it, first of all you have to drop your lower jaw and relax everything – relax your jaw, relax your lips, relax your tongue. Nothing should be tense. Place your tongue on the floor of your mouth, very low. The tip of your tongue should be touching your lower front teeth very lightly. Now, produce the sound: /æ/. Here are some expressions to practice: last chance / bad example / handsome actor / black cat

This sound /æ/ is basically between /e/ like in bed and /ʌ/ like in bud. It has a bit of both, and yet it sounds different from both. Compare these three:

Bed /bed/                         Bad /bæd/              Bud /bʌd/

As you can hear, /æ/ such as in bad is a tiny little bit longer than /e/ and /ʌ/. I could say: “I’m going to bed because of my bad allergies to all those buds that are blooming now.”

Here are a couple of more examples to demonstrate how the wrong pronunciation of the two vowels can change the meaning:

Dead /ded/             Dad /dæd/

The first word – dead – means no longer alive, e.g. He’s been dead for 10 years. Second – dad – is an informal word for father. E.g. She still lives with her mom and dad.

Another pair:

Men /men/              Man /mæn/

This is what lots of students confuse and mistake – the singular and plural of the word, which they wrongly pronounce in the same way using the vowel /e/ for both. Then imagine how misleading and a bit unsettling it would be to hear somebody say: “She has a baby with the /men/. Using the sound /e/ in the word men, we’re expressing plural, so that would mean she conceived the baby with two or more men… And now compare it with: “She has a baby with the /mæn/. – A whole different story as the sound /æ/ in the word man expresses singular, hence she has the baby with one and only one man.

Finally, this last example:

Pen /pen/                          Pan /pæn/

In this case we’re talking about two different objects. Again, imagine that I don’t care about pronunciation and I tell you: “I threw a house-warming party last Friday and my friends got me a /pen/”. So you’d get the idea of my friends giving me an instrument for writing as a present – a pen. I’m not saying it’s an awful present, especially if you go by the saying never look a gift horse in the mouth, but that’s not what I meant to say. I wanted to say that my friends got me a /pæn/ which is a metal container used for cooking – a much better and more appropriate present, given the occasion, I think.

So as you can see, pronunciation does matter. Not only you sound better when you pronounce properly, but you also prevent possible, sometimes awkward, misunderstandings.