Reanalyzing the English vowel system

I thought I’d already written this post, but if I have, I can’t find it.

Traditionally, American English is analyzed as having eleven or twelve monophthongs, /æ ɑ ɛ ʌ ɔ e o ɪ ʊ i u/ + /ɚ/, and three diphthongs, /ai au oi/; but there’s a common dialectal feature that are difficult to explain in this analysis.

This process is l-breaking: after /e i ai oi/, /l/ breaks to /(j)əl/—so the words palepeelpile, and boil all have two syllables. L-breaking occurs sporadically after /au/—for me, howl has one syllable and owl has two—and some speakers have it after /u/, so school has two syllables for them.

In the traditional analysis, /e i ai oi/ don’t form a natural class. They’re all front vowels, and they’re all front ‘long vowels’, but what are long vowels really? Certainly not phonemically long; nobody believes that the contrast between /ɛ/ and /e/—or, worse, /ɛ/ and /i/—is one of length. It would be possible to posit a ‘long vowel’ category that only makes sense diachronically, if not for the fact that l-breaking also occurs after Vr sequences. 

The only Vr sequence (other than the rhotic vowel, which doesn’t trigger l-breaking) that occurs before /l/ in common English is /ar/, about which see here. (It’s sporadic in that show, but it can occur.) /erl/ can occur in some foreign surnames, and in my experience, it’s always pronounced with two syllables. I don’t know of any examples of /irl/ or /orl/.

How can /e i ai oi ar er/ (and maybe /ir or/, and sometimes /au/ and /u/) form a natural class? The answer is simple: phonetically, /e i ai oi au u/ are all diphthongs. (/o/ is also phonetically a diphthong [əu], but it has an allophone [o] that appears before /l/; [o] is in fact marginally phonemic for some speakers, since it occurs irregularly in a few words, like both, which can be seen misspelled bolth.) This suggests that Vr sequences should also be analyzed as diphthongs. The choice of symbol is somewhat arbitrary (although monophthongized /ai/ contrasts with both [æ] and [ɑ])—but in this analysis, American English has eight monophthongs, /æ ɑ ɛ ʌ ɔ ɪ ʊ ɚ/; four i-diphthongs, /ai ei oi ɪi/; three u-diphthongs, /æu əu ʊu/; and four ɚ-diphthongs, /aɚ eɚ oɚ iɚ/.

This analysis also explains some of the phonetic drift in some dialects: the first components of /əu ʊu/ front because there are no diphthongs like /eu iu/ for them to contrast with, and the first components of /oi oɚ/ raise for similar reasons.

A similar analysis of British English is here.


6 responses to “Reanalyzing the English vowel system

  1. Pingback: Reanalyzing the English vowel system | Reaction Times

  2. E October 24, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    One of my earliest school memories involved my first grade teacher having us go around and clap the number of syllables in whatever word she gave us. She gave me “seal” and I clapped twice, and was told I was wrong. I tried to argue, but even a very bright 7-year-old isn’t going to be a rhetorical match for a teacher. She was actually one of my more flexible teachers–she took me to the library encyclopedia rather than telling me I was wrong when I blurted out that Mt Everest was the tallest mountain (yeah, I was that kind of kid). Anyhow, I think I can point to the “seal” incident as the beginning of my decent into ignoring what polite society says I should believe… (That, and an interest in phonetics)

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