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Hi, long-time EFL teacher asking...

So something's been bugging me for a while...look at the following "minimal pairs":

Hole-Go

Pole-Hoe

Soul-So

Foal-Phone

The dictionary gives the vowel sounds for all of these as /əʊ/. And yet to my ear (RP with a large dose of London accent) they are clearly different. Would others agree? Is this just a limitation of the phonetic alphabet?? I CAN make the two pronunciations the same if I choose to, but then I just sound like Prince Charles...

A case for a new phonetic symbol? Or is this a recognised "thing" in phonetics, because it strikes me as not so much regional variation, but more the way the majority speak.

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Keanto my ear (RP with a large dose of London accent) they are clearly different. Would others agree?

These AmE ears recognize them as the same vowel sound.

Kean more the way the majority speak.

Your majority may not be a global one.

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Kean "minimal pairs"

I'm glad to see those quotation marks, because, as you probably know, those are not minimal pairs.

Kean/əʊ/

It seems to me that this is only true of RP and may apply only to the second of each of your pairs. Like you, I'd question whether the same sound really occurs when an /l/ follows, but I'll have to leave that to someone who is more familiar with RP and British accents.

But in any case, the slashes only indicate phonemes (/phoneme/). To symbolize the actual sound you need to indicate phones in brackets ([phone]). This means that the sound symbolized by /əʊ/ varies from word to word; it is not necessarily going to be the sound [əʊ] for every word encoded as /əʊ/ in a dictionary.

All the different phones which correspond to a single phoneme are called 'allophones' (of that phoneme). The allophone chosen in running speech is selected (unconsciously) on the basis of the phonetic environment in a regular way. For this reason dictionaries do not even try to give all the possible variants for any given word; they only list the "pronunciation" in terms of phonemes, relying on the speaker to know the corresponding phones in any particular utterance.

CJ

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Mister MicawberThese AmE ears recognize them as the same vowel sound.

Ditto for me. (Also the last vowel sound in ditto.)

The same...?

http://www.wordreference.com/enit/so

http://www.wordreference.com/enit/soul

I can still hear a difference between the two vowel sounds regardless of whether I listen to the RP pronunciation or AmE...but if you can't hear it, maybe it's just my ears...

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KeanI can still hear a difference between the two vowel sounds

Soul actually has two vowel sounds that are blend together, one after the other (a digraph / dipthong). The first sound is the long "o", the same as in "so". The second is much briefer, the "u" sound modified by the final "l".

AlpheccaStarsSoul actually has two vowel sounds that are blend together, one after the other (a digraph / dipthong). The first sound is the long "o", the same as in "so". The second is much briefer, the "u" sound modified by the final "l".

So the two sounds are different...so you can hear the difference? And yet the phonetic spellings for the vowel sounds in all those words is the same...

 CalifJim's reply was promoted to an answer.
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Great answer...many thanks...had to go away and really try to understand the difference between phoneme, phone and allophone. These distinctions were new to me.