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The pronunciation of "short A" varies in English.


Trap-bath split

The trap-bath split is a vowel split that occurs mainly in southern varieties of English English (including Received Pronunciation), in Boston English, and in the Southern Hemisphere accents (Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English), by which the Early Modern English phoneme /æ/ was lengthened in certain environments and ultimately merged with the long /ɑː/ of father. (Wells 1982: 100–1, 134, 232–33)

In this context, the lengthened vowel in words such as bath, laugh, grass, chance in accents affected by the split is referred to as a broad A (also, in the UK, long A). Phonetically the vowel is a long back [ɑː] in Received Pronunciation (RP); it is a fronter vowel, [ɐː] or [aː], in some other accents, including many Australian and New Zealand accents, and it may be a rounded [ɒː] in South African English. In accents unaffected by the split, these words usually have the same vowel as words like cat, trap, man, the short A or flat A.

The sound change originally occurred in southern England, and ultimately changed the sound of [æ] to [ɑː] in some words in which the former sound appeared before [f, s, θ, ns, nt, ntʃ, nd, mpl], leading to RP [pɑːθ] for path and [sɑːmpl] for sample, etc. The sound change did not occur before other consonants; thus accents affected by the split preserve /æ/ in words like cat. (See the Variations section below for more details on the words affected.) The lengthening of the bath vowel began in the 17th century but was "stigmatised as a Cockneyism until well into the 19th century".[1]


British accents

The presence or absence of this split is one of the most noticeable differences between different accents of English English. An isogloss runs across the Midlands from the Wash to the Welsh border, passing to the south of the cities of Birmingham and Leicester. North of the isogloss, the vowel in most of the affected words is usually the same short-a as in cat; south of the isogloss, the vowel in the affected words is generally long. (Gupta 2005)

There is some variation close to the isogloss; for example in the dialect of Birmingham (the so-called "Brummie") most of the affected words have a short-a, but aunt and laugh usually have long vowels. Additionally, some words which have /æ/ in most forms of American English, including half, calf, rather and can't, are usually found with long vowels in northern England.

In northern English dialects, the short A is phonetically [a ~ a̠], while the broad A varies from [ɑː] to [aː]; for some speakers, the two vowels may be identical in quality, differing only in length ([a] vs [aː]) (Wells 1982: 356, 360).

In some West Country accents of English English where the vowel in trap is realized as [a] rather than [æ], the vowel in the bath words was lengthened to [aː] and did not merge with the /ɑː/ of father. In those accents, trap, bath and father all have distinct vowels /a/, /aː/ and /ɑː/. (Wells 1982: 346–47).

In some other West Country accents, and in many forms of Scottish English, there is no distinction corresponding to the RP distinction between /æ/ and /ɑː/.

Southern Hemisphere accents

Evidence for the date of the shift comes from the Southern Hemisphere accents, those of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In Australian English, there is generally agreement with southern British in words like path, laugh, class. But before N+consonant, as in dance, plant, most Australians use a flat A; aunt and can't, however, are invariably pronounced with a broad A. Phonetically, the broad A is [ɐː]. In Australia there is variation in the word castle, both pronunciations are commonly heard. For more information, see the table at Australian English phonology. In South Australian English the broad A is usually used.

South African and New Zealand English have a distribution of sounds similar to that of RP.

North American accents

Most accents of American English and Canadian English are unaffected by the split. The main exceptions are parts of New England (see Boston accent), where the broad sound can be used in some of the same words as in southern England, such as can't, aunt, ask, bath etc.

A related, but distinct, phenomenon is the phonemic æ-tensing in the accents of New York and Philadelphia (see section below).


The change did not happen in all eligible words. It is hard to find a clear reason why some changed and others did not. Roughly, the more common a word the more likely that the change from flat /æ/ to broad /ɑː/ took place. It also looks as if monosyllables were more likely to change than polysyllables. The change very rarely took place in open syllables, except where closely derived from another word with /ɑː/. Thus passing is closely derived from pass, and so has broad A /pɑːsɪŋ/: passage is not so closely derived, and thus has flat A /pæsɪdʒ/. Here are some examples from RP, to illustrate the variety:

  • Broad /ɑːf/ word-finally in calf, half, giraffe, laugh
  • Flat /æf/ word-finally in gaffe, chiffchaff
  • Broad /ɑːf/ preconsonantally in laughter, shaft, raft, after
  • Flat /æf/ preconsonantally in Aphrodite, kaftan
  • Broad /ɑːθ/ word-finally in path, bath
  • Flat /æθ/ word-finally in math(s), hath
  • Broad /ɑːs/ word-finally in class, pass
  • Flat /æs/ word-finally in ass (donkey), crass, mass (amount), gas
  • Broad /ɑːst/ in mast, past, master, plaster
  • Flat /æst/ in masturbate, pastel, Aston,
  • Broad /ɑːsp/ word-finally in clasp, grasp, gasp
  • Flat /æsp/ word-finally in asp,
  • Broad /ɑːsk/ in mask, task, ask, basket
  • Flat /æsk/ in Asquith, mascot, gasket
  • Broad /ɑːsl/ in castle
  • Flat /æsl/ in hassle, vassal
  • Broad /ɑːsn/ in fasten
  • Flat /æsn/ in Masson
  • Broad /ɑːnt/ in aunt, plant, can't, advantage
  • Flat /ænt/ in ant, banter, cant (slang), scant, mantle
  • Broad /ɑːns/ in dance, chance, advance, answer
  • Flat /æns/ in ransom, cancer, Anson
  • Broad /ɑːmpl/ in sample, example
  • Flat /æmpl/ in trample, ample

There are some words in which both pronunciations are heard among southern speakers:

  • Greek elements as in telegraph, blastocyst, chloroplast
  • the prefix trans-
  • the words mass (church service), chaff, lather

Use of broad A in mass is distinctly conservative and probably rare now. The other fluctuations are both common, but with further complications. While graph, telegraph, photograph can have either, graphic, graphology always have flat A. The broad A is more likely when the s is voiceless (thus transfer [trɑːnsfɜː], transport [trɑːnspɔːt]) than when it is voiced (thus translate [trænzleɪt], trans-Atlantic [trænzətlæntɪk]).

Bad-lad split

The bad-lad split is a phonemic split of the Early Modern English short vowel phoneme /æ/ into a short /æ/ and a long /æː/. This split is found in some varieties of English English and Australian English in which bad (with long [æː]) and lad (with short [æ]) do not rhyme. (Wells 1982: 288–89, 596; Horvath and Horvath 2001; Leitner 2004).

The phoneme /æ/ is usually lengthened to /æː/ when it comes before an /m/ or /n/, within the same syllable. It is furthermore lengthened in the adjectives bad, sad, glad and mad; family also always has a long vowel, regardless of whether it is pronounced as two or three syllables. Some speakers and regional varieties also use /æː/ before /ɡ/, /ŋ/, /l/ and/or /dʒ/; such lengthening may be more irregular than others. Lengthening is prohibited in the past tense of irregular verbs and function words and in modern contractions of polysyllabic words where the /æ/ was before a consonant followed by a vowel. Lengthening is not stopped by the addition of word-level suffixes.

Note that British dialects with the bad-lad split have instead broad /ɑː/ in some words where an /m/ or /n/ follows the vowel. In this circumstance, Australian speakers usually (but not universally) use /æː/, except in the words ‘aunt’, ‘can’t’ and ‘shan’t’, which have broad /aː/.

Daniel Jones noted for RP that some speakers had a phonemic contrast between a long and a short /æ/ which he wrote as /æː/ and /æ/, respectively. Thus, in An outline of English phonetics (1962, ninth edition, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons) he noted that sad, bad generally had /æː/ but lad, pad had /æ/. In his pronouncing dictionary, he recorded several minimal pairs, for example bad /ˈbæːd/, bade /ˈbæd/ (also pronounced /ˈbeɪd/). He noted that for some speakers, jam actually represented two different pronunciations, one pronounced /ˈdʒæːm/ meaning 'fruit conserve', the other /ˈdʒæm/ meaning 'crush, wedging'. Later editions of this dictionary edited by Alfred C. Gimson, dropped this distinction. The word lad does in fact have a long /æː/ in most British accents affected by the split today; a more accurate name would be the bad-had split, with the latter retaining short /æ/ in the vast majority of these accents.[citation needed]

Commonly also in these accents, can 'able to' is /ˈkæn/, whereas the noun can 'tin' or the verb can 'to put into a tin' is /ˈkæːn/; this is similar to the situation found in æ-tensing in some varieties of American English. Perhaps the most consistent minimal pair of all in these accents is[citation needed] band /ˈbæːnd/ versus banned /ˈbænd/. Australian speakers who use ‘span’ as the past tense of ‘spin’ also have a minimal pair between /ˈspæːn/ ‘to span’ (the bridges /ˈspæːn/ the river) and /ˈspæn/, the past tense of ‘spin’ (the ball /ˈspæn/). Various other minimal pairs can be created in the slang speech of social groups as /æɡ/ meaning ‘agriculture’ vs /æːɡ/, a La Trobe University–specific term referring to the part of the university known in full as the Agora.[citation needed]

Apart from Jones, dictionary makers have never shown a difference between these varieties of the historical /æ/.


In the sociolinguistics of English, æ-tensing is a process that occurs in some accents of North American English by which the vowel [æ] is raised and lengthened or diphthongized in various environments. The realization of this "tense æ" varies from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] to [eə] to [ɪə], depending on the speaker's regional accent. A common realization is [eə] (that is, a centering diphthong with a starting point closer than the vowel [ɛ] as in dress); that transcription will be used for convenience in this article.[2]

Phonemic æ-tensing in the Mid-Atlantic region

In Baltimore, Philadelphia and metropolitan New York, the tense /eə/ is a separate phoneme from /æ/ (in Labovian linguistic variable notation, the phonemes are represented as (aeh) and (ae) respectively), since certain minimal pairs can be found:

  • can /keən/ 'metal container' vs. can /kæn/ 'be able'
  • halve /heəv/ vs. have /hæv/

In these accents there has thus been a phonemic split. Nevertheless, the distribution between /æ/ and /eə/ is largely predictable in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York regions: In Philadelphia and Baltimore, tense [eə] occurs in closed syllables before the /n/, /m/, /f/, /θ/, and /s/, as well as the words mad, bad, and glad. In New York, tensing occurs in all those environments as well as before voiced stops and /ʃ/. Lax [æ] usually occurs before /ŋ/, /l/, and voiceless stops, and also usually occurs in open syllables regardless of the following consonant. The word avenue normally has tense [eə] (unlike average, etc.).

In Philadelphia, tensing in some lexical items before /l/ and nontautosyllabic nasals has been reported.[3]

Tense /eə/ Lax /æ/
man /meən/ hang /hæŋ/
ham /heəm/ pal /pæl/
laugh /leəf/ lap /læp/
bath /beəθ/ bat /bæt/
glass /ɡleəs/ manage /mænɪdʒ/

The main exceptions to the above generalizations are:

  1. When a vowel-initial word-level suffix is added to a word with tense /eə/, the vowel remains tense even though it has come to stand in an open syllable:
    mannish has /eə/ like man, not /æ/ like manage
    classy has /eə/ like class, not /æ/ like classic
    passing has /eə/ like pass, not /æ/ like Pasadena
  2. When a polysyllabic word with /æ/ in an open syllable gets truncated to a single closed syllable, the vowel remains:
    caf (truncation of cafeteria) has /æ/, not /eə/ like calf
    path (truncation of pathology) has /æ/, not /eə/ like path 'way, road'
    Mass (truncation of Massachusetts) has /æ/, not /eə/ like mass
  3. Function words and irregular verb tenses have lax /æ/, even in an environment which would usually cause tensing:
    and (a function word) has /æ/, not /eə/ like sand
    ran (a strong verb tense) has /æ/, not /eə/ like man

The phoneme /eə/ is also used in these accents before intervocalic /r/ in words like dairy and Mary and in non-rhotic varieties of these accents in words like square and scarce (which rhymes with glass for many non-rhotic speakers).

The phonemic tensing of æ is similar to the broad A phenomenon of certain other dialects. The environment of broad A overlaps with that of æ-tensing, in that broad A occurs before voiceless fricatives in the same syllable and before nasals in certain environments; and both phenomena involve replacement of the short lax vowel /æ/ with a longer and tenser vowel. However, the "broad A" is lower and backer than [æ], while the result of æ-tensing is higher and fronter.

It is also related to the bad-lad split of some Southern British and Australian dialects, in which a short flat /æ/ is lengthened to [æː] in some conditions. The most significant differences from the Philadelphian system described here are that bad-lad splitting dialects have the broad A phenomenon, so the split can't occur there; that 'sad' is long; and that lengthening can occur before /ɡ/ and /l/.

In Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961; Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster Inc.), the Mid-Atlantic tense æ (written with \aa(ə)\, the lax æ being \a\) is shown at individual entries as a variant pronunciation; for instance, the pronunciation of can "container" is \'kan, -aa(ə)n\. In the 11th (2003) edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which is partly derived from the Third unabridged, the distinction is discussed in an introductory section on pronunciation but ignored elsewhere in the text. The editors justify their decision by maintaining that "this distinction is sufficiently infrequent that the traditional practice of using a single symbol is followed in this book" (p. 34a).

Non-phonemic æ-tensing

In accents that have undergone the Northern cities vowel shift, the phoneme /æ/ is raised and tensed in all environments.[4]

Most other dialects of North American English display an /æ/ which is raised and tensed in some environments and lower and laxer in others, without splitting it into two contrasting phonemes as the New York and Philadelphia accents do. A common one is the "nasal system", in which /æ/ is raised and tensed exclusively before nasal consonants, regardless of whether there is a syllabic or morphemic boundary present. The nasal system is found in several separate and unrelated dialect regions, including the southern Midwest, northern New Jersey, Florida, and parts of Canada, among others, but it is most prominent—that is, the difference between the two allophones of /æ/ is greatest, and speakers with the nasal system are most concentrated—in eastern New England (see Boston accent).

More widespread among speakers of the Western United States, Canada, and southern Midwest is a "continuous" system. This resembles the nasal system in that /æ/ is usually raised and tensed to [eə] before nasal consonants, but instead of a sharp divide between a high, tense allophone before nasals and a low, lax one before other consonants, allophones of /æ/ occupy a continuum of varying degrees of height and tenseness between those two extremes, with a variety of phonetic and phonological factors interacting (sometimes differently in different dialects) to determine the height and tenseness of any particular example of /æ/.

In the Southern United States, the pattern most characteristic of Southern American English does not employ æ-tensing at all, but rather what has been called the "Southern drawl": /æ/ becomes in essence a triphthong [æjə]. However, many speakers from the South have the nasal æ-tensing system described above, particularly in Charleston, Atlanta, and Florida; and speakers from New Orleans have been reported to have a system very similar to the phonemic split of New York[5].

æ-tensing before /ɡ/

For some speakers in Canada and the northern and northwestern United States, a following /ɡ/ tenses an /æ/ as much as or more than a following nasal does; in much of the Midwest not affected by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, this extends to the point that /æ/ merges with /eɪ/ before /ɡ/, so that bag rhymes with plague. These usually remain distinct from /ɛɡ/ as in egg.

Development of the /ɑː/ phoneme

In Modern English, a new phoneme /ɑː/ developed that didn't exist in Middle English. The phoneme /ɑː/ comes from three sources: the word father lengthening from /a/ to /aː/ for an unknown reason (thus splitting from gather);[6] the compensatory lengthening of the short /a/ in words like calm, palm, psalm when /l/ was lost in this environment; and the lengthening of /a/ before /r/ in words like car, card, hard, part, etc. In most dialects that developed the broad A class, words containing it joined this new phoneme /ɑː/ as well. The new phoneme also became common in onomatopoeic words like baa, ah, ha ha, as well as in foreign borrowed words like spa, taco, llama, drama, lava, Bahamas, pasta, many of which vary between /ɑː/ and /æ/ among different dialects of English.

See also


  1. ^ Kortmann and Schneider, p. 122.
  2. ^ It is also used in Wells, 1982.
  3. ^ Labov (2005), p. 39.
  4. ^ Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006:ch. 13)
  5. ^ Labov, "Transmission and Diffusion"
  6. ^ Wells, p. 206


Trap-bath split

  • 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). 
  • Gupta, A. F., Baths and becks, English Today 81, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp21–27 (2005).
  • Kortmann, Bernd; Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Mesthrie, Rajend; & Upton, Clive (Eds.). (2004). A handbook of varieties of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bad-lad split

  • Horvath, Barbara M. and Ronald J. Horvath. (2001). Short A in Australian English: A geolinguistic study. In English in Australia, ed. D. Blair and P. Collins, 341–55. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Leitner, Gerhard. (2004). Australia's Many Voices. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-018194-0 (vol. 1), ISBN 3-11-018195-9 (vol.2). 
  • 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). 


  • Benua, L. 1995. Identity effects in morphological truncation. In Papers in optimality theory, ed. J. N. Beckman, L. Walsh Dickey, and S. Urbanczyk. UMass Occasional Papers 18. Amherst: GLSA, 77–136.
  • Ferguson, C. A. 1972. "Short a" in Philadelphia English. In Studies in linguistics in honor of George L. Trager, ed. M. E. Smith, 259–74. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Kahn, D. 1976. Syllable-based generalizations in English phonology. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA. Reproduced by the Indiana University Linguistics Club.
  • Labov, W. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Labov, W. 1981. Resolving the Neogrammarian controversy. Language 57:267–308.
  • Labov, W. 2005. Transmission and Diffusion.
  • Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  • Trager, G. L. 1930. The pronunciation of "short a" in American Standard English. American Speech 5:396–400.
  • Trager, G. L. 1934. What conditions limit variants of a phoneme? American Speech 9:313–15.
  • Trager, G. L. 1940. One phonemic entity becomes two: The case of "short a". American Speech 15:255–58.
  • Trager, G. L. 1941. ə ˈnəwt on æ ənd æ˔ˑ in əˈmerikən ˈiŋɡliʃ. Maître Phonétique 17–19.
  • Wells, J. C. 1982. Accents of English. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

External links

  • Sounds Familiar? — Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website, including an audio "bath" map of the UK


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