The Oral-Aural Merger?
Posted by Neal on November 24, 2012
I sent a message to the American Dialect Society email list earlier this month, about a pronunciation that I’ve begun to wonder about recently. Here’s what I wrote, but with more accurate IPA symbols inserted:
I’m sure this has been analyzed somewhere at some point, but I don’t know where. What is the dialect that has [ɔ] lowering to [ɑ] in a stressed vowel preceding /ɹ/ and an unstressed vowel? In other words, the dialect that pronounces forest as “farrest,” Florida as “Flarrida”,Oregon as “Ahregun,” horrible etc. as “harrible” etc., authority as “autharity”, but still has [ɔ] in fort, lore, etc.? What is this realization called?
I’ve been vaguely aware of it for many years, but have begun to notice it more, especially among certain NPR speakers. I even heard one guy on Planet Money talk about a “flarrist” (florist), which is right in line with the phonetic environment I described, but was still a new pronunciation to me.
Actually, this question is complicated by the fact that various historically distinct vowels have merged in various combinations in various dialects of English when they appear before /ɹ/. These include the so-called Mary-merry-marry merger, the steer-stir merger, the fir-fur merger, and others, which you can read about in this Wikipedia post. I was even surprised to learn about a horse-hoarse merger, which made me realize that my father was not joking or deluding himself when he once claimed that for him horse and hoarse were not homophones. I pronounce them both [hɔɹs], but speakers without this merger pronounce hoarse as [hoɹs]. I have a hard time even imagining this pronunciation, with [o] coming before an [ɹ] at the end of a syllable (or in coda position, as phoneticians say), and have never perceived it in Dad’s speech. However, I can definitely hear it when it comes before [ɹ] at the beginning of a syllable (that is, in onset position). If you know my father, you can hear it when he calls someone a moron, which he has always pronounced [moɹɑn]: “Mo-ron!” When he does that, I find myself imagining a Southern pair of twin boys, named Jim Bob and Mo Ron. (For more on vowels before [ɹ], see this post.)
Anyway, I got some interesting responses. Kate Svoboda-Spanbock wrote, “It is a longstanding source of amusement to my L.A.-bred children, who laugh when I say AH-rinj but who nonetheless say that they are SAH-rry.” Her post jolted me into looking at my own pronunciation, because I definitely say “SAH-rry” (i.e. [sɑɹI]), and for that matter “to-MAH-row” and SAH-row,” and find the [ɔɹ] pronunciations of these words unusual.
In fact, my “SAH-rry” might not even match that of Kate’s children, because phonetically, there is more than one “ah” sound. There’s the low back unround [ɑ] that I’ve been using in the IPA notations, but there’s also the low back round [ɒ], which might appear in cough, depending on your dialect. To tell you the truth, I’m not very good at distinguishing the low back vowels, and as far as I can tell, I might be using either of them.
Ben Zimmer wrote that [ɑɹ] instead of [ɔɹ] was common in New York City, as well as in Philadelphia and the Carolinas, and gave a link to the Wikipedia page I linked to above. Paul Johnston corroborated, citing his NYC parents’ consistent [ɑɹ] pronunciation, while also noting his own nearly universal shift to [ɔɹ] in his adult life.
Larry Horn wrote that the change is almost certainly happening via lexical diffusion–that is, somewhat haphazardly on a word-by-word basis. He recalled social pressure he experienced to change some of his pronunciations in college:
[T]ypically, whatever the shibboleths are may be under the most pressure to change, which is why I switched [to the [ɔɹ] pronunciation] on corridor and moral earlier–and more consistently than–Florida or florist.
Joel Berson confirmed the somewhat unpredictable nature of this change, writing:
[M]y vacillations and shifts are different from Larry’s…. For example, I’m sure I seldom
say “florist” but mostly “flarrist”. But I say “floral”, not “flarral”.
Eventually, the discussion wandered to some of those other pre-R mergers that I mentioned earlier. Although I excluded from my query words that had [ɹ] in coda position, some of them came up in the discussion anyway. Matt Wilson mentioned the cord-card merger, which Wilson Gray (recalling his youth in Saint Louis) might have called the fort-fart merger. In elementary school, he and his classmates preferred to avoid saying any number between 39 and 50 for this reason. I also hear this kind of merger in the speech of Jessica Lange’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum.
As the discussion petered out, Charlie Doyle brought up the knock-knock joke that depends on the [ɑɹ] pronunciation of orange, whose punch line is “[ɑɹə̃nʤ] you glad I didn’t say ‘banana’?” That reminded me of a poem composed by Tom Lehrer in response to the challenge of finding a word that rhymed with orange:
Eating an orange
While making love
would make for bizarre enj-
A couple of respondents to my post noted that there wasn’t a nice, convenient name for this particular phonetic phenomenon. Larry Horn proposed and quickly rejected “East Coast Ah-ringe”. My humble proposal is in the title of this post. If any dialectologists are reading this, what do you say? Is there a name? If not, what do you propose? Ben Trawick-Smith, and Rick Aschmann, I’m looking at you!