2 tricky vowel sounds in British and American English – AH and UH

We made a video a while ago on how we say can and can’t in British and American English. You can see it here.

It was very popular but many of you wrote saying you were worried about saying the right the vowel sound in the word can’t. If you get it wrong you could say can’t and not c*nt – so a rude word in English.

Some of you said you say cannot instead. That’s clear, but it will sound a little strange. Cannot is more frequent in written English than spoken.
The way to solve the problem is to work on the vowel sounds so you can say AH and UH – the ɑːand ʌ vowel sounds.

We’ll show you how to do that in this video and demonstrate some ah uh minimal pairs. We’ll also show you how we pronounce words differently in British and American English.


Click here to see our video on can and can’t.
Click here to see more of our pronunciation videos.

Hi everyone, I’m Vicki and I’m British.
And I’m Jay and I’m American and this video is long overdue. Why is it overdue?
I’ve been slow. A year ago, we made a video about how we both pronounce ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ in English.
It was nearly two years ago.
We say the negative word ‘can’t’ differently.
She means can’t.
Can’t.
Can’t.
Sometimes when Jay says it, I don’t understand him.

I don’t want you to see.
I can’t see.
Oh well let me try again.
Why? I can’t see?
Do you mean you can or you can’t see.
I can’t see.

Can’t and not c*nt

That video was very popular.
But in the comments a lot of you said you had a problem.
Yes, a lot of people didn’t want to say can’t the British way in case they say c*nt. Oh, I said a rude word.
Lots of people are worried about that. They don’t want to sound rude
Some of you told us you say ‘cannot’ instead.
That’s clear, but it sounds strange.
Cannot is more frequent in written English. We don’t say it much when we’re speaking.
It sounds stilted.
You don’t want to sound formal and strange. So what we need to do is work on the vowel sound – the AH sound.
That way you can say it confidently.
And make sure you don’t get it mixed up with UH. This is going to be useful for pronouncing lots of words, and good for your listening too.
So where should we start?
I think we should look at what’s causing the problem in the first place. Too many English vowels.

Vowel sounds in British and American English

We have five vowels in the English alphabet, but we pronounce them in different ways, so we have lots of vowel sounds. When I was learning Japanese there were just five vowel sounds. It was pretty easy. Spanish is another language that has five.
If your language has fewer vowel sounds than English, of course it’s going to be difficult to hear and say the English ones. You have to train your ear and learn to move your mouth muscles differently.
We have twelve pure vowel sounds in English and we’re going to focus on two that are very similar.
I thought it was eleven sounds.
Ah. No. In American English there are eleven, but in British English we have twelve.
Really?
Yes, there’s one you don’t say.
What’s that?
ɒ like in the word lot. We’ve made another video about that.
But we’re focusing on two other vowel sounds today: AH and UH.
So you can say can’t and not c*nt. Ah I did it again.
So let’s look at these sounds. AH… This is the sound I make when Vicki gives me a foot rub. AH.
You wish. And what about UH?
That’s when I’ve made a mistake. UH!

AH. UH.
AH. UH.
AH. UH.
AH. UH.

AH is a longer sound. AH.
And with AH there’s a little more jaw drop. AH.
And you press your tongue down a bit at the back. So when your jaw goes down your tongue goes down too.
And there’s a little tension in your tongue.
Now the other sound, UH. This is a shorter sound.
Your tongue is completely relaxed. UH.
And your jaw is a little higher. Say the sounds with us.

AH. UH.
AH. UH.

Now we need some words to practice.
This is where it gets tricky because sometimes we use these sounds in different words.
It’s an American and British English difference.
So let’s start with a different vowel sound. Aaaa.
Here are some words that we both say with Aaaa.

Can, bag, sad, man, fat.
Can, bag, sad, man, fat.

So we both said the vowel sound Aaaa there.
But there are other words where Jay says Aaaa and I say AH.

Can’t, aunt, past, laugh, class, after.
Can’t, aunt, past, laugh, class, after.

Did you hear the difference? I said AH and Jay said Aaaa.
And then there are other words where we both say AH.

Father, father, llama, llama, calm, calm, bra, bra.

I think your vowel sound was a little longer than mine.
Maybe. We both said AH, but perhaps your AH was a little shorter than mine?
What do you think? Let’s try some more.
Dark, dark, barn, barn, march, march, cart, cart.
Our vowel sounds were the same again but our R sounds were different.
Yeah. I’m from just north of London in England, and we don’t pronounce our Rs in these words. There are parts of the UK where people do, but most people don’t.
We’ve made another video about that.
OK. Now there’s another group of words where you say AH, but I don’t.

Doll, doll, fond, fond, lock, lock, hot, hot, gosh, gosh.

Did you hear the difference?
I said AH – gosh. But you didn’t.
No, I used the other extra vowel sound that we have in British English.
The twelfth vowel sound. It sounds so British!
It’s just what we say. But let’s recap so far. There are some words where I say AH and Jay doesn’t, and some words where we both say it, and some where Jay says it and I don’t.
OK. But what about the other important sound. Now we need to look at UH.
Yeah. UH is more straightforward because we both say this sound in much the same words.

Cup, cup, hut, hut, luck, luck, love, love, come, come, dull, dull.

So UH is a shorter sound and you need to keep your tongue relaxed.

ah uh minimal pairs

Let’s compare UH with AH now.
See if you can hear the difference.

Cart cut, carp cup, dark duck, barn bun, calm come.
Hot hut, lock luck, cot cut, fond fund, doll dull.

If you find it hard, you’re not alone.
Yes, it’s tricky. It’s about small movements of the tongue and the jaw.
It just takes practice, but you’ll get it.Now, do we have any sentences?
Yes. I’ve got one for you to say and one for me to say and you can try saying them with us. Your one has UH sounds.
OK. ‘Don’t be unhappy, love. Come to lunch with me and let’s have fun!’
OK, my one has AH sounds. ‘I can’t meet you after class because I’ll be in the bath.’
You mean the bath.
And that’s it for today everyone.
If you’ve enjoyed this video please give it a like and share it with a friend.
See you all next Friday. Bye
Bye-bye.

Click here to see our video on can and can’t.
Click here to see more of our pronunciation videos.

One thought on “2 tricky vowel sounds in British and American English – AH and UH

  • March 9, 2019 at 10:59 am
    Permalink

    Hi,
    It was again a very useful video, thanks a lot!
    I have a question. How can you possibly pronounce the past tense of the following words: writhe, swathe or the adjective unscathed? I listen to it again and again but can’t copy it. Have you got any tips how to learn to pronounce it? Thank you.

    Reply

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