The ‘ash’ sound is something I’ve been struggling for quite some time during my American English practice sessions.
It all started when I received a comment on one of my YouTube videos saying that my General American Pronunciation is quite good except for the pronunciation of certain words – ‘can’ among them. It made me listen to how native American English speakers pronounce that word, and I realized that real life pronunciation actually differs from the phonetic transcript!
Any dictionary will tell you ‘can’ is pronounced as [kæn] where the middle vowel is called ‘ash’.
What I observed in countless of videos and interviews watched on YouTube was quite different – ‘can’ is actually pronounced somewhere in between [kɛn] and [kæn]; basically they don’t open their mouth as wide as when pronouncing the letter ‘A’ in words such as ‘gas’ or ‘mad’, for example!
In the following weeks I spotted a whole array of words where the letter ‘A’ pronunciation in real life is different from the formal phonetic transcript; here’s a short list of those words just to give you an idea of what exactly I’m talking about here:
The most confusing thing of it all, however, is the fact that nothing is set in stone when it comes to pronouncing the ‘ash’ sound. In some situations the word ‘have’ is pronounced almost as [həv] with the ‘shwa’ sound in between the two consonants, in others they will actually open the mouth fully and pronounce it as [hæv].
As far as specific rules governing the ‘ash’ sound are concerned – well… I couldn’t find any! 😡
I’ve been spending quite a lot of time browsing the Internet trying to figure out how I’m supposed to know when to pronounce the letter ‘A’ as [æ] and when it’s pronounced almost as a shwa [ə] sound, but I honestly didn’t find any information that would help me to get rid of the guesswork.
In the end I came to a conclusion that this is one of those sounds in American English you just have to ‘feel’.
You just have to spend a lot of time listening to American English speakers and repeating what they say in order to develop that ‘gut-feeling’ for the ‘ash’ sound, I really haven’t got any other advice to give you, my friends!