Open front unrounded vowel

Open front unrounded vowel
IPA Number304
Audio sample
Entity (decimal)a
Unicode (hex)U+0061
Braille⠁ (braille pattern dots-1)

The open front unrounded vowel, or low front unrounded vowel,[1] is a type of vowel sound used in some spoken languages. It is one of the eight primary cardinal vowels, not directly intended to correspond to a vowel sound of a specific language but rather to serve as a fundamental reference point in a phonetic measuring system.[2]

The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) that represents this sound is ⟨a⟩, and in the IPA vowel chart it is positioned at the lower-left corner. However, the accuracy of the quadrilateral vowel chart is disputed, and the sound has been analyzed acoustically as extra-open at a position where the front/back distinction has lost its significance. There are also differing interpretations of the exact quality of the vowel: the classic sound recording of [a] by Daniel Jones is slightly more front but not quite as open as that by John Wells.[3]

In practice, the symbol ⟨a⟩ is often used to represent an open central unrounded vowel.[4] This is the usual practice, for example, in the historical study of the English language. The loss of separate symbols for open and near-open front vowels is usually considered unproblematic, because the perceptual difference between the two is quite small, and very few languages contrast the two. If there is a need to specify the backness of the vowel as fully front one can use the symbol ⟨æ̞⟩, which denotes a lowered near-open front unrounded vowel, or ⟨⟩ with the IPA "advanced" diacritic.

The Hamont-Achel dialect of Limburgish has been reported to contrast long open front, central and back unrounded vowels.[5] This is extremely unusual.


  • Its vowel height is open, also known as low, which means the tongue is positioned far from the roof of the mouth – that is, low in the mouth.
  • Its vowel backness is front, which means the tongue is positioned forward in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. This subsumes central open (central low) vowels because the tongue does not have as much flexibility in positioning as it does in the mid and close (high) vowels; the difference between an open front vowel and an open back vowel is similar to the difference between a close front and a close central vowel, or a close central and a close back vowel.
  • It is unrounded, which means that the lips are not rounded.


Many languages have some form of an unrounded open vowel. For languages that have only a single open vowel, the symbol for this vowel ⟨a⟩ may be used because it is the only open vowel whose symbol is part of the basic Latin alphabet. Whenever marked as such, the vowel is closer to a central [ä] than to a front [a]. However, there may not actually be much of a difference. (See Vowel#Acoustics.)

Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Afrikaans Standard[6] dak [da̠k] 'roof' Near-front.[6] See Afrikaans phonology
Arabic Standard[7] أنا/anaa [anaː] 'I' 1st person singular pronoun See Arabic phonology
Azerbaijani[8] Standard səs [s̪æ̞s̪] 'sound' Typically transcribed with ⟨æ⟩.
Bulgarian[9] най/nay [n̪a̠j] 'most' Near-front.[9]
Chinese Mandarin[10] / ān [ʔan˥]  'safe' Allophone of /a/ before /n/.[10] See Standard Chinese phonology
Chuvash сас [sas] 'sound, noise'
Dutch Standard[11][12] aas [aːs] 'bait' Ranges from front to central.[13] See Dutch phonology
Utrecht[14] bad [bat] 'bath' Corresponds to [ɑ] in Northern Standard Dutch. See Dutch phonology
English General Australian[15] hat [hat]  'hat' Varies depending on the speaker. Raised in other Australian variants towards [æ]. See Australian English phonology
California[16][17] Less open [æ] in other North American varieties. See English phonology and Canadian Shift
Some Central Ohioan speakers[17]
Some Texan speakers[17]
Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg[19] Closer [æ] in General South African English. See South African English phonology
Received Pronunciation[20] Closer [æ] in Conservative Received Pronunciation. See English phonology
East Anglian[21] bra [bɹaː] 'bra' Realized as central [äː] by middle-class speakers.[21]
Inland Northern American[22] Less front [ɑ ~ ä] in other American dialects. See Northern cities vowel shift
New Zealand[23] [bɹa̠ː] Varies between open near-front [a̠ː], open central [äː], near-open near-front [ɐ̟ː] and near-open central [ɐː].[23] May be transcribed in IPA with ⟨ɐː⟩. See New Zealand English phonology
French Conservative Parisian[12][24] patte [pat̪] 'paw' Contrasts with /ɑ/, but many speakers have only one open vowel (phonetically central [ä]).[25] See French phonology
Quebec[26] arrêt [aʁɛ] 'stopping' Contrasts with /ɑ/.[26] See Quebec French phonology
German Altbayern accent[27] Wassermassen [ˈʋɑsɐmasn̩] 'water masses' Also illustrates the back /ɑ/, with which it contrasts.[27] See Standard German phonology
Many Austrian accents[27] nah [naː] 'near' Less front in other accents.[27] See Standard German phonology
Igbo[28] ákụ [ákú̙] 'kernel'
Khmer បាត់ / băt [ɓat] 'to disappear' See Khmer phonology
បាត / bat [ɓaːt] 'bottom'
Kurdish Palewani (Southern) گه‌ن/gan [gan] 'bad' Equal to Sorani (Central) near-front [æ]. See Kurdish phonology
Limburgish Hamont-Achel dialect[5] paens [ˈpæ̞̌ːns] 'belly' Contrasts with central [äː] and back [ɑː]; may be transcribed in IPA with ⟨æː⟩.[5]
Many dialects[29][30][31] baas [ˈba̠ːs] 'boss' Near-front;[29][30][31] realized as central [äː] in some other dialects.[5] The example word is from the Maastrichtian dialect.
Low German[32] dagg / dag [dax] 'day' Backness may vary among dialects.[32]
Luxembourgish[33] Kap [kʰa̠ːpʰ] 'cap' Near-front; sometimes fronted and raised to [a̝ː].[34] See Luxembourgish phonology
Malay Kedah beras [bəɣaʲh] 'raw rice' Considerably more front than in Standard Malay where it is usually central [ä]. In final syllables that are open ended or end in a glottal stop, it is realised as a back [ɒ]. See Kedah Malay
Norwegian Stavangersk[35] hatt [hat] 'hat' See Norwegian phonology
Trondheimsk[36] lær [læ̞ːɾ] 'leather'
Polish[37] jajo [ˈjajɔ]  'egg' Allophone of /ä/ between palatal or palatalized consonants. See Polish phonology
Spanish Eastern Andalusian[38] las madres [læ̞ˑ ˈmæ̞ːð̞ɾɛˑ] 'the mothers' Corresponds to [ä] in other dialects, but in these dialects they're distinct. See Spanish phonology
Swedish Central Standard[39][40] bank [baŋk] 'bank' The backness has been variously described as front [a],[39] near-front [a̠][40] and central [ä].[41] See Swedish phonology
Tagalog dalaga [dɐˈlaɰɐ] 'maiden' See Tagalog phonology
West Frisian Aastersk[42] kaaks [kaːks] 'ship's biscuit' Contrasts with a back /ɑː/.[42] See West Frisian phonology


  1. ^ While the International Phonetic Association prefers the terms "close" and "open" for vowel height, many linguists use "high" and "low".
  2. ^ John Coleman: Cardinal vowels
  3. ^ Geoff Lindsey (2013) The vowel space, Speech Talk
  4. ^ Keith Johnson: Vowels in the languages of the world Archived 2016-03-04 at the Wayback Machine (PDF), p. 9
  5. ^ a b c d Verhoeven (2007), p. 221.
  6. ^ a b Wissing (2016), section "The unrounded low-central vowel /ɑ/".
  7. ^ Thelwall & Sa'Adeddin (1990), p. 38.
  8. ^ Mokari & Werner (2016), p. ?.
  9. ^ a b Ternes & Vladimirova-Buhtz (1999), p. 56.
  10. ^ a b Mou (2006), p. 65.
  11. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), pp. 95, 104, 132–133.
  12. ^ a b Ashby (2011), p. 100.
  13. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 104.
  14. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 131.
  15. ^ Cox & Fletcher (2017), p. 179.
  16. ^ Gordon (2004), p. 347.
  17. ^ a b c d Thomas (2004:308): A few younger speakers from, e.g., Texas, who show the LOT/THOUGHT merger have TRAP shifted toward [a], but this retraction is not yet as common as in some non-Southern regions (e.g., California and Canada), though it is increasing in parts of the Midwest on the margins of the South (e.g., central Ohio).
  18. ^ Boberg (2005), pp. 133–154.
  19. ^ Bekker (2008), pp. 83–84.
  20. ^ "Case Studies – Received Pronunciation Phonology – RP Vowel Sounds". British Library.
  21. ^ a b Trudgill (2004), p. 172.
  22. ^ W. Labov, S. Ash and C. Boberg (1997). "A national map of the regional dialects of American English". Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved March 7, 2013.
  23. ^ a b Bauer et al. (2007), p. 98.
  24. ^ Collins & Mees (2013), pp. 225–227.
  25. ^ Collins & Mees (2013), pp. 226–227.
  26. ^ a b Walker (1984), p. 53.
  27. ^ a b c d Dudenredaktion, Kleiner & Knöbl (2015), p. 64.
  28. ^ Ikekeonwu (1999), p. 109.
  29. ^ a b Heijmans & Gussenhoven (1998), p. 110.
  30. ^ a b Gussenhoven & Aarts (1999), p. 159.
  31. ^ a b Peters (2006), p. 119.
  32. ^ a b Prehn (2012), p. 157.
  33. ^ Gilles & Trouvain (2013), p. 70.
  34. ^ Gilles & Trouvain (2013), pp. 70–71.
  35. ^ Vanvik (1979), p. 17.
  36. ^ Vanvik (1979), p. 15.
  37. ^ Jassem (2003), p. 106.
  38. ^ a b Zamora Vicente (1967), p. ?.
  39. ^ a b Bolander (2001), p. 55.
  40. ^ a b Rosenqvist (2007), p. 9.
  41. ^ Engstrand (1999), p. 140.
  42. ^ a b van der Veen (2001), p. 102.


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External links

  • List of languages with [a] on PHOIBLE
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