Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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-
oyment thereof.

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!

10 Responses to “The Oral-Aural Merger?”

  1. Clavis said

    I don’t think “Oral-Aural Merger” is the most descriptive title for this phenomenon, because I have them merged but both as open o. (I’m Canadian, and also have open o in sorry, tomorrow, etc. However, I only have open o before /r/, i.e. I have a cot-caught merger in the direction of back a otherwise.)

  2. Lauren said

    The title caught my attention, because I have the so-called oral/aural merger, except the other way in that they both go to [ɔ] or… I don’t know, something closer to [o] — I am a Northern Cities (Cleveland) speaker, myself, so all the vowels in my own speech still feel nebulous.

    Anyway, because of this merger, I was made fun of a LOT in music school in Columbus, Ohio, when we had to take a class called “Aural Training”. “Hurr hurr oral training.” Sigh.

    I wonder if the picture isn’t even more interesting once you look at these environments outside of that area. Is it possible that it’s the rest of us who are making the shift, not the east coast folks?

  3. dw said

    There is a historic distinction between pairs like “sorry”-“story”. The “sorry” set derives from Middle English short O, and the “story” set derives from Middle English long O. This distinction (when before intervocalic R) is preserved in all accents outside North America.

    This merger is parallel to the “nearer-mirror” and “Mary-merry” mergers that are also widespread in, and confined to, North America.

    Other words in the “sorry” set are:
    forest, sorry, coral, horrible, authority, orange, tomorrow, sorrow

    Other words in the “story” set are:
    lore, hoarse, floral, choral, oral

    This same distinction, when found before preconsonantal or morpheme-final R, constitutes the “horse”-“hoarse” merger you refer to above, which is by now widespread in most accents of English outside Scotland, Ireland and the Caribbean.

    The word “aural” is unusual and not a good choice for the title of this post (or the name of the merger). Its spelling suggests that it derives from Middle English /au/, which moved contemporaneously with the Great Vowel Shift to /ɒ:/ (along with words like THOUGHT). This vowel is rarely found before R, and I think its pronunciation in this position is somewhat anomalous and unpredictable.

    If you are familiar with the lexical sets of John Wells’s “Accents of English”, then the respective keywords are LOT, FORCE, and NORTH.

    • Neal said

      Thanks for the useful information here. I’ve been hearing about the lexical set for years, and encountering a few words of it at a time, but never all of them at once–not even on Wells’s blog, though I probably just haven’t looked hard enough. But I’m following your recommendation, and am going to check out his book from the OSU library this week.

  4. Ran said

    Re: “sorry”, “tomorrow”, etc.: My impression is that the only North Americans who pronounce these with [ɔ] are the same North Americans who also use [o] in “process” and “progress” (namely — Canadians), which is a completely different isogloss from the one that divides [ɔ] and [ɑ] pronunciations in “orange” and “horrible”. Phonologically the same thing may have happened, but dialectologically (?) I’m guessing that it’s more-or-less unrelated.

  5. Glen said

    I’m with Dad: I definitely hear a distinction between ‘horse’ and ‘hoarse’. And also between ‘course’ and ‘coarse’, and between ‘ore’ and ‘oar’. For me, the ‘oar’ sound is nearly a dipthong — kind of like ‘oh-are’, except heavily mushed together so it’s definitely a single syllable.

    • dw said


      Where are you from? Even people who distinguish “horse” and “hoarse” usually have ore-oar and course-coarse merged — in fact until now I wasn’t aware that any accent of English had them unmerged.

      • Ran said

        Given that Glen and Neal presumably grew up together, it’s reasonable to assume that Glen was exposed to both merged and unmerged pronunciations growing up; so it’s possible that he’s lexicalized a difference between a merged “ore” [ɔr] and an unmerged “oar” [or], and a merged “course” [kɔrs] and unmerged “coarse” [kors]. That is: he may have acquired a distinction between NORTH /ɔr/ and FORCE /or/ from speakers without the merger (such as his father), but learned various FORCE words with the NORTH vowel from speakers with the merger (such as his brother).

        (I mean, maybe there really is some accent where an old three-way “or”-vs.-“ore”-vs.-“oar” distinction collapsed into a different two-way distinction than the regular NORTH vs. FORCE, such that “ore” ended up with “or” instead of “oar”. But I doubt it.)

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