/æ/ tensing

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In the sociolinguistics of the English language, /æ/ tensing is a phenomenon in most American and many Canadian English accents, by which the "short a" vowel (/æ/ or the North American TRAP/BATH vowel, found in such words as ash, bath, man, lamp, pal, rag, sack, trap, etc.) in various environments undergoes tensing: in other words, being pronounced with extra raising of the tongue, lengthening, and gliding. The realization of this "tense" (as opposed to "lax") /æ/ varies from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] to [eə] to [ɪə], and is greatly dependent on the speaker's particular dialect. A common realization is [eə], a transcription that will be used throughout this article to represent the tensed vowel.[1] The most common context for tensing /æ/ throughout North American English, regardless of dialect, is when this vowel appears before a nasal consonant (thus, for example, commonly in fan, but rarely in fat).[2]

For the purposes of the chart below, [eə] represents a very tense vowel, [ɛə] a somewhat tense (or intermediate) vowel, and [æ] a non-tense (or lax) vowel, and the symbol "~" represents a continuous system in which the vowel may variably waver between two pronunciations.

/æ/ tensing in North American English[3]
Environment Example words Dialect
Consonant after /æ/ Syllable type Canadian, Northwestern USA, & Upper Midwestern USA Baltimore & Philadelphia Eastern New England General USA, Midland USA, & Western USA Great Lakes New York City & New Orleans Southern USA & African American Vernacular
/r/ open [ɛ(ə)] [æ] [ɛ(ə)~æ] [ɛ(ə)] [ɛ(ə)] [æ] [ɛ(ə)]
/m/, /n/ closed [ɛə~æ] [eə] [eə~æ] [eə~æ] [eə] [eə] [eə~ɛ(j)ə]
open [æ] [æ]
/g/ closed [e~æ] [æ] [æ] [eə] [æ~ɛ(j)ə]
open [æ]
/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/ closed [æ] [ɛə~æ] [ɛə~æ] [eə]
/f/, /s/, /θ/ closed [eə]
all other consonants [æ] [æ]

Distinction between phonemic and non-phonemic /æ/ tensing[edit]

Short-a (or /æ/) tensing has two possible forms: either non-phonemic ("continuous") or phonemic ("split"). In General American, for example, the word man can be pronounced on a continuum from the lax-vowel About this sound [mæn] to the tense-vowel About this sound [meən], though the latter pronunciation is much more common. However, both vowel qualities are considered possible variations (allophones) of the single "short a" phoneme in man. Therefore, General American uses a continuous system in which a tensed allophone does not demonstrate that a new phoneme has splintered off from the original.

In some American English dialects, though, including the New York City and Philadelphia ones, the "short a" sound can actually split into two entirely distinct phonemes, so that using a tense vowel rather than a lax vowel can potentially change the meanings of words or phrases. For instance, in traditional Philadelphia English, the surname Manning can only be pronounced with a lax vowel as [ˈmænɪŋ]. If it is pronounced tensely as [ˈmeənɪŋ], it may be perceived by a Philadelphian as an entirely different word: the verb manning (as in "He was manning the vehicle"). Therefore, such dialects have a phonemic split of the "short a" vowel, sometimes called a "short-a split system". This relationship between two words (like Manning and manning) that differ in only a single differentiating sound is known as a minimal pair. Here are further examples of minimal pairs of the short a, using the Philadelphia and General American accents for reference as, respectively, phonemic and non-phonemic accents:

Example words Philadelphia General U.S.
e.g. The calf was born today.
e.g. Students must eat in the caf.
[kʰeəf] versus
both, typically: About this sound [kʰæf]
e.g. A knife can halve the bread in two.
e.g. She might have fun.
[heəv] versus
both, typically: About this sound [hæv]
e.g. He was manning the control panel.
e.g. We met the Manning family.
[ˈmeənɪŋ] versus
both, typically: [ˈmeənɪŋ]
e.g. He's madder than a rabid dog.
e.g. Discuss this matter further.
[ˈmeəɾɚ] versus
both, typically: About this sound [ˈmæɾɚ]
e.g. I grabbed a mass of clay.
e.g. She works at Mass General.
[meəs] versus
both, typically: About this sound [mæs]
plan it
e.g. We'll plan it after breakfast.
e.g. The planet orbits the Sun.
['pʰɫeənɪt] versus
both, typically: About this sound ['pʰɫeənɪt]

Phonemic /æ/ tensing systems[edit]

Phonemic tensing occurs in the dialects of New York City and the Mid-Atlantic States (centering on the cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore). It is similar, in its patterns but not in its pronunciation, to the "broad a" phenomenon of certain British English, including the London and standard British dialects. The environment of "broad a" overlaps with that of /æ/ tensing, in that it occurs before voiceless fricatives in the same syllable and before nasals in certain environments; and both phenomena involve replacement of the short lax vowel /æ/ with a longer and tenser vowel. However, the "broad a" is lower and backer than [æ], while the result of /æ/ tensing is higher and fronter.

It is also related to the bad–lad split of some Southern British and Australian dialects, in which a short flat /æ/ is lengthened to [æː] in some conditions. The most significant differences from the Philadelphian system described here are that bad–lad splitting dialects have the "broad a" phenomenon, so the split can't occur there; that 'sad' is long; and that lengthening can occur before /ɡ/ and /l/.

In Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961; Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster Inc.), the Mid-Atlantic tense /æ/ (written with \aa(ə)\, the lax /æ/ being \a\) is shown at individual entries as a variant pronunciation; for instance, the pronunciation of can "container" is \'kan, -aa(ə)n\. In the 11th (2003) edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which is partly derived from the Third unabridged, the distinction is discussed in an introductory section on pronunciation but ignored elsewhere in the text. The editors justify their decision by maintaining that "this distinction is sufficiently infrequent that the traditional practice of using a single symbol is followed in this book" (p. 34a).

New York City[edit]

In traditional New York City English, the tense /eə/ is traditionally an entirely separate phoneme from /æ/ as a result of a phonetic split. Nevertheless, the distribution between /æ/ and /eə/ is largely predictable. In New York, tensing occurs in closed syllables before the /n/, /m/, /f/, /θ/, /s/, /ʃ/, and voiced stops. The word avenue normally has tense [eə] (unlike average, etc.). In open syllables, /æ/ tends to stay lax, regardless of the following consonant.

Exceptions in New York City English include the following:

  1. Function words with simple codas[5]
    can (simple coda) [æ] vs. can't (complex coda) has [eə]
  2. Learned words (i.e. borrowed words) typically are lax[5]
    alas and carafe with [æ]
  3. Abbreviated personal names are usually lax[5]
    Cass and Babs with [æ]
  4. When a vowel-initial word-level suffix is added to a word with tense [eə], the vowel remains tense even though it has come to stand in an open syllable:
    mannish has [eə] like man, not [æ] like manage
    classy has [eə] like class, not [æ] like classic
    passing has [eə] like pass, not [æ] like Pasadena

The New York split system has also diffused into Albany, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and nearby parts of New Jersey.[5]

Northern New Jersey[5][edit]

In Northern New Jersey, Labov finds the New York City system, but with some variability. East of the Hackensack River, i.e., by Hoboken, Elizabeth, and Jersey City, Labov finds the split with no more variation than in the city itself.

Between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, Labov finds speakers typically lack the function word constraint. Thus, am, can (the verb), an, and and all typically result with tense [eə]. Labov also reports variable tensing in open syllables, resulting in potential tensing of planet and fashionable.

West of the Passaic River, /æ/-tensing only occurs before nasals.


Like in Northern New Jersey, Labov finds that the New York split system has also diffused in Albany with some alterations. Whereas the function is lost in Northern New Jersey, Labov reports that the function constraint is only weakened in Albany. Thus, can, an, and has may be tensed while have and had may be lax. Also, while the open syllable constraint is variable in Northern New Jersey; Labov reports that in Albany, this constraint is absent altogether. Thus, national, cashew, family, camera, planet, and manner are all tense.

Older Cincinnati[5][edit]

Labov finds the remnants of the New York split system present in the now-declining traditional dialect of Cincinnati, with similar variations to Northern New Jersey and Albany. Like in Albany, the open syllable constraint is completely absent, and the function word and is reported as being lax.

Labov further reports consistently laxing before /g/. While, in New York, tensing before voiced fricatives in variable, it is reported as consistent in Cincinnati.

Philadelphia and Baltimore[edit]

Philadelphia and Baltimore use a different short-a system than New York City, though it is similar in that it is also a split system. Tensing does not occur before voiced stops and /ʃ/, with the only exceptions being mad, bad, and glad. Here are further examples that are true for Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as New York City:

Tense [eə] Lax [æ]
man [meən] hang [hæŋ]
ham [heəm] pal [pʰæɫ]
laugh [ɫeəf] lap [ɫæp]
bath [beəθ] bat [bæt]
pass [pʰeəs] passage [ˈpʰæsɪdʒ]

Philadelphia/Baltimore exceptions include the New York exceptions listed above and other which include the following:

  1. When a polysyllabic word with [æ] in an open syllable gets truncated to a single closed syllable, the vowel remains lax:
    caf (truncation of cafeteria) has [æ], not [eə] like calf
    path (truncation of pathology) has [æ], not [eə] like path 'way, road'
    Mass (truncation of Massachusetts) has [æ], not [eə] like mass
  2. Function words and irregular verb tenses have lax [æ], even in an environment which would usually cause tensing:
    and (a function word) has [æ], not [eə] like sand
    ran (a strong verb tense) has [æ], not [eə] like man

Non-phonemic /æ/ tensing systems[edit]

Universal /æ/ tensing[edit]

In accents that have undergone the Northern cities vowel shift, the phoneme /æ/ is raised and tensed in all possible environments.[6] The most clear example of this is with the Inland North dialect, spoken in such areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse.

/æ/ tensing before /m/ and /n/[edit]

Most American and many Canadian English speakers, at the very least, display an /æ/ that is raised (tensed) and diphthongized before any m or n sound, as for example found in camp, man, ram, pan, ran, clamber, Sammy, etc., while being otherwise lower and laxer, without splitting the "short a" into two contrasting phonemes as the New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Yat accents do. A common form of this is what William Labov calls the "nasal system", in which /æ/ is raised and tensed most severely, though not necessarily exclusively, before nasal consonants, regardless of whether there is a syllabic or morphemic boundary present. The nasal system is found in several separate and unrelated dialect regions, including the southern Midwest, northern New Jersey, Florida, and parts of Canada, among others, but it is most prominent—that is, the difference between the two allophones of /æ/ is greatest, and speakers with the nasal system are most concentrated—in eastern New England (including in the Boston accent).

More widespread among speakers of the Western United States, Canada, and southern Midwest is a "continuous system," which also revolves around "short a" before nasal consonants, but does not have quite as extreme a raising of the tongue as the "nasal system" does. Most varieties of General American English fall under this category. This system resembles the nasal system in that /æ/ is usually raised and tensed to [eə] before nasals, but instead of a sharp divide between a high, tense allophone before nasals and a low, lax one before other consonants, allophones of /æ/ occupy a continuum of varying degrees of height and tenseness between those two extremes, with a variety of phonetic and phonological factors interacting (sometimes differently in different dialects) to determine the height and tenseness of any particular example of /æ/.

In the Southern United States, the pattern most characteristic of Southern American English does not employ /æ/ tensing at all, but rather what has been called the "Southern drawl": /æ/ becomes in essence a triphthong [æjə]. However, many speakers from the South do still have the nasal /æ/-tensing system described above, particularly in Charleston, Atlanta, and Florida; and certain speakers from the New Orleans area have been reported to have a system very similar to the phonemic split of New York.[7]

Additional /æ/ tensing before /ɡ/ and /ŋ/[edit]

For speakers in most of Canada and in the North-Central and Northwestern United States, a following /ɡ/ (as in magazine, rag, bags, etc.) or /ŋ/ (as in bang, pang, gangster, angler, etc.) tenses an /æ/ as much as or more than a following nasal does; in much of the Midwest and some of the Pacific Northwest, this extends to the point that /æ/ even merges with /eɪ/, so that bag, for example, rhymes with plague or vague.


  1. ^ It is also used in Wells, 1982.
  2. ^ Boberg, Charles (Spring 2001). "Phonological Status of Western New England". American Speech, Volume 76, Number 1. pp. 3-29 (Article). Duke University Press. p. 11: "The vowel /æ/ is generally tensed and raised [...] only before nasals, a raising environment for most speakers of North American English".
  3. ^ Labov et al. (2006), p. 182.
  4. ^ Trager, George L. (1940) One Phonemic Entity Becomes Two: The Case of 'Short A' in American Speech: 3rd ed. Vol. 15: Duke UP. 256. Print.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g http://www.ling.upenn.edu/phonoatlas/PLC3/Ch15.pdf
  6. ^ Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006:ch. 13)
  7. ^ Labov, "Transmission and Diffusion"