Phonological history of English high front vowels
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The weak-vowel merger is a phonemic merger of /ə/ (schwa) with unstressed /ɪ/ (sometimes transcribed as /ɨ/ or /ᵻ/) in certain dialects of English. As a result of this merger the words abbot and rabbit rhyme; in accents without the merger they are distinct. The merger is nearly complete in the Southern Hemisphere accents and General American, and complete in Hiberno-English.
Even in accents that generally maintain the distinction, it may still likely merge in other circumstances:
- /ər/ and /ɨr/ have merged in virtually all accents when they occur at the end of a word or before consonants.[dubious ] These two sequences are otherwise less likely to merge before vowels, but still more likely to merge than /ə/ and /ɨ/ alone. In Received Pronunciation, this became /ər/ before vowels, and /ə/ elsewhere. In General American, this became /ɚ/ in all positions.
- /əl/ and /ɨl/ have merged in most accents when they occur at the end of a word or before consonants (especially if the /l/ is dark [ɫ]), becoming /əl/ or /l̩/. In accents where /ɨl/ survives, it is usually realized as /ɪl/ and may not be articulated as a weak vowel at all; in modern Received Pronunciation and General American, this tends to sound archaic or stilted.
- /ən/ and /ɨn/ have merged into /n̩/ after /t/ or /d/ in General American, creating the sequences /tn̩ dn̩/. /tn̩/ in particular often simplifies to [ʔn̩]. The weak vowel may reappear when a word is enunciated syllable by syllable. In Received Pronunciation, the distinction is still often made, resulting in non-rhyming pairs such as "Martin" vs. "Barton".
The following end differently for speakers without the merger:
- ribbon, cabin
- carrot, merit
The kit–bit split is a split of EME /ɪ/ found in South African English, where kit [kɪt] and bit [bət] do not rhyme. It is not clear whether this is a true phonemic split, since the distribution of the two sounds is predictable: [ɪ] is used adjacent to velars (kiss, gift, lick, big, sing, kit), after /h/ (hit), word-initially (inn), generally before /ʃ/ (fish), and by some speakers before /tʃ, dʒ/; [ə] is used elsewhere (limb, dinner, limited, bit). Nevertheless because of the phonetic similarity of the two vowels in a word like dinner [ˈdənə], they may belong to the same phoneme /ə/, while the vowel of kiss, big, hit, inn etc. belongs to the phoneme /ɪ/.
The kit–bit split is perhaps the most distinctive feature of South African English, as many of its other features are also found in New Zealand English. In New Zealand English, however, a centralized realization of /ɪ/ as /ə/ is general: there is no split and the vowels of kit and bit are pronounced identically.
Because of the centralized realization of the vowel /ɪ/ in some words in South African English, South Africans are often stereotyped as pronouncing "woman" and "women" the same way, as "women" has the vowel [ə]. In reality, they are distinct in South African English. "woman" is /wʊmən/ and "women" is /wəmən/, so they are distinct and never confused.
The pin–pen merger is a conditional merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal stops [m], [n], and [ŋ]. The merged vowel is usually closer to [ɪ] than to [ɛ] (examples include: kin-ken, bin-ben, and him-hem). The merger is widespread in Southern American English, and is also found in many speakers in the Midland region immediately north of the South, and in areas settled by migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who settled in the Western United States during the dustbowl, particularly in Bakersfield, California. It is also a characteristic of African American Vernacular English.
Although this merger was not complete in the South even in fairly recent times, there is very little variation throughout the Southern States in general, except that Savannah, Austin, Miami, and New Orleans are excluded from the merger. The area of consistent merger includes southern Virginia and most of the South Midland, and extends westward to include much of Texas.
The northern limit of the merged area shows a number of irregular curves. Central and southern Indiana is dominated by the merger, but there is very little evidence of it in Ohio, and northern Kentucky shows a solid area of distinction around Louisville.
In the west, there is sporadic representation of merged speakers in Washington, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. But the most striking concentration of merged speakers in the west is around Bakersfield, California, a pattern that may reflect the trajectory of migrant workers from the Ozarks westward.
The pin–pen merger is one of the most widely recognized features of Southern speech. A study of the written responses of Civil War veterans from Tennessee, together with data from the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States and the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle South Atlantic States, show that the merger was at a very low level through the first sixty years of the 19th century, but then rose steeply to 90% in the middle of the 20th century.
Outside the South, the majority of North American English speakers maintain a solid distinction in perception and production, though there are in almost every region of the United States—and even a few places in Canada—a certain number of speakers that perceive the pairs of words as close or pronounce them acoustically closely.
People that have the merger will often add descriptive modifiers, producing constructions such as ink pen and stick/straight or safety pin, to make a clear distinction between the two homophonous words.
Happy-tensing is the process in which final lax [ɪ] becomes tense [i] in words like happy. Happy-tensing is absent from many varieties of British English and, traditionally at least, from Southern American English. Other realizations of the final vowel are also possible, such as [e] in Scottish English. The history of happy-tensing is difficult to pin down; the fact that it is uniformly present in South African English, Australian English, and New Zealand English implies that it was present in southern British English already at the beginning of the 19th century. Yet it is not mentioned by descriptive phoneticians until the early 20th century, and even then at first only in American English. The British phonetician Jack Windsor Lewis believes that the vowel moved from [i] to [ɪ] in Britain the second quarter of the nineteenth century before reverting to [i] in Britain towards the last quarter of the twentieth century.
The fleece merger is the merger into the vowel /iː/ (as in meet, piece, see, believe) of the Early Modern English vowel /eː/ (usually spelled ea, as in meat, peace, sea, receive). The merger is complete outside the British Isles and virtually complete within them. Some speakers in Northern England distinguish /iː/ or /əi/ in the first group of words and /ɪə/ in the second group. Old-fashioned varieties of Hiberno-English and the West Country dialects preserve the Early Modern English /iː/–/eː/ contrast, for instance piece ≠ peace ≠ pace, but it is rare in these accents nowadays.[clarification needed] A handful of words (such as break, steak, great) escaped the merger in the standard accents and thus have the same vowel as words like brake, stake, grate in almost all varieties of English. The word threat rhymes with neither meat nor great, due to early shortening (see section below), although all three words once rhymed.
In some dialects that preserve the distinction, things are more complicated than simply all words in the meat set having /ɪə/. In those accents, some (but not all) words in the meat set actually have a sound resembling /ɛɪ/ as in eight. In Alexander (2001), a book about the traditional Sheffield dialect, the spelling "eigh" is used for the vowels of eat and meat but the spelling "eea" is used for the vowels of team and cream. However, a 1999 survey in Sheffield found that the /ɛɪ/ pronunciation is almost extinct.
The words team and cream, which have /ɪə/ in the traditional Yorkshire accents, have original long vowels, going back to Old English tēam and Old French creme respectively, while eat (< OE etan) and meat (< OE mete) have vowels that were originally short but lengthened by Middle English open syllable lengthening. This is the origin of the Yorkshire distinction.
In accents with the distinction, the vowel /ɪə/ is usually represented by the spellings ea and eCe, as in neat and complete, and the vowel /ɛɪ/ is usually represented by the spellings ei and ey, as in receive and key, and the vowel /iː/ is usually represented by the spellings ee, ie and iCe as in feet, thief and suite, as well as plain e in the monosyllabic words be, he, me, she, the (when stressed), we and ye.
The mitt–meet merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English and Singaporean English where the phonemes /iː/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced /i/. As a result, pairs like "mitt" and "meet", "bit" and "beat", "bid" and "bead" etc. are homophones.
The met–mat merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English, Singaporean English and Hong Kong English where the phonemes /ɛ/ and /æ/ are both pronounced /ɛ/. For some speakers, this only occurs in front of voiceless consonants, so that pairs like "met", "mat", "bet", "bat" are homophones, but "bed", "bad" or "med", "mad" are kept distinct. For others, it occurs in all positions.
Shortening of /ɛː/
The shortening of /ɛː/ is a process that occurred in Middle English that caused Middle English /ɛː/ to be shortened in some words. As a result, "bred" and "bread" became homophones as /brɛd/ which were previously distinguished as /brɛd/ and /brɛːd/. The shortening of /ɛː/ occurred mostly before /d/ and /ð/, and sometimes elsewhere.
Change of /iːə/ to /ɪə/
The change of /iːə/ to /ɪə/ is a change where bisyllabic /iːə/ becomes smoothed to the diphthong /ɪə/ in certain words, leading to pronunciations like /ˈvɪəkəl/, /ˈθɪətə/ and /aɪˈdɪə/ for "vehicle", "theatre/theater" and "idea" respectively. This is not restricted to any one variety of English; it happens in both British English and (less noticeably or often) American English as well as other varieties; although it is far more common in the former, as some Americans do not have the phoneme /ɪə/ in their speech. The words which have the /iːə/ to /ɪə/ may vary depending on dialect. Dialects that have this smoothing usually also have the diphthong /ɪə/ in words like "beer", "deer" and "fear" which are pronounced /bɪə/, /dɪə/ and /fɪə/ in those dialects. Some northern English accents have /ɪː/ instead of /ɪə/ in all words affected by idea smoothing, and some have /ɪː/ for the first vowel in words such as period, serious, etc. but then /iːə/ for the second vowel.
Merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/
A merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ (both sounding like [ɪ]) occurs for some speakers of Newfoundland English (Wells Pg. 500). As a result, bit and bet are homophones as /bɪt/.
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