How do you Brits differentiate Barb and Bob,?

Serious question. I worked with a South African fellow and I couldn’t tell who he was speaking about: Barb, or Bob.

Yeah don’t bug me on SA vs UK. I get it.

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This is one of those questions that requires you to either understand someone else’s accent already or be able to use IPA, because all these “ah” and “aw” and “o” sounds are very different from one accent to another and many of them are merged depending on the accent.

It depends on a person’s specific accent of course, but in RP they can be differentiated as

Barb —[baːb] or [bäːb] – a lengthened low front or central unrounded vowel

Bob — [bɒb] – a low back rounded vowel

In general American these will often be

Barb — [baɹb] or [bɑɹb]

Bob — [bɑb] – a low back unrounded vowel

Note the key vowel difference [ɑ] versus [ɒ] in “Bob.” For most Americans, this is an unrounded vowel and is usually merged with the “ah” sound. In RP, however, the rounding makes it a difgerent vowel than the “ah.”

And for many if not most Americans, the father-bother merger and the cot-caught merger will make these distinctions difficult to perceive without some effort.

Barb’s not your uncle.

When I think “Bob”, I think of this. This isn’t easily mistaken for “Barb” at all.

You beat me to it goldmund.
Barb lasts about 4 times longer than Bob.
Poor bob
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Ascenray’s IPA does also indicate that the Barb vowel is longer. That’s what the symbol that looks like a : means.

Non-rhotic dialects tend to lengthen the vowel in order to indicate the /r/ phoneme., since it otherwise has no sound.

I should add that this is in stressed syllables. Lengthening unstressed syllables tends to make them sound stressed in English. So words like mother don’t get lengthened.

And, by lengthened, I mean about the amount of time it would take to add the /r/ in rhotic dialects. Though, if there are two word that sound similar, it might get lengthened further for clarity.

Barb is pronounced “bob”

Bob is pronounced “bawb”

Simply, Barb has a long a and Bob has a short o. Barb also has an r. And, of course, a and o are different sounds in the first place.

Exactly this, they are completely different words in the vast majority of british accents and don’t sound the same at all.

Brits would never call anyone Barb.

See here’s where not using IPA creates problems. In accents that don’t have the cot-caught merger, the “aw” vowel is yet another separate sound - [bɔb]

A similar “you pronounce these two names identically” for me is a Californian accent (not sure if it’s a specific region within; could be). When I did corporate IT and got a call from a California employee about a coworker’s issue, I just.could.not find the person in our system. Until she spelled it out. I’d swear on my mother’s theoretical grave that she said “Don (Last name)”, but it actually was “Dawn (Last name)”.

I’m pretty sure Don and Dawn are merged all across the Midwest, not just in California. This is the cot-caught merger that is a feature of a lot (most?) of American accents.

Throughout the podcast Serial, the presenters referred to the boyfriend as Dawn, which I thought was a bit weird. One of the interviewees then called him Don.

But I’m in the Midwest! I hear that the caught-cot merger is supposed to be here, but they’re very obviously different to me.

Well, there are multiple accents in the Midwest, but the cot-caught merger is definitely a majority on the whole. Most people I know have no idea that they can be pronounced differently.

Me included.

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I just listened to a bit of episode 2. Sarah Koenig pronounces “Don” as [dɑn], which is the usual vowel for both “cot” (Don) and “caught” (Dawn) in the Midwest.

In RP, I believe “Don” gets the “cot” vowel [dɒn] and “Dawn” gets the “caught” vowel [dɔn].

I have a friend who grew up on Long Island who complained about all the Midwesterners around us pronouncing “Don” and “Dawn” identically. I asked her how she said them and she said “Don” the same way [dɑn] but “Dawn” had a diphthong [duən] (“doo-un”).