Lexical set

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A lexical set is a group of words that share a similar feature.

Wells Standard Lexical Sets for English[edit]

The Standard Lexical Sets for English introduced by John C. Wells in Accents of English[1] are in wide usage. Wells defined each lexical set on the basis of the pronunciation of words in two reference accents, which he calls RP and GenAm.

Wells classifies words of the English language into 24 lexical sets on the basis of the pronunciation of the vowel of their stressed syllable in the two reference accents. Each lexical set is named after a representative keyword, as follows:[4]

Keyword RP GenAm Example words
KIT i ɪ i ɪ ship, rip, dim, spirit
DRESS e e e ɛ step, ebb, hem, terror
TRAP a æ a æ bad, cab, ham, arrow
LOT o ɒ a ɑ stop, rob, swan
STRUT u ʌ u ʌ cub, rub, hum
FOOT u ʊ u ʊ full, look, could
BATH a ɑː a æ staff, clasp, dance
CLOTH o ɒ o ɔ cough, long, laurel, origin
NURSE e ɜː e ɜr hurt, term, work
FLEECE i i i seed, key, seize
FACE e e weight, rein, steak
PALM a ɑː a ɑ* calm, bra, father
THOUGHT o ɔː o ɔ* taut, hawk, broad
GOAT o əʊ o o soap, soul, home
GOOSE u u u who, group, few
PRICE a a ripe, tribe, aisle, choir
CHOICE o ɔɪ o ɔɪ boy, void, coin
MOUTH a a pouch, noun, crowd, flower
NEAR i ɪə i ɪr beer, pier, fierce, serious
SQUARE e ɛə e ɛr care, air, wear, Mary
START a ɑː a ɑr far, sharp, farm, safari
NORTH o ɔː o ɔr war, storm, for, aural
FORCE o ɔː o or floor, coarse, ore, oral
CURE u ʊə u ʊr poor, tour, fury

* not followed by /r/

For example, the word rod is pronounced /rɒd/ in RP and /rɑd/ in GenAm. It therefore belongs in the LOT lexical set. Weary is pronounced /ˈwɪərɪ/ in RP and /ˈwɪri/ in GenAm, and thus belongs in the NEAR lexical set.

Some words of the English language do not belong to any lexical set. For example, the stressed syllable of tomato is pronounced /ɑː/ in RP, and /eɪ/ in GenAm, a combination which is very unusual, and is not covered by any of the 24 lexical sets above.[5]

Choice of keywords[edit]

Wells explains his choice of keywords ("kit", "fleece", etc.) as follows:

[t]he keywords have been chosen in such a way that clarity is maximized: whatever accent of English they are spoken in, they can hardly be mistaken for other words. Although fleece is not the commonest of words, it cannot be mistaken for a word with some other vowel; whereas beat, say, if we had chosen it instead, would have been subject to the drawback that one man's pronunciation of beat may sound like another's pronunciation of bait or bit.[6]

Wherever possible, the keywords end in a voiceless alveolar or dental consonant.[6]

Unstressed vowels[edit]

Wells also describes three sets of words based on their word-final unstressed vowels. Although not included in the standard 24 lexical sets, these "have indexical and diagnostic value in distinguishing accents".[7]

Keyword Example words
happY silly, Tony, merry
lettER beggar, martyr, visor
commA China, sofa


The Standard Lexical Sets of Wells are widely used to discuss the phonological and phonetic systems of different accents of English in a clear and concise manner. Although based solely on RP and GenAm, the Standard Lexical Sets have proven useful in describing many other accents of English. This is true because, in many dialects, the words in all or most of the sets are pronounced with similar or identical stressed vowels. Wells himself uses the Lexical Sets most prominently to give "tables of lexical incidence" for all the various accents he discusses in his work. For example, here is the table of lexical incidence he gives for Newfoundland English:[8]

TRAP æ PALM æ, ɑː START ær
BATH æ PRICE əɪ happY [i]
CLOTH ɑː CHOICE əɪ lettER ər [ɚ]
NURSE ɜr MOUTH əu commA ə

The table indicates that, for example, Newfoundland English uses the /ɪ/ phoneme for words in the KIT lexical set, and that the NORTH, FORCE and CURE sets are all pronounced with the same vowel /ɔ̈r/. Note that some lexical sets, such as FACE, are given with more than one pronunciation: this indicates that not all words in the FACE lexical set are pronounced similarly (in this case because Newfoundland English has not fully undergone the pane–pain merger).[9] (Note that in 1982 Wells used an older version of the International Phonetic Alphabet which lacked many of the independent symbols for central vowels. 1982 /ɔ̈/ was the open-mid central rounded vowel, which today is /ɞ/.)

Wells also uses the Standard Lexical Sets to refer to "the vowel sound used for the standard lexical set in question in the accent under discussion":[10] Thus, for example, in describing the Newfoundland accent, Wells writes that "KIT and DRESS are reportedly often merged as [ɪ]",[11] meaning that the stressed syllables of words in the KIT lexical set and words in the DRESS lexical set are reportedly often pronounced identically with the vowel [ɪ].

Lexical sets may also be used to describe splits and mergers. For example, RP, along with most non-rhotic accents, pronounces words such as "father" and "farther" identically. This can be described more economically as the merger of the PALM and START lexical sets. Most North American accents make "father" rhyme with "bother". This can be described as the merger of the PALM and LOT lexical sets.


In a 2010 blog post, Wells wrote:

I sometimes think that a century from now my lexical sets will be the one thing I shall be remembered for. Yet I dreamt them up over a weekend, frustrated with the incoherent mess of symbols used in such contemporary publications as Weinreich's "Is a structural dialectology possible?".[12]

He also wrote that he claimed no copyright in the Standard Lexical Sets, and that everyone was "free to make whatever use of them they wish".[12]

Extensions for English[edit]

Some varieties of English make distinctions in stressed vowels that are not captured by the 24 lexical sets. For example, some Irish and Scottish accents that have not undergone the fern–fir–fur merger split the NURSE lexical set into multiple subsets. For such accents, the 24 Wells lexical sets may be inadequate. Because of this, a work devoted to Irish English may split the Wells NURSE set into two subsets, a new, smaller NURSE set and a TERM set.[13]

Some writers on English accents have introduced a GOAL to refer to a set of words that have the GOAT vowel in standard accents but may have a different vowel in Sheffield[14] or in south-east London.[15] Wells has stated that he didn't include a GOAL set because this should be interpreted as an allophone of GOAT that is sensitive to the morpheme boundary, which he illustrates by comparing the London pronunciations of goalie and slowly.[16]

Use in other languages[edit]

Lexical sets have also been used to describe the pronunciation of other languages, such as French.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wells (1982)
  2. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 117ff
  3. ^ Wells (1982), p. 118
  4. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 123ff
  5. ^ Wells (1982), p. 122
  6. ^ a b Wells (1982), p 123
  7. ^ Wells (1982), p. 165
  8. ^ Wells (1982 b), p. 499
  9. ^ Wells (1982 b), p. 498
  10. ^ Wells (1982), p. 124
  11. ^ Wells (1982 b), p. 500
  12. ^ a b "John Wells's phonetic blog: lexical sets". 2010-02-02. Retrieved 2010-04-30. 
  13. ^ Hickey, Raymond. A sound atlas of Irish English. Walter de Gruyter, 2004. pp. 54–55. ISBN 3-11-018298-X. 
  14. ^ Stoddart, Upton and Widowson in Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, page 76
  15. ^ Tollfree in Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, page 165
  16. ^ "John Wells's phonetic blog: the evidence of the vows". 2011-05-03. Retrieved 2014-02-17. 
  17. ^ Armstrong, Nigel (2001). Social and stylistic variation in spoken French: a comparative approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pp. 100ff. ISBN 90-272-1839-0. 


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