21 The START Lexical Set

Spellings | Pronunciations | Personal Pronunciations | Alternate Pronunciations
Word Lists | Short Phrases | Sentences | Mergers | Splits | Review

The start lexical set has two dominant pronunciations. The first is the rhotic version of start, which is a wide centring diphthong, where the nucleus is on the periphery of the vowel space, generally fully open between central and back [ɑ̟], and the offglide is a mid-central rhotic schwa [ɚ̯].The second version is the non-rhotic start vowel, which is a monophthong in the same vicinity as the nucleus of the rhotic diphthong, [ɑ̟ ~ ɑ ~ ɑ̠]. It’s interesting that the non-rhotic diphthong version [ɑə̯] is quite rare. We do have non-rhotic diphthongal versions of near, and cure, e.g. [ɪə̯, ʊə̯], and, to a lesser degree, square, north, and force—which can be either diphthongal or monophthongal, e.g. [ɛə̯/ɛ, ɒə̯/ɒ, ɔə̯/ɔ ]. As the monophthong, non-rhotic start is almost always merged with palm, and frequently with bath, too. In fact, many non-rhotic speakers think of those sets as being variations of start, and use ‹ar› spellings to represent the [ɑ] vowel in “fauxnetic” respellings such as “Pakistarn” for [ˌpakɪˈstɑn][1].

Kortmann’s Varieties of English lists 4 ways for start to be pronounced, depending on how front or back the nucleus lies, with rhotic versions such as [ɑɚ̯ ~ ɐɚ̯ ~ aɚ̯ ~ æɚ̯], and [ɑ ~ ɐ~ a~ æ] for non-rhotic pronunciations, with the added non-rhotic diphthong option of [ɑə̯ ~ ɒə̯]. The start Lexical Set only contains words with this vowel/diphthong followed by ‹r›; for those words without ‹r› in their spelling, see palm or bath.

Figure 1 (left): Rhotic options for start, offgliding to schwa Figure 2 (right):Non-rhotic options for start

Wells, who first defined the Lexical Sets, set out three subgroups for start:

  1. start Ⓐ in free position, and derivative words (e.g. star, starred, starring)
  2. start Ⓑ in checked position, with a following consonant (e.g. part, shard, barn)
  3. start Ⓒ with intervocalic /r/ afterwards (e.g. safari, scenario), which is quite rare.

There is a group of start Ⓒ words which in many (rhotic) accents are merged with square Ⓒ, such as scenario, tiara, Camaro, mascara, O’Hara.

  • 🕊 Free: does not require a following consonant, and can exist on its own
  • in stressed and unstressed syllables


start Ⓐ: ar#, aar#, oir# star, far, mar, car, bar, bazaar, Saar, au revoir, memoir
start Ⓑ: arC, earC, erC article, part, large, heart, hearth, Derby*, clerk*, sergeant*
start Ⓒ: arV safari, sari, Atari, Guarani, scenario*, mascara*, tiara*


The start lexical set’s vowel in the non-rhotic version, and the nucleus of the diphthong in the rhotic version, are often pronounced with a fully open, centralized back vowel, usually completely unrounded. Realizations in non-rhotic accents are frequently in the range of [ɑ̠ ~ ɑ ~ ɑ̟]; rhotic start is often realized as [ɑ̠ɚ̯ ~ ɑɚ̯ ~ ɑ̟ɚ̯].

There are articulations where the nucleus is:

  • front and raised, with [ɛ/ɛɚ ~ æ/æɚ̯] (Ireland and parts of Atlantic Canada),
  • front [a/aɚ̯] (the North of England, New England, and East Africa),
  • central [ɐ/ɐ̞ɚ̯] (Fiji, Australia and New Zealand, and other parts of Atlantic Canada), and
  • rounded [ɑ̠ ~ ɒ ~ ɒə̯/ɒɚ̯], (West Midlands & parts of the North of England, NYC and South Africa).

With mergers with north and/or force, [ɒɚ̯ ~ ɔɚ̯], (St. Louis and historical Utah) is also possible.

Note that there are some accent teachers who feel like start in some accents (especially in rhotic Southern US states, the US Midlands and West) is a rhotic monophthong, in the range of [ɑ̟˞ ~ ɑ̠˞], with a “braced,” or “molar” articulation, sometimes transcribed as [ɑ̈˞], which may also have tongue root retraction.

Personal Pronunciation: Preparation

Let us start our Personal Pronunciation exploration of start with the question “do you have a rhotic accent, or not?” When a word has ‹r› in its spelling after a vowel, do you pronounce it? For a rhotic speaker, words like beer, bare=bear, boor, boar, bar will have an /r/ sound after the vowel; a non-rhotic speaker will not. If you are a non-rhotic speaker, try saying start with an /r/ sound; if you are a rhotic speaker, give start a try without one. Go for it: star, far, mar, car, bar! Now, using an audio recorder, or working with a classmate, friend, coach or teacher, identify how start in your speech compares with start in others’ speech.

For the non-rhotic version, ask whether your vowel is a monophthong, a single action, or whether it has any movement to it—does your tongue move as you make the vowel—making it a diphthong? It is much less likely that it does for a non-rhotic speaker, but if you did notice a slight off-glide, where does it off-glide to? (For example, it might off-glide to schwa [ə]; try on words like jar, bard, heart.) If you don’t have an off-glide, then all you have is a nucleus!

For the rhotic version, explore the nucleus of the sound before you off-glide into the r-colored coda of the diphthong. For some speakers, there is a significant shift from the nucleus where the start diphthong begins, and where the diphthong ends after the off-glide. For others with quite strong r-coloring, the rhotic quality is added to the nucleus. Rather than becoming r-colored over time, these speakers begin rhotic and may either stay there, or increase their r-coloring (rhoticity). If you start out being rhotic, then we would transcribe your start vowel with a rhotic diacritic right on the nucleus, e.g. [ɑ˞] or [a̠˞]. You can add multiple “wings” to indicate more rhoticity if you would like, e.g. [ɑ˞˞˞]. Though it’s not “strictly-ipa-ballroom,” it’s fun and it works.

Before we begin with the nucleus of your start vowel, try to ascertain whether your version of it is merged with north. Compare these start/north minimal pairs to see if they match:

start north
bard border
barn born
card cord=chord
far for
har-har horse
mar morn
are or

If they match: you have the start/north merger, and so the challenge for you is to explore trying out a new pronunciation. Generally, I find that those with this merger tend to need to explore closing/rounding their north words, and it can even help to try them with a non-rhotic accent first to see if that helps.

If they don’t match: you don’t have the start/north merger, and so you’re blessed with the instinctual ability to distinguish between the two sets. In your explorations, you’ll want to be clear when and how you do it, and try to notice if any of the words listed here and on the north pages don’t match your expectations. Just because a word is listed here doesn’t mean your idiolect, or the accent you speak, has it in the same groups. As accents and language are always on the move, always changing, you may well be halfway through the process of a merger or a split, and so words haven’t “settled” yet into sets.

Personal Pronunciation: Articulation Options

Begin by lengthening the sound of your start nucleus, and then try to move it around, very subtly, within the vowel space—up, forwards, down, and back—in tiny increments. Each tiny move should make a very small, barely imperceptible difference in the sound of your vowel. As it is an open vowel in most accents, as you experiment you should feel your mouth quite open, with the top surface of the back half of your tongue moving delicately up and down—towards/away from the roof of your mouth, or down/back into the “basin” of your jaw—making more or less space in the back of your mouth. Compare the nucleus of start with the one in palm, bath, trap or lot, and see how great the contrast is between the vowels.

Rhoticity Scale: Now that you’ve explored the nucleus, let’s investigate the coda, and think about how much r-coloring, or rhoticity, you’ve been adding. (If you are non-rhotic play around with the idea of an off-glide.) How rhotic can you make it? How little rhoticity can you add without it having none? Can you make several shades of r-coloring: none, a tiny bit, a little, some, quite a lot, a ton? Think of it as a scale from 0–5. Where does yours sit? You would transcribe an off-glide to an r-colored schwa following the nucleus with a rhoticity “wing” diacritic, e.g. [ɑɚ̯].

For my own usage, I’ve tried adding a superscript number after a rhotic diacritic to rank the r-ishness on that 0-5 scale, with 0 being none and 5 as much as you can, e.g. [ɒɘ˞3] for a medium amount of r-quality. (Of course for ɚ0, I just use ə !)

Transcribing start: Decide which vowel/diphthong symbol best suits your personal start Lexical Set. Is it front [a], central [ɐ], back [ɑ]; or is it raised, at the front [æ ~ ɛ] or at the back [ʌ ~ ɒ]?

If your start vowel (or its nucleus) is… (use whichever vowel symbol is appropriate for you)

  • high, use the raised diacritic [ ɑ̝ ], a small T pointing up
  • open, use the lowered diacritic [ ɐ̞ ], a small T pointing down
  • pushed forward, use the advanced diacritic [ ɑ̟ ], a tiny plus sign +
  • pulled back, use the retracted diacritic [ a̠ ], a tiny minus sign –
  • if you add lip-rounding, use the more rounded diacritic [ ɑ̹ ], a tiny ɔ, which represents the lips rounding/projecting forward (to the left),
  • if you have little lip-rounding, especially on a symbol assumed to be rounded like [ɒ, ɔ, o], us the less rounded diacritic [ ɒ̜ ], a tiny c, which represents the lips relaxing/moving back (to the right).
  • if you have tongue root retraction, i.e. the root of your tongue pulls your tongue back and down, often with strong rhoticity, you can use the retracted tongue root diacritic, [ɑ̙ɚ̯̈4]

If you have a rhotic start diphthong, your coda might be

  • close-mid central, so use an r-colored reversed-e, [ ɘ˞ ]
  • mid central, so use an r-colored (or “flying”) schwa [ ɚ ]
  • open-mid central, so use an r-colored turned epsilon (or “flying three”), [ ɝ ]

Alternate Pronunciations

Experiment with the start Word Lists, Phrases and Sentences with the following vowel/nucleus options:

æ◌       very forward and nearly open
a◌        forward and open
a̠◌        nearly forward and open
ɐ̞◌        central and open
ɐ◌        central and nearly open
ɑ̟◌        nearly back and open
ɑ◌        back and open
ɑ̠◌        very back and open
ɒ◌        back, open and rounded

Rhotic nucleus: Experiment with adding r-coloring to the nucleus (i.e. not to the end of the diphthong, but to its beginning) from none to as much as you can make, e.g. [ɑ̟ɚ̯, ɑ̟˞1ɚ̯, ɑ̟˞2ɚ̯, ɑ̟˞3ɚ̯, ɑ̟˞4ɚ̯, ɑ̟˞5]. Note that as you add rhoticity to the nucleus the bunching and/or curling action of the tongue means that the off-glide also becomes more rhotic. At the most extreme levels, there is so much bunching/curling on the nucleus that there really is no room to move towards the off-glide.

Rhotic off-glide: Now experiment with diphthongs that have a purely non-rhotic nucleus, and off-glides that range from least open to most open [ ɘ˞, ɚ, ɝ ], and/or from no r-coloring, to as much r-coloring as you can make, e.g. [ ɘ, ɘ˞1, ɘ˞2, ɘ˞3, ɘ˞4, ɘ˞5]. Jump around, trying to mix and match: [aɘ̯˞5, ɑ̠ɝ̯1, ɒə̯, ɐ, ɛɚ̯3, ɑ̟˞2].

As you move the vowels in the directions recommended, see whether that modified oral posture might inspire you to move the articulation of consonants and other vowels in the word in similar ways. Does it remind you of an accent other than your own?

Word List for start Ⓐ, in a Free Syllable, at the end of a word

KEY: ◾︎start in stressed syllable ◽︎start in an unstressed syllable

◾︎Ⓐ star, far, mar, car, bar, par, parr, five-star, bizarre, co-star, in-car, guitar, Barr, jar, Parr, Carr, bazaar, tar, spar, scar
◽︎Ⓐ pulsar, Qatar, radar, superstar, seminar, avatar, Myanmar, Redcar, registrar, Zanzibar, exemplar, Soar, Magyar, Omar, Neymar, Pixar, towbar, kevlar

Word Lists for start Ⓑ, sorted by the consonant that follows

KEY: ◾︎start in stressed syllable ◽︎start in an unstressed syllable



◾︎Ⓑ sharp=Sharpe, carpet, carpenter, harper, sharply, Harpenden, carp, Marple, sharpener, carpe diem, Sharples, harp, tarpon, tarp, scarpered, sharpshooter
◽︎Ⓑ tarpaulin, Carpathian, pericarp, stair-carpet, carpology, autoharp, Polycarp, harpoon, arpeggios, cardsharper, vibraharp


◾︎Ⓑ Barbara, harbour, carbon, Scarborough, Barbie, marble, Starbucks, barber, phenobarbital, Barbour, polycarbonate, barbecue, arbitrary, garbage, carburetor, arboretum, barbican, starboard
◽︎Ⓑ Barbuda, Barbados, rhubarb, Hanna-Barbera, arbutus, Arbuthnot, barbarian, carboxyl, garbanzo, arboreal, barbiturates, tarboosh, carbonic, barbarity, Barbadian, arbitrament


◾︎Ⓑ article, part, party, start, martin=marten, arts, partner, department, smart, heart=hart, partnership, artist, particle, apart, cart, mart, chart, McCartney, darts
◽︎Ⓑ Martinez, cartoon, artistic, participation, partition, sweetheart, Mozart, Stuttgart, articulated, martini, Martina, Hobart, kickstarter, Walmart, kindergarten, particulate


◾︎Ⓑ Guardian, hard, garden, Leonardo, card, regarding, Cardiff, yard, harder, guard, hardware, yard, Arden, Gardner, Garda, cardiovascular, hardcore, cardigan, Hardy
◽︎Ⓑ Mastercard, Kardashian, credit card, Gerrard, Sardinia, Svalbard, Bardot, postcard, safeguarding, courtyard, railcard, vanguard, Pritchard*, scorecard, jacquard, Pollard


◾︎Ⓑ park, market, mark=Mark, shark, marketing, marker, remarkable, dark, Parker, Clark=clerk*, spark, sparkler, Parkinson’s, Sark, Barkley=Berkley*, Clarkson, Meghan Markle, sparkling
◽︎Ⓑ bookmark, supermarket, trademark, landmark, Denmark, landmark, Newmarket, benchmark, hallmark, Haymarket, telemarketing, telemark, stress-marks, skylark, aardvark, Ozark, Arkell, Geopark, pitch-dark

◾︎Ⓑ cargo, target, Margaret, bargain, argue, argument, Wells Fargo, Margate, Argos, jargon, largo, Margarita, Hargeaves, Argus, Largs, marguerite, Margot
◽︎Ⓑ Argyle*, Margolis, sargasso, Bargoed /bɑ(ɚ)ˈɡɔɪd/, Larˈgactil, gargantuan, Gargantua, supercargo



◾︎Ⓑ March=march, archbishop, departure, arch, starch, archery, archer, overarching, parchment, larch, Marchant, archway, Archie, parched, Archibald, parturition
◽︎Ⓑ parturient, Middlemarch, archenemy, cornstarch, hunger-march, archduchess, frogmarch, Parcheesi, archbishopric


◾︎Ⓑ large, largest, charge, Argentina, charger, margin, rechargeable, enlarge, sergeant=Sargent, marginal, disˈcharge (v.), arginine, Marjorie=Margery, Marge, overcharge, Sharjah, barge, argillaceous, Argento
◽︎Ⓑ cover charge, surcharge, ˈdischarge (n), surcharge, supercharger, profit-margin, largesse, Darjeeling,
depth-charge, Marˈgerison, turbocharge, barˈgee



◾︎Ⓑ army, arm, Carmen, farmer, Armstrong (!), pharmacy, alarm, harm, pharmaceutical, charm, Yarmouth, karma, Armenia, armrest, tarmac, charming, armor, harmony
◽︎Ⓑ Armagh, Carmichael, firearm, fire-alarm, underarm, undergarments, dairy-farm, Armando, Charmaine, Philharmonic, harmonica, armada, strongarm, schoolmarm, yardarm, gendarme


◾︎Ⓑ Carnaby, carnival, Kilmarnock, Garner, Arnold, Barnes, barn, yarn, Barnett, varnish, barney=Barney, harness, Killarney, St. Barnabus, carney=Carney, tarn, tarnish
◽︎Ⓑ Barˈnett, Carnegie, Lindisfarne, Parnell, incarnation, nail-varnish, tithe-barn, reincarnation, carnauba, Parnassus, carnation, carnivorous, rope-yarn, carnassial

There are no words with start before -ŋ


◾︎Ⓑ Arthur, McCarthy, Martha, Garth, Penarth, hearth, Darth Vader, MacArthur, Hearthstone, Carthage, Parthenon, Carthew, arthropod, McCarthyism, parthenogenesis, arthrous
◽︎Ⓑ Talgarth, osteoarthritis, Hogarth, Arthropoda, Bartholomew, arthralgia, Arthurian, arthritic, Carthusian, Parˈthenope, enarthrosis, arthropodus

◾︎Ⓑ Carmarthen, penny-farthing, farther, farthing, farthest, farthingale


◾︎Ⓑ scarf, Garfield, Barford, parfait, starfish, Harford, Parfitt, Carfax, farfetched, barfly, barf, car-ferry, Scarfe, Darfield, garfish, Harfleur, carfare, jarful
◽︎Ⓑ Garˈfunkel*, far-fetched, far-flung, savoir-faire, far-famed, headscarf


◾︎Ⓑ harvest, Marvin, marvel, Harvey, scarves, Jarvis, Algarve, marvellous, Harvard, starved, carving, carvery, Garvin, Carˈnarvon, harvester, larva, parvenus, Arvo Pärt, starveling
◽︎Ⓑ starvation, sex-starved, savoir-vivre, Arˈviragus, headscarves


◾︎Ⓑ arsenal, Barcelona, parcel, Parsons, Arsène Lupin, Carson, Marston, varsity, Barnard, Darcy, sparse, parsley, Marcia*, arse, arson, parsnip
◽︎Ⓑ Garcia*, Marcel, Marcella, narcissus, Marsala, far-seeing, carcinogen, narcissus, arsenic, marsupial, Pharsalus, narcistic


start Ⓐ plurals are here in abundance, such as stars, cars, bars, jars, scars, seminars, handlebars, exemplars, etc.
◾︎Ⓑ Mars, Marsden, Lars, Parsley, Tarzan, SARS, marzipan, hussars*, parse*, parsing*, Parslow, ars poetica, bilharzia, carzey
◽︎Ⓑ zarzuela

◾︎Ⓑ Marshall=martial=marshal, marsh, partial, Garcia*, harsh, impartial, starship, Marsham, Martian, marchioness, Barsham, harshest, Tarshish, Martius
◽︎Ⓑ Carshˈalton, marshmallows*, Killamarsh, Tidmarsh, Saltmarsh, Hindmarsh, Titmarsh, démarche

◾︎Ⓑ Farage, chargé(s) d’affaires
◽︎Ⓑ garage, arbitrage, barrage


start before /rV/ is Wells’ Group Ⓒ, with start before consonant /r/ going into a vowel. Many of these words are start Ⓐ with a suffix (e.g. guitarist), or an inflected ending (e.g. starring). Those marked with an asterisk are square Ⓒ in many accents.
◾︎Ⓒ Tamara*, Mara*, Suarez, costarring, safari, starring, Zara, Sahara*, Faro, scenario*, Ferrari, Lara*, faraway, guitarist, Camaro*, guarani, mascara*, Cara*, Polaris*, Benares, tiara*, O’Hara*, Rosario, sari, Solaris, Karin*, Atari, Connemara, Kilimanjaro*, taro*, sarin*, Harare, Guevara, Qatari, Kalahari, Marham, Timisoara
◽︎Ⓒ gurdwara, Rautavaara, Tsarina=czarina=tzarina, Szigetvári, guitaristic


◾︎Ⓑ Charles, Charlotte, parliament, Harley-Davidson, parlour, Charlie, Carlos, Karl, Carlton, Scarlett=scarlet, starlet, darling, Barlow, Harlow, harlot, Marlow, Monte Carlo, Carla, garlic, barley, marl, Harlem
◽︎Ⓑ Charlize Theron, Carlisle=Carlyle*, Marlene, Emmentaler, beauty-parlour, Carleen, Arlette, Marlovian, sun-parlour


◾︎Ⓑ narwhal, barwise, starwort, charwoman, Darwin=Darwen, Derwent, Cherwell, Harwell, Harwood, Marwick, Yarwood, Larwood, Darwinism
◽︎Ⓑ Darwinian


There are no start words with -j

Short Phrases

  1. A large star chart.

  2. Sparklers for the garden party.
  3. My sweetheart sucks at darts.
  4. A Star Wars themed Darth Vader Barbie⧉.
  5. Carla’s kindergarten art partner.
  6. Skylarks darkened Denmark’s skies.
  7. A dry martini, and a margarita, please!
  8. Are you partial to a sharkskin jacket?
  9. The sharpshooter lay on the tarp.
  10. The target archer wears an arm guard on her bow-arm.
  11. Archie played Hooker for Argentina.
  12. It’s a bargain for a turbocharged car.
  13. Visit the landmarks in Sharjah National Park.
  14. How could the guards march in that armor?
  15. Ricardo uses cornstarch in his fruit tarts.A line drawing of a girl with pigtails standing beside an easel with a boy
    Carla’s kindergarten art partner,


Level 1

Short with 2-3 words, underlined

  1. Cicero called Sardinia’s inhabitants “barbarians”.
  2. I’m gardening in my yard wearing a cardigan.
  3. The charming farmer did a lot of harm.
  4. The Mozart concerto for flute and harp was hard.
  5. Use sparkling water to get the rhubarb stain out of the carpet.

Level 2

Short with 4-5 words, underlined

  1. Quark and antiquark particles carry fractional charge.
  2. Mark parked by the Star Market closest to Harvard.
  3. Marjorie argued harshly with the telemarketer.
  4. Rosario sprinkled parsley sparsely on the parsnips.
  5. Belinda Carlisle embarked on a career as a chart topping solo artist.

Level 3

Medium with 3-4 words, not underlined

  1. I argue that Billie Joe Armstrong’s “iHeartRadio” Les Paul guitar is marketing genius.
  2. Charlie drove his Harley into Carleen’s beauty-parlour.
  3. Charles Darwin believed the narwhal’s tusk was used in aggression.
  4. Buddha spoke of Dharma in Sarnath, which is near Benares (aka Varanasi).
  5. They left Harare Zimbabwe for a heart-pumping safari in Gonarezhou National Park.

Level 4

Hard with The 4-6 words, not underlined

  1. He shot the army’s ceremonial guard, but was stopped by the parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms.
  2. This “old fart” taught architecture part-time at Carleton University, you arse!
  3. Ravi Shankar, the sitar superstar, gave a seminar in Barbados.
  4. The clerk* who sold me my railcard said departures for Armagh were through the archway.
  5. Barney harmed his arm getting this charming photo of Lindisfarne Castle from the harbour.


startnorth Merger: Also known as the “card-cord merger,” where north merges with start, as is found in St. Louis, Missouri, and has been reported in some Caribbean accents such as Guyanese and Jamaican, and in some (historical) accents of Utah, and Central Texas. If you have this merger, then try to differentiate the north and start words in the sentence below. Accents with this merger lack the forcenorth “Hoarse-Horse” Merger. If you do not have this merger, try to match them, using [a̠ɚ̯, ɑ̟ɚ̯]. If you have this merger, you’ll want to explore using the Hoarse-Horse merger instead, and use something like [ɔ̝ɚ] for your north words. Minimal pairs that are homophones with this merger include: arc/orc, are/or, barn/born, card/cord=chord, dark/dork, far/for, lard/lord, stark/stork, tart/tort.

Experiment with differentiating start/north pairs such as: [ɑ/ɔ,     a̠ɚ̯/ɒɚ̯,     ɑ˞/oɘ̯˞,     ɐ̞/o,     ɒɚ̯/ɔɚ̯].

    1. The orc who killed the archer wasn’t born in a barn!
    2. He was born in the dark mud of Mordor, you dork!
    3. Snorkelling at a resort in the Maldives to see sharks is a remarkable experience.
    4. “Seems like all of California is headed northbound to this carnival!” Martha exclaimed.
    5. Norman is normally very charming, but the fire alarm made him lose his cool.


There are no known start splits.


  1. Mason, Mark. “A Touch of Clarse.” The Spectator, 4 June 2011, www.spectator.co.uk/article/a-touch-of-clarse⧉.


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