the trouble with vowels

There are a couple of vowels that most distinguish my accent from those around me. One is the 'short a' sound before /s/. So, while I watch the [græs] growing ([æ] = the vowel in bat), everyone else is watching the [gras] growing ([a] = the first vowel in father)--or not growing, as the case may be. We've had months of drought--so much for the notion of rainy English weather.

The [æ]/[a] variation before /s/ is not much of a problem--it rarely results in misunderstandings between me and others. Half my friends seem to be from Liverpool, where people say [græs] like me, so in a way this isn't a 'foreign' pronunciation. It's only a little bit of a problem in my household because Better Half's company is called Smartpass, and the character who appears in all of their audio study guides is called the Passmaster, so I end up feeling a bit like an [æs] when I'm in a room full of people talking about BH's work and I'm the only one saying [pæsmæstr].

The vowel that causes more trouble is the 'short o'--i.e. the vowel in bob. Yesterday it was this very word that got me into trouble. I was playing a CD while working my shift in the charity shop, when a man asked who was singing:
Me: The Bobs.
Him (making a note of the name): The Barbs
Me (stressing the vowel, making it worse): The Bobs
Him: The Barbs
Me (catching on, using a more anglici{s/z}ed pronunciation): No, the Bobs. B-O-B-S.

I had a similar problem a few weeks before with BH. I told him I wanted to buy some caulk and re-caulk the shower. Now, half the problem here is that people don't talk about caulk in BrE. They buy sealant and re-seal the shower. But the other half of the problem was the vowel. BH thought it was odd that I'd want to put cork around the leaky bits of the shower.

Meanwhile, at Scrabble Club, I've been cruelly mocked (oh, they are so cruel at Scrabble Club) for looking for a 'bahx' instead of a 'bOx'. I'm having two problems in talking about this here. First, I don't know how to make the phonetic symbols here on Blogger (so, I'm using 'ah' and 'O'), and second, it's hard to explain the English sound to Americans, since this particular vowel sound generally doesn't exist in American English. To say it, one must round the lips slightly, rear the tongue back in the mouth (a little lower than one puts it for the vowel in law), and channel John Houseman. (You can hear all these vowels at the UCLA phonetics website.) After the Bobs incident yesterday, I was going about practi{c/s}ing: bauks, bAuhks, baks..., until BH proclaimed "By George, I think she's Rex Harrison!"


  1. I was teased something awful when I moved halfway across the US from Boston years ago, and often times people just plain couldn't understand what I was saying. I ended up actively trying to lose my accent so people wouldn't have to ask me to repeat myself over and over again.

    This might be helpful as far as finding the codes to use for funky pronunciation-guide characters: (In the places where they use a strange character, if you view the page source and find that spot in the page, you'll see there's a character entity starting with & that you enter to represent that character.)

    That's a lot of work, though. I was able to follow what you meant just fine.

  2. Glad you could follow it...I'll give stealing (aka nicking--see comments on the 20 June posting) other people's code a try next time I need an IPA symbol!

  3. You might find helpful. At least it should be easier than finding (nicking ;) entities in other peoples HTML-source code.

    Find more with google:

  4. I remember my English friend talking about his friend from school whose nickname was Stalk. But I thought he was saying "Stork". When I finally figured out what he was saying (Stalk) I asked him to say Stork, and it sounded exactly the same (even to him).

  5. I once worked for a man from the north-east of England who, because of Grimm's Tales or Grendel's Mother or another one of those purgative historical vowel-movements, used, as you'd expect, /aftə/ for RP /ɑftə/ and /bus/ for RP /bʌs/. However, the same global vocalic shift meant that, for RP fax (/faks/), he said something a bit like /fʌks/. After a few misunderstandings with tittering clients, I persuaded his wife to have a quiet word.

  6. Very interested by your Bobs/Barbs story, Lynne. For most of the last 40 years I'd always thought that the Beach Boys were singing "Bob, bob, bob, bob around" (well, it's what you DO after falling off your surfboard, isn't it?). I felt such a fool when someone pointed out to me the existence of this Barbara Ann person. Now I've heard your story I don't feel quite so embarrassed. "Happens to the best of us," as they say.

  7. Does anybody remember Northern Exposure? For years, I thought that HOLLING Vincoeur was called HARLING Vincoeur. Though why I should have imagined that a respectably North American cast had all turned non-rhotic is a mystery now.

  8. A similar story to the bobs/barbs one:

    I met some Americans while travelling, and they had a little girl of about three who was playing with her Barbie doll. I picked up one of the doll's little pink shoes and said to the girl "Are these Barbie's shoes?" (in my non-rhotic British accent).

    She laughed and said scornfully "No! They're Barrrbie's shoes!"

    I remembered that one of her travelling companions was called Bobby, and she must have thought I was facetiously asking if they were Bobby's shoes.

    Also: To describe the British "bob" vowel to Americans who don't have it, I think a reasonable approximation is to start with the vowel in "or" (which I think is basically the same both sides of the pond) and make it much, much shorter in length.

  9. @Rachael: the vowel in "or" is not the same in the US and England: in the US the "r" is pronounced, while in England it isn't.

    For example, the words "porn" and "pawn" are generally pronounced the same in England, but in the US they aren't.

    If I were to describe the most common quality for the vowel in "Bob" to an American, I would suggest the following:

    1. Start with the American vowel in "Bob".
    2. Shorten it.
    3. Round the lips while pronouncing the vowel.

  10. I am really starting to wonder why the British bother putting r's in their words at all! LOL

    And I think you could discribe it to americans like

  11. And then, Mindy & Rachael, for someone like me from Northern Ireland (or at least from my town, Portadown) Bob and Box don't have the same vowel sound at all. Bob has the same vowel sound as sob and law, whereas box's is the same as in fox and top. Very different (to me!)

    And neither of them is similar to the American sound.

    Speaking of the "American" accent, I used to live in Vancouver Canada and was very used to the general North American vowel sound for "Bob", etc.

    But I noticed that people from the Eastern US, and especially Wisconsin, had a much more pronounced version of it, one that sounded even more like "aah", at least to my ears. I could never get used to it and it always amused me faintly.

    I happened to work with a pathologist named Doctor Bob Wolber from Wisconsin. It seemed to me that he was Daahcter Baahb Waahlber the pathaahlogist from Wiscaahnsin who always needed work done on his biaahpsies and autaahpsies.

  12. DC - I live in the NE US, and sob and law don't have anything close to the same vowel sound for me. Sob rhymes with bob, lob, mob; whereas law rhymes with paw, saw, slaw.

  13. I know, Kylinn - as I said, "for someone like me from Northern Ireland" those words sound similar.

    I wasn't suggesting that they were for Americans, if that's what you were thinking!

    But perhaps you are just emphasising my first point.

    ~ DC

  14. @DC Cardwell - It's key to remember that the Western Canada accent has different vowel sounds from various other North American accents (Have you noticed that Americans make fun of Canadian pronunciations of "about" and "sorry"?). And the Northeast will have a slightly different "Bob" vowel than the Midwest. It's funny to me as an East Coaster to see Wisconsin described as "Eastern US."

  15. vp: The actual *vowel* in "or" is the same, regardless of whether the R after it is pronounced or not.

    The US difference between "porn" and "pawn", however, is a difference in the actual vowel. An American could put an R in "pawn" to give the nonsense word "pawrn", which they would still pronounce differently from "porn".

  16. In that last sentence you might likd to change 'practicing' to 'practicing/practising'.
    (BrE spelling distinguishes between nouns and verbs the same as 'advice'/'advising'.)

  17. Rachel

    The actual *vowel* in "or" is the same, regardless of whether the R after it is pronounced or not.

    True, but strangely unhelpful.

    It seems obvious to anyone with even little phonetic training, but to the bulk of speakers in (for example) England it's counter-inuitive in the extreme.

    There's a message board I post on where everybody is interested in language but many have no idea of phonetics. It's a British Board (a revival of a defunct BBC board), so there are often exchanges between speakers from England and Scotland. Time and time agin, some English poster will write something like SHORN to illustrate the pronunciation of Sean. Time and time again, a Scottish poster will object with (usually) gentle ridicule. But it goes straight over the English poster's head. Even when somebody like me explains what the Scots are objecting to, the poster goes on using AR OR and UR to represent vowels.

    The psychological effect of speaking with a 'non-rhotc' accent is to perceive these combinations as single digraphs corresponding to 'long' vowels. The complication is that before another vowel, the R-sound is inserted — as in The shore is far away.

    Psychologically, that R-sound isn't a consonant but a little glide — for us non-rhotic speakers, that is, not for the rest of you. And some of us extend that glide to all words that end in a THOUGHT vowel. A few people do notice this and ridicule people like me who pronounce law and oder as if it was a woman called Laura Norder.

    This glide effect — so-called 'intrusive R' — isn't confined to England. I've heard recording of several African Americans singing of Norah and his ark.

    There's a relatively easy way to write with precision about these things without too much burden on the memory. The phonetician Joh Wells invented a number of sets of words LEXICAL SETS pronounced similarly within each accent of English. In my accent, words of the THOUGHT, NORTH and FORCE sets are identical. In your accent, THOUGHT words differ from NORTH and FORCE words. You may or may not have different sounds for NORTH and FORCE.

    Yes, it's not how phoneticians think. They don't treat a vowel as the same sort of thing as a vowel+consonant combination. But it makes intuitive sense. And it works.

  18. LEXICAL SETS offer a way of describing the Bob/barb phenomenon. It may not add much information to what has been said on this thread, but I believe it makes for more neutral statements. You don't have to understand the other guy's accent, or to know about phonetics.

    The three sets PALM, LOT and CLOTH are pronounced with two vowels in a typical British accent and a typical American accent. The problem is that we divide the sets differently.

    In a typical accent of England, the split is
    1 PALM

    In a typical US accent, the split is
    1 PALM-LOT
    2 CLOTH

    That's why we Brits (many of us) hear American bomb as the same as balm.

    In 'non-rhotic' accents typical of much of England and the Souther hemisphere, words of the START set sound exactly like words of the PALM set.

    OK, we do have a little R-sound before vowels — as in A star-R-is born. And some of us can say Utah-R-is a state. But in words like barb we hear a simple PALM sound. There's no difference between karma and calmer

    Because the association is so ingrained, we (people with accents like mine) regularly use the AR spelling to imitate the sound. There are lots of PALM-START words spelled with AR and not nearly as many spelled with AH or AL. So when we hear American Bob, we represent it not as BAHB or BALB but as BARB.

  19. British spelling:
    noun = 'advice', verb= 'advise'
    noun = 'licence', verb= 'license'
    noun = 'practice', verb= 'practise'
    Is Lynne just ignoring my last comment or does she disagree?

  20. I'm not ignoring your comment. I use both spellings in many other posts, and missed it here, but will change it, thanks.

    Please understand that I'm a person with a more-than-full-time job and a family life and I can't/don't always respond to everything immediately.

  21. Well said, Lynne. Illegitimi non carborundum... and more power to your elbow!

  22. Thanks, Lynne. I just thought perhaps you'd missed it. Didn't intend to seem rude.
    Kevin: Who are you calling illegitimi, you big snob. Or should I say 'biggus snobbius'? [This I did intend to seem rude!]

  23. I was about to comment about "balm" and "bomb" (how do Americans avoid ambiguity here? Context I assume?), when I saw that David Crosbie got there before me. But it reminded me of the amusing image conjured up by US Cold War rhetoric about sending what sounded like "missals" to Russia, as if it was a particularly Catholic approach to world peace.
    (In BrE we pronounce the second 'i' in missile like the final 'e' suggests we should.)

  24. 'Balm' and 'bomb' have very different vowels for me. Balm as in 'all', 'bomb' rhymes with 'Tom' (which of course has a different vowel than in BrE). For some, yes, there would be the same vowel, but 'balm' in AmE, but that is unlikely to cause many problems. English has plenty of homophones.

  25. That short /o/ as teachers in the US call it is too varied here to generalize. I live in Rahchester, New Yorrrk. My mother was from Cawncord, New Hampshuh and my father was from Pittsburgh, PA. When I was 12 visiting Pgh, my aunt and I were shopping and she asked me what size tawp I wore. I didn't understand so she asked what my braw size was. I was clueless for several more repeats until I finally got it-- brah!

    My mother had me call her Mother because she couldn't stand the sound of Maaahhhmmy. Yet that was what my father called his Irish grandmother, though spelled Mammie.

    When I first read Little Women, at 10 or so, I did think it odd to call one's mother MaRmee.

    In teaching kindergarten, the manual often suggests as rhymes things that don't in my area: frog and log (we say frahg and lawg). Dog and log do rhyme. On Long Island, I understand they say frawg but log is almost looawg.

    So, yes, I'm a school maRRRm; or a school mom?

  26. We do use the word caulk in ithe UK, but it is a different product from the silicone bathroom sealant, although they both come in plastic cartridges to go in what we would call a sealant gun.

    I think Americans would call them both caulk, and look for silicone caulk if they want what we call sealant?

    I'm not an expert but a quick google suggests that caulk is similar but less flexible, not suitable for very wet areas, and isn't almost impossible to paint over.

  27. @Kevin -- So late to the conversation, and totally off topic, but if you're still around, I'm American, named Barbara, and I thought for years that the Beach Boys were singing "Bob-Bob-Bob, Bob-Bob-buh'Rin" -- I don't think it was until I actually saw the title in print years later that I realized what the lyrics actually were.

    1. I blame the Beach Boys for their non-rhotic singing. As a BrE non-rhotic speaker I had no problem understanding Barb'ra-Ann, and didn't think it was odd that she "went to a dance looking for a man", hearing the "ce" of "romance" running onto the "s" of "saw". I think I know why the Beach Boys didn't sing "Bar Bar Bar Bar Bar Brann. it would've stop rhotic speakers hearing it as Bob, but it would've sounded dreadful.

    2. @ Dark Star in the Morning:

      American from the Midwest here. For years I thought the lyrics to that Beach Boys song were, "Bob Bob Bob, Bob Bob Moran."


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)