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A (letter)

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A, a is a letter of the Latin alphabet. It is the first letter of most variants,[1] being placed before B, as is the case for instance in the English alphabet. Its English name is pronounced [ˈeɪ], like the strong form of the indefinite article a. Eh? has the same sound.

Use in English

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
Letter (CZ cluster)
Alphabetical list
Retroalphabetical list  
Common misspellings  

a shows various vowel sounds. The short sound: cát, sát, mát, háve, bád, cráss, glád, Hárry, jázz, wháck, báck, pál, drág, cán, márry, mántle, lámb, quáck, záp, át, bárrier. It can actually be quite long, especially before a voiced consonant: drág, brág, sád, mád, jám, hám, bád evil = báde asked, válve, dámn, háve, glád, crám, jázz. á is halfway between à and é, and is absent from many languages, notably from the Latin ones, so it causes problems for many learners.

  • The accents show stress and pronunciation; see English spellings. Key: sát, mâde, pàrk, cāst, åll, ãir; sét, mê, vèin, fërn; sít, mîne, skì, bïrd; sóng, môde, moôn, lòve, foòt, wörd, ŏr; sún, mûse, fùll, pürr; neŵ, ẁant; gým, mŷ, keỳ, mÿrrh.

There are two basic long sounds. The first is a diphthong consisting of é plus ê, or éì: gâve, trâin, sây, bâke, mây, slâve, plâte, nâvy, wâil, quâver, wâiter, crâter, plâce where = plâice fish, quâint, hurrây, McCreâ, quâke, nâvel body = nâval sea, sâke, grâze, Spâin, creâte (crê-), breâk cut = brâke stop, greât big = grâte, ash, cheese, shâme, Seâmus (*Shâmus), relâte, sâve, sâil, Câin, McCâin, plây, hây farm (= hèy shout). Before two consonants: wâste, wâstage, pâste, bâste, âche (*âyk), âching (*âking).

á/à

The other long sound, à, is heard in both British and American English before r: pàrt, fàrm, yàrd, vàrnish, tàrt, gàrden, màrk (though not before double r: árrow, nárrow). The r is silent in BrE (*pàat, *gàaden). And à is also found in both AmE and BrE before silent l followed by m in càlm, bàlm and quàlm (*kàam, *bàam, *kwàam). (But only in BrE is à heard before silent l followed by v or f in hàlve, hàlf, càlf: AmE *háav, *háaf, *cáaf). Further, à is also heard in both AmE and BrE in Chicàgo, Coloràdo and AmE pajàmas BrE pyjàmas, and, anomalously, in fàther - but not in ràther or làther, both á in AmE - and of course à is heard in words which retain their foreign pronunciation (especially names) like adàgio, ària, Accrà, Zimbàbwè, Guatemàla and Màhler.

But in the great majority of words standard British English à is á in American English and some varieties of British and Commonwealth English (and long in American): BrE hàlve, hàlf, càlf, ràther, làther, Iràn, càst, làst, pàst, gràss, càn’t, grànt, pàss, àfter, làugh, gràph, àunt, càstle, dànce, àsk, tàsk, blàst, nàsty, cràft. AmE: hálve, hálf, cálf, ráther, láther, Irán, cást, lást, pást, gráss, cán’t, gránt, páss, áfter, láugh, gráph, áunt, cástle, dánce, ásk, tásk, blást, násty, cráft. So in BrE Páris, Frànce; in AmE Páris, Fránce.

In fact, à is showing an increasing tendency to give way to á in British English: it has long had the á sound in Scotland and the north of England in most such words (though māster is pronounced differently in different parts of the north). à versus á can be merely a matter of idiolect, that is, one of personal habit, especially with geographical names. But conversely, in some place names where BrE has á, à is preferred to á by many Americans: one hears Milàn, Vietnàm, Ugànda, Nicaràgua, Slovàkia and Ànkara. Similarly with personal names, there are contrasts the reverse of what one would expect, as with Natásha in BrE, Natàsha in American.

BrE banàl does not rhyme with canál, and neither does AmE bânal.

ã is a gliding sound before r. The r follows immediately or there is an i first (-ãir): stãir step = stãre look, Blãir name = blãre out. The sound begins with the sound of é in thén and then glides into a schwa - exactly as in thére (*thãir, *thãre).

Examples are bãre naked = béãr tolerate, animal, pãrent, rãre, vãrious, fãir satisfactory = fãre bus, cãring, péãr fruit = pãir two = pãre cut, flãir able = flãre fire, lãir (some old-fashioned BrE speakers pronounce the normally two-syllabled lâyer like lãir; contrariwise, mayor, usually pronounced to rhyme with all these words, is sometimes pronounced in two syllables).

The following minimal pairs differ only in the presence (ã) or absence (é) of the schwa glide: vãry differ and véry much, Mãry name and mérry cheerful, fãiry magic and férry water.

ã shortens to become exactly like é in the suffix -ãrily as in necessãrily and militãrily, which thus rhyme with mérrily and vérily.

àù sounds like òw and òu and is found in àùtobàhn, sàùerkràùt, Sàùdi Arâbia and Guínea Bíssàù. But far-eastern monosyllables have ào for this sound: Mào, Làos country = lòuse insect.

Note, however, the writer L. Frank Bàum (= bàlm *bàhm).

à also combines with ì to make in the names of some foreign places: Thaîland Tî-, Dubaî, Chénnaî, Mùmbaî, Shanghaî, Caîro, and also the Welsh boy's name Daî.

As we have seen with Màhler, àh usually retains the sound it has in German, and in the exclamation àh! (Bràhms, Kàhn, àutobàhn); but dâhlia, though it derives from the German name Dàhl, is an exception and has the dây sound.

Double a is rare: àardvark, bàa, bazàar, Ãaron, and as schwa in Cânaan.

Final a is usually schwa, and is used in many girl's and geographical names: Joánna, Jûlia, Ángela, Bàrbara, Línda; Cánada, África, América, Austrâlia, Venezuèla, and in many other words, such as mánna, dilémma, nôva, rhêa bird = Rhêa moon (-êə, two syllables, cf. sêa, one syllable). It is optionally schwa, however, in cínemà/cínema, and it is always unstressed à in Pánamà and stressed in Accrà.

a or ai are pronounced é in some common words: any, many, again, against, though the latter two are for some speakers agâin and agâinst.

The pronunciation of vāse is very variable. The commonest pronunciations are *vâs in the US, *vàz in the UK and *vâz in Canada, but subject to variation, and an old pronunciation *våz is still sometimes heard.

å is found in ål(l), åw and åu: tåll, småll, såw, bråwn, dåughter, hålt, scåld, båll, åwful, nåughty, Shåun = Seån, ålter, sålt, dåwn, jåunty, dråw, fålter, målt, Nepål, låw, Måud, clåw, håul, sålt, fåult, côbålt, mínotåur, céntåur, dînosåur and cåuse (but not because *bikóz). It also occurs in Mågdalen(e) College (= måudlin sad) and Àrkansås (Àrkənsåw). Sometimes Stráchan is pronounced *Stråwn (usually *Strákhən) and McNåughton spelt McNåghten or similar. (Of course, this sound is also spelt ŏ: ŏr, fŏur.)

Many foreign learners confuse å (a long vowel) with the diphthong ô and so pronounce låw legal as if it were lôw down, whereas in fact låw rhymes with påw, jåw, clåw.

a after w and qu

After a w sound too, å is common: wår, wårble, wård, Wårk, wårm, wårn, wårp, wårt, wåter, Edwårdian (also à), quårk (but more often quàrk), quårt, quårter, quårto.

The initial combinations ẁa- and qùa- are also pronounced quó- and wó-: ẁas, ẁant, ẁander, ẁarren, ẁasp, Ẁarwick, ẁaddle, ẁaft, Ẁally, ẁash, Ẁat, qùarry, qùantum, qùantity, qùarrel, qùad, qùash, qùandary. Similarly: ẁhat and ẁrath (= Róth). But: wág, wháck, quáck, and quàlm (-àm), and au is ó in because (*bicóz, cf. cåuse *cåwz).

Irregular a’s

spelling pronunciation
again *əgén
against *əgénst
any *énny
au pãir *ô-pãir
Austrâlia *Ostrâlia
Austria *Óstria
bûreau *byûrô
bureaucracy *byurócrəcy
because *bicóz
blancmange *bləmónzh
faux-pàs *fô-pà
gauche *gôsh
karaôke *cárry-ôky
laureate *lóriət
laurel *lórrəl
Laurie name lórry vehicle
Lawrence or Laurence *Lórrənce
many *ménny
Maurice (BrE) given name Mórris surname
mauve *môav (move is pronounced *moôve)
pláteau *plátô
said *séd
says *séz
tábleau *táblô
Thames *Témz
Vauxhåll *Vóxåll
yacht *yót

Suffixes

In -able, a is schwa: êatable (cf. édible), pálatable, breâkable, repêatable, thínkable, dispénsable, màrketable, remàrkable, nôtable, unrelîable, pálpable, vîable.

A final silent -e is retained before -able if it aids pronunciation: mánageable (*mánajable, not *mánaggable), sâleable (*sâlable, not *sállable).

Compare -ible, i also normally pronounced schwa: respónsible ('responsable' is French), sénsible, póssible, édible, convërtible, suscéptible.

-(ic)al, and -(ic)le are identically pronounced. -le is for nouns and -al for adjectives. Adjectives: mûsical, clássical, nåutical, quízzical, pênal, feûdal, rûral, nátural, manîacal (cf. mâniác). Nouns: pàrticle, fóllicle, îcicle, pébble, míddle, púddle, múddle (which is also a verb).

There are exceptions: pédal bicycle = péddle sell, líttle (adjective or noun), befúddle (verb), óbstacle, bàrnacle, which many speakers pronounce -ícle.

-ant is a common suffix which has the schwa sound. In some words it is French for -ing and has this meaning, and it is rather less common than -ent: relúctant, redúndant, pétulant, mŏrdant, triúmphant (î), péndant, érrant, mílitant, élephant, élegant, árrogant, ascéndant, depéndant noun (cf. depéndent adjective), árrant, érrant, and cúrrant eat = cúrrent now.

-ance/-ancy or -ence: as with -ant, and -ent: pétulance, redúndancy, élegance, mŏrdancy; éssence, depéndence, correspóndence, ínsolence, rédolence.

The suffix is -ment, not -mant; but of course -ant can be added to -m: clâimant, dŏrmant.

The suffix -age is pronounced -íj by most speakers in most words: ímage, víllage, píllage, spíllage, wattage, cóttage, lúggage; but for gáràge, the BrE pronunciation *gáríj is (especially in southern England) largely deprecated in favour of *gáràj; the AmE is *gəràzh, while *míràzh for míràge is universal.

Similarly with the a in térrace (*térris), ménace (*ménnis, cf. ténnis), and Hórace (*Hórris, cf. Nórris, Dóris, Bóris) – though these can all be schwa.

The suffix -ate is pronounced -âte in verbs: éstimâte, séparâte, prédicâte, delíberâte, artículâte, célebrâte, dénigrâte, eláborâte, precípitâte, régulâte. (This ending is spelt differently in some monosyllables: wâit, bâit and gâit.) But schwa in nouns and adjectives: célibate, éstimate, séparate, prédicate, delíberate, artículate, eláborate, precípitate, laureate (ló-) - all, when not verbs, -ət. However, in some such words, the -âte pronunciation is common in the north of England, e.g. cándidâte.

Redundant, etc.

a is redundant in ëarly, ëarth, dëarth, rehëarse, hëard, lëarn, yëarn, pëarl (cf. redundant e in heàrt, heàrth, Keàrney = Càrney) and in Latin : nébulaê, nôvaê, fŏrmulaê, currículum vìtaê, Aêschylus (*êeskiləss).

Unstressed in aesthétic, BrE sounds like í in ít, while in AmE the spelling can be esthétic, and both es are pronounced with the é sound.

Pronounced âe this combination is rare: Gâelic Ireland (but Gáelic Scotland), Ísrâel (cf. Mîchael, where it is unstressed: *Mŷcle), mâelstrom, phâeton (*fâytən), Râe surname (= Rây Raymond, rây light), while Grâeme is pronounced exactly like its more common variant Grâham (*Grâyəm).

a is redundant in some Scottish names: Líndsay, Múrray surname = Mòray Firth cf. Welsh Ánglesey, Manx Rámsey.

And it is optionally redundant in BrE in the suffix -ary: díctionary (*dícshnry), suppleméntary, compliméntary praise = compleméntary together (-éntry), nécessary (*nésəsrêe), sécondary (-əndry); in AmE the strong form is always used, ã, sounding like é: sécretãry *sécretérry; BrE *sécretry.

In names beginning with Mc- and Mac-, the a, visible or not, is pronounced schwa, except in a few cases, like McEnroe *Máckənro, McIlroy *Máckəlroy, where, though unwritten, it is the main stressed vowel, sounding as it does in Máck.

Scientific uses

A is the standard symbol for the ampere, the unit of electric current.

Notes

  1. However, there are variants of the Latin alphabet which don't begin with A, for example Somali, Arapaho and Chamorro.
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