Vowels 4 and 5, // versus /ɑ/    184 pairs      [banbarn.html]

The // vowel is spelled <a> followed by two consonants or by one consonant in a monosyllable. The normal spelling of the /ɑ/ vowel is <ar> as in bark, but we also find <er> in clerk and <ear> in heart. There are also several spellings without <r> such as <al> in calm and halve, <au> in aunt, <as> in mast and glassy, as well as a number of irregular spellings in loan words such as lakh and khan.

Although all these pairs are minimal for speakers of RP, only 21 pairs are minimal for speakers of rhotic accents (those accents in which /r/ may occur before other consonants or silence), probably the majority of English speakers. I have marked the pairs with * where there is no <r> in the spelling, and the one case (the homograph pair tarry = wait v. tarry = covered in tar, marked **) in which both the number 4 and number 5 vowels are followed by <r>; these pairs would be either homophones or minimal pairs for all speakers.

This is a contrast bewteen a short and a long vowel. Nevertheless, many foreign learners, and especially those who use a 5-vowel system, will find this one of the most difficult RP contrasts. It is a known problem for French, Spanish, Greek, and Swahili speakers.

There is one taboo word pairing: fat/fart.

Interesting pairs include:

matter martyr
vanish varnish

The mean density is 2.4%. The pairs make 98 semantic contrasts, giving a loading of 54%.

adder ardour
  adders ardours
am arm
ant aren't 
ante auntie *
  antes aunties *
ants aunts *
as R's
at Art
ax arcs
babble barbel
  babbles barbels
Babs barbs
back bark
  backed barked
  backer barker
  backers barkers
  backing barking
  backs barks
bad bard 
badge barge
  badges barges
bally barley
banns barns
Basil Basel *
Bass baas *
bat Bart
  bats Barts
batter barter
  battered bartered
  battering bartering
  batters barters
cad card
  cads cards
caff calf *
cam calm *
  cams calms *
can Calne *
cans khans *
cant can't *
cap carp
  capped carped
  capping carping
  caps carps
cat cart
Chad Chard
Chas chars
chat chart
  chats charts
  chatted charted
chatter charter
  chattered chartered
  chattering chartering
  chatters charters
  chatting charting
clack clerk
  clacked clerked
  clacking clerking
  clacks clerks
Dakar darker
Dan darn
fat fart
  fats farts
  fatted farted
  fatting farting
gab garb
gabble garble
  gabbled garbled
  gabbles garbles
  gabbling garbling
gad guard
  gadded guarded
  gadding guarding
  gads guards
gaggle gargle
  gaggles gargles
Gallic garlic
gannet garnet
  gannets garnets
glacier glassier *
hack hark
  hacked harked
  hacking harking
  hacks harks
had hard
hallow Harlow
ham harm
  hammed harmed
  hamming harming
  hams harms
hap harp
  happed harped
  happing harping
happy harpy
  haps harps
hash harsh
hat hart
hath hearth
hatless heartless
have halve *
  haves halves *
  having halving *
jazz jars
knack nark
  knacks narks
lack lakh *
  lacks lakhs *
lack lark
  lacked larked
  lacking larking
  lacks larks
lad lard
  lads lards 
ladder larder
  ladders larders
lags Largs 
land larned
latch larch 
  latches larches 
lax lakhs
lax larks
mac mark
mad marred
Madge Marge
Mallow Marlow
masc mask *
mash marsh
  mashes marshes
massed mast *
match march
  matched marched
  matches marches
  matching marching
matins martens
Matt mart
matter martyr 
  mattered martyred 
  mattering martyring
  matters martyrs
Max marks
outmatch outmarch 
  outmatched outmarched
  outmatches outmarches 
  outmatching outmarching
pack park
  packed parked
  packing parking
  packs parks
packers parkas
pallid parleyed
pallor parlour
pally parley
Pam palm *
patch parch
  patched parched
  patches parches
  patching parching
pat part
  pats parts
  patted parted 
  patting parting
patties parties
Patty party
quack quark
  quacks quarks
Sam psalm *
shack shark
  shacks sharks
shad shard
stack stark
tans tarns
tarry tarry **
tassel tarsal
  tassel tarsals
tat tart
  tats tarts
  tatted tarted
  tatting tarting
tatter tartar
  tatters tartars
vanish varnish
  vanished varnished
  vanishes varnishes
  vanishing varnishing
Geographical: Outside English-speaking countries, most visitors are from Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Lithuania, Spain, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Costa Rica, Yemen, Thailand, Japan, India, Denmark and Rwanda. Average 72 visitors per month.

John Higgins, Shaftesbury, January 2011