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English-language vowel changes before historic l: Wikis


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In the history of English phonology, there have been many diachronic sound changes affecting vowels, especially involving phonemic splits and mergers. A number of these changes are specific to vowels which occur before /l/.


Salary-celery merger

The salary-celery merger is a conditioned merger of /æ/ (as in bat) and /ɛ/ (as in bet) when they occur before /l/, thus making salary and celery homophones.[1] [2][3][4] The merger is not well studied. It is referred to in various sociolinguistic publications, but usually only as a small section of the larger change undergone by vowels preceding /l/ in articles about l-vocalisation.

This merger has been detected in the English spoken in New Zealand and in Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia. In varieties with the merger, salary and celery are both pronounced /sæləri/ (Cox & Palethorpe, 2003). (Most Victorians and New Zealanders do not exhibit l-vocalisation.)

The Cox and Palethorpe study presented at a 2003 conference tested just one group of speakers from Victoria: 13 fifteen year-old girls from a Catholic girl’s school in Wangaratta. Their pronunciations were compared to those of school girl groups in the towns of Temora, Junee and Wagga Wagga in New South Wales. In the study conducted by Cox and Palethorpe, the group in Wangaratta exhibited the merge while speakers in Temora, Junee and Wagga Wagga did not. In the same study Cox and Palethorpe note that "There is no evidence in this data of raised /æ/ before /l/ as in “Elbert” for “Albert”, a phenomenon that has been popularly suggested for Victorians." [2]

Horsfield (2001) investigates the effects of postvocalic /l/ on the preceding vowels in New Zealand English; her investigation covers all of the New Zealand English vowels and is not specifically tailored to studying mergers and neutralizations, but rather the broader change that occurs across the vowels. She has suggested that further research involving minimal pairs like telly and tally, celery and salary should be done before any firm conclusions are drawn.

A pilot study of the merger was done, which yielded perception and production data from a few New Zealand speakers. The results of the pilot survey suggested that although the merger was not found in the speech of all participants, those who distinguished between /æl/ and /el/ also accurately perceived a difference between them; those who merged /æl/ and /el/ were less able to accurately perceive the distinction. The finding has been interesting to some linguists because it concurs with the recent understanding that losing a distinction between two sounds involves losing the ability to produce it as well as to perceive it (Gordon 2002). However, due to the very small number of people participating in the study the results cannot be considered convincing.

The findings about the lack of perception between the distinction between /æl/ and /el/ for some speakers with the merger have been interesting to some linguists, because although they can clearly hear a difference between the sounds /æ/ and /e/ (in bat and bet), elsewhere they can't hear the difference when they come before a /l/ sound.

Fill-feel merger

The areas marked in red are where the fill-feel merger is most consistently present in the local accent. Map based on Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 71).[5]

The fill-feel merger is a conditioned merger of the vowels /ɪ/ and /iː/ before /l/ that occurs in some dialects of American English. The merged vowel is usually closer to [ɪ] than [iː]. The heaviest concentration of the merger is found in, but not necessarily confined to Southern American English: in North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana (but not New Orleans), and west-central Texas (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 69-73). This merger like a lot of other features of Southern American English, can also be found in AAVE.

Fell-fail merger

The same two regions show a closely related merger, namely the fell-fail merger of /ɛ/ and /eɪ/ before /l/ that occurs in some varieties of Southern American English making fell and fail homophones. In addition to North Carolina and Texas, these mergers are found sporadically in other Southern states and in the Midwest and West.[6][7]

Full-fool merger

The full-fool merger is a conditioned merger of /ʊ/ and /uː/ before /l/, making pairs like pull/pool and full/fool homophones. The main concentration of the pull-pool merger is in the North Midland accent of American English, particularly in Pittsburgh English. The merger is less consistently present in eastern Pennsylvania and southern Indiana.[8] Accents with /l/-vocalisation, such as New Zealand English, Estuary English and Cockney, may also have the full-fool merger in most cases, but when a suffix beginning with a vowel is appended, the distinction returns: Hence 'pull' and 'pool' are /pʊo/, but 'pulling' is /pʊlɪŋ/ whereas 'pooling' remains /puːlɪŋ/. [2][9]

Non-native observers of Australian English may mistakenly think the full-fool merger occurs there, as the vowel quality is the same: [ʊ]. However, vowel length is phonemic in Australian English and the two phonemes are quite distinct to native speakers. Hence full is pronounced [fʊl] and fool [fʊːl], so there is no merger.

The fill-feel merger and full-fool merger are not unified in American English; they are found in different parts of the country, and very few people show both mergers.[10]

Hull-hole merger

The hull-hole merger is a conditioned merger of /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization. As a result, "hull" and "hole" are homophones. The merger is also mentioned by Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 73) as a merger before /l/ in North American English that might require further study.

Doll-dole merger

The doll-dole merger is a conditioned merger, for some Londoners, of /ɒ/ and /əʊ/ before nonprevocalic /l/. As a result, doll and dole may become homophones.[11] If the /l/ is morpheme-final, as in doll-dole, the underlying vowel is still distinguished in derived forms such as dolling/doling.[11]

Where the /l/ is not morpheme-final, however, the distinction is not recoverable. This may lead to sold rhyming with solve, and to hypercorrections such as /səʊlv/ for solve (RP /sɒlv/).[11] There do not appear to be any minimal pairs in this environment, since RP /ɒ/ and /əʊ/ are in more-or-less complementary distribution in stressed syllables, with /ɒ/ before /lf/ and /lv/ (e.g. golf, dolphin, solve, revolve) and /əʊ/ elsewhere (e.g. bolt, polka, gold, soldier, holster).

Wholly-holy split

The wholly-holy split, also known as the "goat split", is a process that has affected London dialects and Estuary English.[12][13] In the first phase of the split, the diphthong of "goat" /ʌʊ/ developed an allophone [ɒʊ] before "dark" (nonprevocalic) /l/. Thus "goal" no longer had the same vowel as "goat" ([ɡɒʊl] vs. [ɡʌʊt]).[12] In the second phase, the diphthong [ɒʊ] spread to other forms of affected words. For example, the realization of "rolling" changed from [ɹʌʊlɪŋ] to [ɹɒʊlɪŋ] on the model of "roll" [ɹɒʊl]. This led to the creation of a minimal pair for some speakers: "wholly" [hɒʊli] vs. "holy" [hʌʊli] and thus to phonemicization of the split.[12]


Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 73)[14] mention four mergers before /l/ that may be under way in some accents of North American English, and which require more study:

  • /ʊl/ and /ol/ (bull vs bowl)
  • /ʌl/ and /ɔl/ (hull vs hall)
  • /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (bull vs hull)
  • /ʌl/ and /ol/ (hull vs hole)

See also


  1. ^ Cox, F., and Palethorpe, S. (2001). "The Changing Face of Australian Vowels". in Blair, D.B. and Collins, P (eds). Varieties of English Around the World: English in Australia. John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam. pp. 17–44.  
  2. ^ a b Cox, F. M. and Palethorpe, S. (2003). "The border effect: Vowel differences across the NSW–Victorian Border". Proceedings of the 2003 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society: 1–14.   Note: online version is PDF.
  3. ^ Palethorpe, S. and Cox, F. M. (2003) [1]. Poster presented at the International Seminar on Speech Production, December 2003, Sydney. Note: online version is PDF.
  4. ^ Ingram, John. Norfolk Island-Pitcairn English (Pitkern Norfolk), University of Queensland, 2006
  5. ^ Map 4
  6. ^ Map 7
  7. ^
  8. ^ Map 5
  9. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2), ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3).  
  10. ^ Map 6
  11. ^ a b c Wells: 317
  12. ^ a b c Wells, p. 312-313
  13. ^ Altendorf, Ulrike (2003). Estuary English: Levelling at the Interface of RP and South-Eastern British English. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag. pp. 34. ISBN 3823360221.  
  14. ^ Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.  


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