Pronunciation survey - "o" in American

Tom   Sunday, September 14, 2003, 23:33 GMT

Would you agree that of those Americans who merge A and O, some pronounce the merged vowel more like A (e.g. in the "open" way demonstrated in the above recording), while others pronounce it more like O (with some lip rounding)?

In one of the recordings in the IDEA archive, a Californian speaker pronounces words like "not" and "God" in a "closed" way, i.e. without opening the jaw. In her case, the merged vowel seems to be closer to O than it is to A.
Clark   Monday, September 15, 2003, 01:35 GMT
Wow! I just pronounced "not" and "God" and my jaw was barely open! I had never realised this before.
Ryan   Monday, September 15, 2003, 02:40 GMT
Yeah, I would agree with that. The majority probably pronounce it in that closed way you describe. I am probably wrong with what I wrote earlier now that I think about it. "Don" sounds more like "Dawn" to me around here than "Dawn" sounds like "Don."

The way you pronounce "law" sounds more like how I pronounce it. But northerners retain the distinction between "Don" and "Dawn" by shifting the vowel sound up for "Don" so that "Don" sounds more like "Dahn."

So you pronounced "law" like how northerners, including people in Chicago, do. But people in LA would probably not pronounce it this way and would pronounce it like how you heard in the recording. In New York City, the same vowel is pronounced extremely far back in the mouth, so it sounds more like "luh," but with a bit of a glide sound to the vowel that is hard to describe.

Ryan   Monday, September 15, 2003, 02:46 GMT
Yeah, Clark, that is a major difference compared to how northerners pronounce the sound. Listen to Eminem and when he raps the words "shot" and "not" in the chorus of the song "Lose Yourself" and you will hear it sound like "shaht" and "naht" with a very wide open jaw. This is characteristic of the northern cities, and is especially pronounced in the accent of the Detroit area.

Clark   Monday, September 15, 2003, 03:50 GMT
"don" and "dawn" sound the exact same in California.

As for "shot" and "not," I would pronouce these as "shaht" and "naht" as well, but from what said, there might be a difference between the Northern Midwest and California. Do you think we are representing different sounds with the same letters? Or do you think that there is no difference between them?
Ryan   Monday, September 15, 2003, 06:50 GMT
If you pronounce "dot" and "don" with the same vowel sound, then you are not pronouncing it the same way we do in the north. We pronounce this vowel as extremely fronted and open in the mouth, not with a closed mouth at all.

Tom   Monday, September 15, 2003, 12:20 GMT

I'm afraid I'm even more confused now.

You wrote "The way you pronounce "law" sounds more like how I pronounce it." What do you mean? In the recording above, I pronounced "law" like "lah" -- with my jaw wide open and absolutely no lip rounding. I know you round your lips when pronouncing "law" (judging from your recording).

So you say people in Chicago pronounce "law" like in my recording? This would mean they pronounce "cot" and "caught" the same. Are you sure about that?

P.S. In New York "law" sounds a lot like "lwa".
Ryan   Monday, September 15, 2003, 16:54 GMT
Okay, if that's how you say you pronounce it, then I would say no American pronounces it that way. The /O/ vowel in law is too far back for it to ever be fronted that much in any American regional accent.

The closest you get is with my accent, where the vowel in "law" becomes a middle vowel that is only slightly rounded, and with southern accents, where law is shifted into a diphthong that sounds almost like the word "now" does to me. The vowel is "now" is then shifted as well. This is what Labov calls the "Southern Shift."

I don't think "lwa" is a good way to represent the way New Yorkers pronounce the word, but I get your meaning. Boston has a completely different way of pronouncing the word as well. Suffice it to say, it is in the west and western midlands that "law" has the closed, semi-back sound that Clark says he pronounces it with and that you hear in the IDEA recording.

As for the way Chicagoans pronounce the word, you have to understand the idea of a vowel shift. In northern accents, all vowels are shifted up in the mouth from where they are normally spoken, some more than others. Cot and caught would not sound the same because we shift the vowel for "cot" up just as much as we shift the vowel up for "caught" so that "caught" sounds more like "cot" and "cot" more like "caht" or even "cat" in a really strong accent like Sipowitz from NYPD Blue might have (yeah, he's supposed to be from New York but he talks like he's from Chicago and most Americans don't care).

If you go to this site and click on the stars you can hear recordings of the way that several northerners pronounce their vowels. Their accents are probably stronger than mine.

Tom   Monday, September 15, 2003, 22:29 GMT
What do you mean by "shifting up in the mouth"?

I've listened to your recording and I can definitely hear some lip-rounding in your [o:]'s, although it is very slight and indeed they sound a bit like the ah's in my recording above. However, your recording does not have the [a:] sound, so I can't listen to your version of the sound. I've grown quite curious about how it actually sounds.

You wouldn't record a couple words with [a:] (cot, hot, god, don, snob, etc.), would you?
Ryan   Tuesday, September 16, 2003, 21:04 GMT
I sent you a recording of me saying those words, Tom.

Tom   Tuesday, September 16, 2003, 21:38 GMT
I didn't get it. Could you please send it again? Thanks.
Tom   Tuesday, September 16, 2003, 22:58 GMT
Thanks a lot, Ryan. I uploaded your file at

To my ears, you pronounce these words in a very standard way. That is how I pronounce the [a:] sound.

Now could you explain what you meant by saying that your [a:] is "shifted up in the mouth"? Your [a:] and [o:] sound like what I hear on the American TV networks. Perhaps your [o:] has a bit less lip-rounding (is less distinct from a:) than with most speakers on TV.
Ryan   Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 02:38 GMT
Tom, this is not how these words are pronounced in the West. Clark himself said that he pronounces the word "god" with a very closed jaw. There is no way my jaw was closed in that recording, and there is no way that Don and Dawn could ever sound the same the way I pronounce them. My point is that in the Western United States, and most of Canada, as well, the vowel I just pronounced is moved back in the mouth and in a more closed position so that Don and Dawn sound exactly the same.

The "traditional" East Coast American way of pronouncing words of this sort are to separate the words into three separate vowels--one for words like "law," one for words like "Don" and one for a word like "father." Midwesterners merged the vowel for "Don" and "father" into one vowel and moved the vowel sound for "Don" up to the front of the mouth where "father" is. In the West, they have merged all three vowels. All of this has been shown by sound frequency studies conducted by the linguist, William Labov.

It would make sense that my accent sounds more like newscasting English, as in the past newscasting American English shifted from a East Coast standard to a Midwest, Chicago standard. The most pronounced shift in the Midwest is the one for the ae ({) sound. If you listen to the way I pronounce "companion" in my first recording, it should demonstrate this.

I've noticed that your own accent is very midwestern sounding itself, Tom. You also have a very broad ae sound. I'm pretty sure nobody would ever comment on you having an accent if you went to Chicago.

Tom   Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 11:02 GMT
OK, thanks for the explanation. Two more questions:

1. Is Maryland in the Midwest? My cousin pronounced "bother" and "father" with the exact same vowel.

2. I wouldn't suppose there are very many speakers in the US who pronounce "bother" and "father" with two different vowels?
Clark   Wednesday, September 17, 2003, 16:32 GMT
I pronounce them with the same vowel sounds.