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 an extra-open/low unrounded central vowel 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, it is considered normal by many phoneticians to use the symbol ⟨a⟩ for an open central unrounded vowel and instead approximate the open front unrounded vowel with ⟨æ⟩ (which officially signifies a near-open front 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 one needs to specify that the vowel is front, one can use symbols like ⟨⟩ (advanced/fronted [a]), or ⟨æ̞⟩ (lowered [æ]), with the latter being more common.

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


IPA: Vowels
Front Near-front Central Near-back Back

Paired vowels are: unrounded • rounded

  • Its vowel height is open, also known as low, which means the tongue is positioned as far as possible from the roof of the mouth – that is, as low as possible in the mouth.
  • Its vowel backness is front, which means the tongue is positioned as far forward as possible in the mouth without creating a constriction that would be classified as a consonant. Note that rounded front vowels are often centralized, which means that often they are in fact near-front. 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].

Language Word IPA Meaning Notes
Afrikaans Standard[6] dak [da̠k] 'roof' Near-front.[6] See Afrikaans phonology
Arabic Standard[7] أنا [anaː] 'I am' See Arabic phonology
Azerbaijani[8] Standard səs [s̪as̪] 'sound' Typically transcribed with ⟨æ⟩. May also be realised as near-open front vowel.
Bulgarian[9] най [n̪a̠j] 'most' Near-front.[9]
Chinese Mandarin[10] / ān About this sound [ʔan˥]  'safe' Allophone of /a/ before /n/.[10] See Standard Chinese phonology
Shanghainese[11] [ka¹] 'street' Appears only in open syllables.[11]
Danish Some speakers[12] Dansk [ˈd̥ansɡ̊] 'Danish' Used by certain older or upper-class speakers; it corresponds to near-open [] in contemporary Standard Danish.[13] See Danish phonology
Dutch Standard[14][15] aas [aːs] 'bait' Ranges from front to central.[16] See Dutch phonology
Broad Amsterdam[18] ijs 'ice' Corresponds to [ɛi̯] in Standard Dutch. See Dutch phonology
Utrecht[19] bad [bat] 'bath' Corresponds to [ɑ] in Northern Standard Dutch. See Dutch phonology
English California[20][21] hat About this sound [hat]  'hat' In other accents, or in some other speakers of the accents listed here, the quality may be anywhere from front [ɛ ~ æ ~ a] to central [ä] to back [ɑ], depending on the region. In some regions, the quality may be variable. For the Canadian vowel, see Canadian Shift. See also Australian English phonology, English phonology and South African English phonology
Few younger Texan speakers[21]
Many younger Australian speakers[23]
Modern Received Pronunciation[24]
Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg[25]
Some speakers from central Ohio[21]
Cockney[26][27] stuck [stak] 'stuck' Can be [ɐ̟] instead.
Inland Northern American[28] stock 'stock' Less front [ɑ ~ ä] in other American dialects. See Northern cities vowel shift
French Conservative Parisian[15][29] patte [pat̪] 'paw' Contrasts with /ɑ/, but many speakers have only one open vowel [ä].[30] See French phonology
Quebec[31] arrêt [aʁɛ] 'stopping' Contrasts with /ɑ/.[31] See Quebec French phonology
Galician[32] caixa [ˈkajʃä] 'box' Allophone of /a/ before palatal consonants.[32] See Galician phonology
German Altbayern accent[33] Wassermassen [ˈʋɑsɐmasn̩] 'water masses' Also illustrates the back /ɑ/, with which it contrasts.[33] See Standard German phonology
Many Austrian accents[33] nah [naː] 'near' Less front in other accents.[33] See Standard German phonology
Igbo[34] ákụ [ákú̙] 'kernal'
Limburgish[5][35] baas [baːs] 'boss' Front [aː][5] or near-front [a̠ː],[35] depending on the dialect. The example word is from the Maastrichtian dialect.
Low German[36] dagg / dag [dax] 'day' Backness may vary among dialects.[36]
Luxembourgish[37] Kap [kʰa̠ːpʰ] 'cap' Near-front; sometimes fronted and raised to [æː].[38] See Luxembourgish phonology
Norwegian Stavangersk[39] hatt [hat] 'hat' See Norwegian phonology
Trondheimsk[40] lær [laːɾ] 'leather'
West Farsund[41] hat [haːt] 'hate' Some speakers, for others it is more back. See Norwegian phonology
Polish[42] jajo About this sound [ˈjajɔ]  'egg' Allophone of /a/ between palatal or palatalized consonants. See Polish phonology
Slovak[43] a [a̠] 'and' Near-front; possible realization of /a/. Most commonly realized as central [ä] instead.[44] See Slovak phonology
Spanish Eastern Andalusian[45] 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[46][47] bank [baŋk] 'bank' The backness has been variously described as front [a],[46] near-front [a̠][47] and central [ä].[48] See Swedish phonology
West Frisian Aastersk[49] kaaks [kaːks] 'ship's biscuit' Contrasts with a back /ɑː/.[49] See West Frisian phonology
Vastese[50] [example needed]
Zapotec Tilquiapan[51] na [na] 'now'


  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 (PDF), p. 9
  5. ^ a b c 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. ^ a b Chen & Gussenhoven (2015), p. 328.
  12. ^ Basbøll (2005), p. 32.
  13. ^ Basbøll (2005), pp. 32, 45.
  14. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), pp. 95, 104, 132-133.
  15. ^ a b Ashby (2011), p. 100.
  16. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 104.
  17. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 133.
  18. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 136.
  19. ^ Collins & Mees (2003), p. 131.
  20. ^ Gordon (2004), p. 347.
  21. ^ 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).
  22. ^ Boberg (2005), pp. 133–154.
  23. ^ Cox & Fletcher (2017), p. 179.
  24. ^ "Case Studies – Received Pronunciation Phonology – RP Vowel Sounds". British Library. 
  25. ^ Bekker (2008), pp. 83–84.
  26. ^ Wells (1982), p. 305.
  27. ^ Hughes & Trudgill (1979), p. 35.
  28. ^ 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. 
  29. ^ Collins & Mees (2013), pp. 225–227.
  30. ^ Collins & Mees (2013), pp. 226–227.
  31. ^ a b Walker (1984), p. 53.
  32. ^ a b Freixeiro Mato (2006), pp. 72–73.
  33. ^ a b c d Dudenredaktion, Kleiner & Knöbl (2015), p. 64.
  34. ^ Ikekeonwu (1999), p. 109.
  35. ^ a b Gussenhoven & Aarts (1999), p. 159.
  36. ^ a b Prehn (2012), p. 157.
  37. ^ Gilles & Trouvain (2013), p. 70.
  38. ^ Gilles & Trouvain (2013), pp. 70–71.
  39. ^ Vanvik (1979), p. 17.
  40. ^ Vanvik (1979), p. 15.
  41. ^ Vanvik (1979), p. 16.
  42. ^ Jassem (2003), p. 106.
  43. ^ Pavlík (2004), p. 95.
  44. ^ Pavlík (2004), pp. 94–95.
  45. ^ a b Zamora Vicente (1967), p. ?.
  46. ^ a b Bolander (2001), p. 55.
  47. ^ a b Rosenqvist (2007), p. 9.
  48. ^ Engstrand (1999), p. 140.
  49. ^ a b van der Veen (2001), p. 102.
  50. ^ "Vastesi Language - Vastesi in the World". Vastesi in the World. Retrieved 21 November 2016. 
  51. ^ Merrill (2008), p. 109.


External links