Pronunciation of English ⟨a⟩

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There are a variety of pronunciations in modern English and in historical forms of the language for words spelt with the letter a. Most of these go back to the low vowel (the "short A") of earlier Middle English, which later developed both long and short forms. The sound of the long vowel was altered in the Great Vowel Shift, but later a new long A (or "broad A") developed which was not subject to the shift. These processes have produced the three main pronunciations of a in present-day English: those found in the words trap, face and father. Separate developments have produced additional pronunciations in words like square, wash, talk and comma.


Late Middle English had two phonemes /a/ and /aː/, differing only in length. The /a/ ("short A") was found in words such as cat [kat] and trap [trap], and also before /r/ in words such as start [start]. The /aː/ ("long A") was found in words such as face [faːs], and before /r/ in words such as scare [skaːr]. This long A was generally a result of Middle English open syllable lengthening. For a summary of the various developments in Old and Middle English that led to these vowels, see English historical vowel correspondences.

As a result of the Great Vowel Shift, the long [aː] of face was raised, initially to [æː] and later to [ɛː]. After 1700 it was raised even further, and then diphthongized, leading to the modern standard pronunciation /eɪ/. In a separate development, the short [a] of trap was fronted to [æ]; this change became accepted in standard speech during the 17th century. Today there is much regional variation in the realization of this vowel; in RP there has been a recent trend for it to be lowered again to a fully open [a].

These trends, allowed to operate unrestrictedly, would have left standard English without any vowels in the [a] or [aː] area by the late 17th century. However, this putative gap was filled by the following special developments:

  • In two environments, Middle English [a] developed to [aː] rather than [æ]
    • Before non-prevocalic /r/ (e.g. in start, star; but not in carry), [a] developed to [aː] in all words
    • Before some fricatives, broadening happened inconsistently and sporadically
  • Words that had Middle English [au] had a regular development to [ɒː] (for example, paw). However, before a nasal, such words sometimes instead developed to [aː] (e.g. palm).

The [aː] of the late 17th century has generally backed to [ɑː] in several varieties of contemporary English, for example in Received Pronunciation.

The following table shows some developments of Middle English /a/ in Received Pronunciation. The word gate, which derived from Middle English /aː/, has also been included for comparison.

gate cast cart cat glad
Middle English [ɡaːt] [kast] [kart] [kat] [ɡlad]
Great Vowel Shift Phase 1 [ɡæːt]
Phase 2 [ɡɛːt]
Phase 3 [ɡeːt]
Phase 4 [ɡeɪt]
Lengthening before /r/ [kaːrt]
Lengthening before /f,θ,s/ [kaːst]
Fronting of /a/ [kæt] [ɡlæd]
Backing of /aː/ [kɑːst] [kɑːrt]
/r/-dropping [kɑːt]
bad-lad split[1] [ɡlæːd]
Lowering of /æ/[2][3][4] [kat] [ɡla(ː)d]

The table below shows the results of these developments in some contemporary varieties of English:

Lengthening before /r/
Lengthening before /f,θ,s/
Fronting of /a/ variable
Backing of /aː/ variable
bad-lad split [1]
Lowering of /æ/[2][3][4]
Output for gate [ɡeɪt] [ɡeːt] [ɡet] [ɡeːθ̠] [ɡeɪt]
cast [kʰɑːst] [kʰast] [kʰast] [kʰæst~kʰast] [kʰæst]
cart [kʰɑːt] [kʰaːt] [kʰart] [kʰaːɹθ̠~kʰɑːɹθ̠] [kʰɑɹt]
cat [kʰat] [kʰat] [kʰat] [kʰæθ̠~kʰaθ̠] [kʰæt]
glad [ɡla(ː)d] [ɡlad] [ɡlad] [ɡlæd~ɡlad] [ɡlæd]
gas [ɡas] [ɡas] [ɡas] [ɡæs~ɡas] [ɡæs]

Old and Middle English[edit]

Old English (OE) had an open back vowel /ɑ/, written a, as well as a front vowel /æ/, written æ. These had corresponding long vowels /ɑː/ and /æː/ – these were not normally distinguished from the short vowels in spelling, although modern editions of Old English texts often mark them as ā and ǣ. In the low vowel area there was also a pair of short and long diphthongs, /æɑ/ and /æːɑ/, written ea (the long one also ēa in modern editions).

In Middle English (ME), the short /ɑ/, /æ/ and /æɑ/ became merged into a single vowel /a/, written a. In some cases (before certain pairs of consonants) the corresponding long vowels also developed into this short /a/. Mostly, though, OE /æː/ and /æːɑ/ were raised to become Middle English /ɛː/ (the sound that often gives ea in modern spelling), while OE /ɑː/ was raised and rounded to become ME /ɔː/ (often o, oa in modern spelling). For more detail of these changes, see English historical vowel correspondences.

During the Middle English period, like other short vowels, the /a/ was lengthened in open syllables. Later, with the gradual loss of unstressed endings, many such syllables ceased to be open, although the vowel remained long. For example, the word name originally had two syllables, the first being open, so the /a/ was lengthened; later the final vowel was dropped, leaving a closed syllable with a long vowel. As a result, there were now two phonemes /a/ and /aː/, both written a, where the long one was often indicated by a silent e after the following consonant (or in some cases by a pronounced vowel after the following consonant, as in naked and bacon).

Further development of Middle English /aː/[edit]

As a result of the Great Vowel Shift, the long /aː/ that resulted from Middle English open syllable lengthening was raised, initially to [æː] and later to [ɛː]. [æː] "seems to have been the normal pronunciation in careful speech before 1650, and [ɛː] after 1650".[5] After 1700 it was raised even further, and then diphthongized, leading to the modern standard pronunciation /eɪ/, found in words like name, face, bacon. However, some accents, in the north of England and in Scotland, for example, retain a monophthongal pronunciation of this vowel, while other accents have a variety of different diphthongs.

Before (historic) /r/, in words like square, the vowel has become [ɛə] (often practically [ɛː]) in modern RP, and [ɛ] in General American.[6]

Changes in realization of /a/[edit]

Independently of the development of the long vowel, the short /a/ came to be fronted and raised to [æ]. This change was mostly confined to "vulgar or popular" speech in the 16th century, but it gradually replaced the more conservative [a] in the 17th century, and was "generally accepted by careful speakers by about 1670".[7]

This vowel (that of trap, cat, man, bad, etc.) is now normally denoted as /æ/. In present-day RP, however, it has lowered to a fully front [a].[2][3][4] Such a quality is also found in the accents of northern England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the Caribbean. In North America, however, there is a trend towards tensing (raising) of this vowel. Raised pronunciations are also found in Southern Hemisphere English, and are also associated with Cockney.[8] For the possibility of phonemic length differentiation, see bad–lad split, below.

Development of the new long A[edit]

In Modern English, a new phoneme /ɑː/ developed that did not exist in Middle English. The phoneme /ɑː/ comes from three sources: the word father lengthening from /a/ to /aː/ for an unknown reason (thus splitting from gather);[9] the compensatory lengthening of the short /a/ in words like calm, palm, psalm when /l/ was lost in this environment; and the lengthening of /a/ before /r/ in words like car, card, hard, part, etc. In most dialects that developed the broad A class, words containing it joined this new phoneme /ɑː/ as well. The new phoneme also became common in onomatopoeic words like baa, ah, ha ha, as well as in foreign borrowed words like spa, taco, llama, drama, piranha, Bahamas, pasta, Bach, many of which vary between /ɑː/ and /æ/ among different dialects of English.

Some of these developments are discussed in detail in the following sections.

Before /r/[edit]

In late Middle English, pairs such as cat, cart, were pronounced [kat], [kart] respectively, distinguished only by the presence or absence of [r]. However, by the late 17th century they were also distinguished by the quality and length of the vowel. In cat, the vowel had been fronted to /kæt/, while in cart it had been lengthened to /kaːrt/. This latter change seems to have first occurred in the dialects of southern England in the early 15th century, but did not affect Standard English until the later 17th century.[10] It has affected most varieties of contemporary English, which have distinct vowels in pairs such as cat, cart. In non-rhotic accents, the /r/ of cart has been lost; in modern RP the word is pronounced /kɑːt/, distinguished from cat only by the quality and length of the vowel.

This lengthening occurred when /a/ was followed by non-pre-vocalic /r/; it did not generally apply before intervocalic /r/ (when the /r/ was followed by another vowel). Hence the first vowel of carrot and marry has normally remained the same as that of cat (but see the mary–marry–merry merger). However, inflected forms and derivatives of words ending in (historic) /r/ generally inherit the lengthened vowel, so words like barring and starry have /ɑː/ as do bar and star.

Before fricatives[edit]

Unlike lengthening before nonprevocalic /r/, which applied universally in Standard English, lengthening, or broadening, before fricatives was inconsistent and sporadic. This seems to have first occurred in the dialects of Southern England between about 1500 and 1650. It penetrated into Standard English from these dialects around the mid-17th century.

The primary environment which favored broadening was before preconsonantal or morpheme-final voiceless fricatives /f, θ, s/. The voiceless fricative /ʃ/ has never promoted broadening in Standard English in words like ash and crash. There is, however, evidence that such broadening did occur in dialects.[11]

Once broadening affected a particular word, it tended also to affect its inflectional derivatives. For example, from pass ([pʰaːs]) there was also passing [ˈpʰaːsɪŋ]. This introduced broadening into the environment _sV, from which it was otherwise excluded (compare passage which is derived not from the English word pass but separately from French, and was never affected by broadening).

In a phenomenon going back to Middle English, [f, θ] alternate with their voiced equivalents [v, ð]. For example, late Middle English path [paθ] alternated with paths [paðz]. When broadening applied to words such as path, it naturally extended to these derivatives: thus when [pʰaθ] broadened to [pʰaːθ], [pʰaðz] also broadened to [pʰaːðz]. This introduced broadening into the environment before a voiced fricative.

Broadening affected Standard English extremely inconsistently. It seems to have been favored when /a/ was adjacent to labial consonants or /r/.[12] It is apparent that it occurred most commonly in short words, especially monosyllables, that were common and well-established in English at the time broadening took place (c. 1500–1650). Words of 3 or more syllables were hardly ever subject to broadening. Learned words, neologisms (such as gas, first found in the late 17th century), and Latinate or Greek borrowings were rarely broadened.

A particularly interesting case is that of the word father. In late Middle English this was generally pronounced [ˈfaðər], thus rhyming with gather [ˈɡaðər]. Broadening of father is notable both in two respects:

  • its occurrence before an intervocalic voiced fricative [ð]
  • its distribution in many accents that do not otherwise have broadening, such as those of North America.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes the broadening of father as "anomalous".[13] Dobson, however, sees broadening in father as due to the influence of the adjacent /f/ and /r/ combined. Rather and lather appear to have been subject to broadening later, and in fewer varieties of English, by analogy with father.[14]

The table below represents the results of broadening before fricatives in contemporary Received Pronunciation.[15]

Environment RP /æ/ as in TRAP ("flat A") RP /ɑː/ as in PALM or FAther ("broad A")
_[f]$ carafe*, chiffchaff, gaffe, naff, riffraff calf**, chaff*, giraffe, graph (telegraph, see above), half**, laugh**, staff
_[f]C Daphne, hermaphrodite, kaftan, naphtha aft, after, craft, daft, draft/draught**, graft, laughter**, raft, rafter, shaft
_[θ]$ hath, math (abbrev. for mathematics) bath, lath*, path
_[θ]C athlete, decathlon (pentathlon, biathlon, etc.), maths
_[s]$ alas*, ass (donkey), ass (term of abuse)*, crass, gas, lass, mass (amount), Mass (religious service)* brass, class, glass, grass, pass
_[sp] asp, aspect, aspen, aspic (jelly), aspirant, aspirin, Diaspora, exasperate*, jasper clasp, gasp, grasp, hasp*, rasp
_[st] aster, asteroid, astronaut (astronomical, etc.), bastion, blastocyst (blastopore, etc.), canasta, castanets, chastity, elastic*, fantastic, gastric, gymnastic, hast, Jocasta, mastic, masticate, mastiff*, mastitis, mastoid, mastodon, masturbate*, monastic, onomastic, pasta, pastel, plastic*, procrastinate, Rastafarian, raster, sarcastic, scholastic, spastic aghast, avast, bastard*, blast, cast, caster, fast, ghastly, last, mast, master, nasty, past, pasteurize*, pastime, pastor, pastoral*, pasture, plaster, repast, vast
_[sk] Alaska, Basque*, emasculate, gasket, Madagascar, mascot, masculine, masquerade*, Nebraska, paschal*, vascular ask, bask, basket, cask, casket, flask, mask, masque*, rascal, task
_[sf] blasphemy*
_[ð] blather, fathom, gather, slather father, lather*, rather
other (see below) calve**, castle, fasten, halve**, raspberry
  • * indicates that the other pronunciation is also current in RP.
  • ** indicates that this word had late Middle English /au/ (possibly in addition to late Middle English /a/)
  • Words in italics were first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary later than 1650

In general, all these words, to the extent that they existed in Middle English, had /a/ ("short A" as in trap) which was broadened to [aː]. The exceptions are:

  • half and calf, which had been pronounced with [half, kalf] in early Middle English before developing around the early 15th century to [hauf, kauf] by L-vocalization.[16] In accents of England the development was subsequently the same as that in words such as palm (see below). The North American development to [æ] as in trap seems to be the result of shortening from [hauf, kauf] to [haf, kaf], although there is little evidence of this development.[17]
  • laugh, laughter and draft/draught, which all had [auχ] in Middle English. This first changed to [auf] (accepted in Standard English from about 1625, but earlier in dialects),[18] and was then shortened to [af].[19] The subsequent development was similar to other words with [af], such as staff. The development of draft/draught is notable: in the 17th century it was usually spelled draught and pronounced to rhyme with caught, making clear its derivation from the verb to draw. The pronunciation with [f] was rare, and its use in current English is a historical accident resulting, according to Dobson, from the establishment of the spelling variant draft.[20]

The words castle, fasten and raspberry are special cases where subsequent sound changes have altered the conditions initially responsible for lengthening. In castle and fasten, the /t/ was pronounced, according to a slight majority of 16th and 17th century sources.[21] In raspberry we find /s/ rather than /z/.[22]

The pattern of lengthening shown here for Received Pronunciation is generally found in southern England, the Caribbean, and the Southern hemisphere (parts of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). In North America, with the possible exception of older Boston accents, broadening is found only in father (the success of broadening in this word alone in North America unexplained[23]) and pasta (which follows the general pattern for recent Italian loanwords, cf. mafia). In the Boston area there has historically been a tendency to copy RP lengthening which perhaps reached its zenith in the 1930s[24] but has since receded in the face of general North American norms.

In Irish English broadening is found only in father (which may, however, also have the FACE vowel). In Scottish and Ulster English the great majority of speakers have no distinction between TRAP and PALM (the Sampsalm merger). In Welsh English Wells finds broadening generally only in father, with some variation.[25] In the north of England, broadening is found only in father and usually half and master.[26]

Before nasals[edit]

There was a class of Middle English words in which /au/ varied with /a/ before a nasal. These are nearly all loanwords from French, in which uncertainty about how to realize the nasalization of the French vowel resulted in two varying pronunciations in English. (One might compare the different ways in which modern French loanwords like envelope are pronounced in contemporary varieties of English.)

Words with Middle English with the /au/ diphthong generally developed to [ɒː] in Early Modern English (e.g. paw, daughter). However, in some of the words with the /a ~ au/ alternation, especially short words in common use, the vowel instead developed into a long A. In words like change and angel, this development preceded the Great Vowel Shift, and so the resulting long A followed the normal development to modern /eɪ/. In other cases, however, the long A appeared later, and thus did not undergo the Great Vowel Shift, but instead merged with the long A that had developed before /r/ and some fricatives (as described above). Thus words like dance and example have come to be pronounced (in modern RP, although mostly not in General American) with the /ɑː/ vowel of start and bath.

Words in this category may therefore have ended up with a variety of pronunciations in modern standard English: /æ/ (where the short A pronunciation survived), /ɑː/ (where the pronunciation with lengthened A was adopted), /ɔː/ (where the normal development of the AU diphthong was followed), and /eɪ/ (where the A was lengthened before the Great Vowel Shift). The table below shows the pronunciation of many of these words, classified according to the lexical sets of John Wells: trap for /æ/, bath for RP /ɑː/ vs. General American /æ/, palm for /ɑː/, thought for /ɔː/, face for /eɪ/. It should be noted that while these words were often spelled with both a and au in Middle English, the current English spelling generally reflects the pronunciation, with au used only for those words which have /ɔː/; one common exception is aunt.

Environment trap lexical set bath lexical set palm lexical set thought lexical set face lexical set
_[m]$ alms, balm, calm, palm, psalm, qualm[27] shawm
_[mp] champion, rampant, stamp* example, sample
_[mb] amber chamber
_[mf] pamphlet
_[nt] ant*, lantern, phantom, rant, scant advantage, aunt, can't*, chant, grant, plant, slant, vantage daunt, flaunt*, gaunt*, gauntlet, haunt, jaunt*, saunter, taunt, vaunt
_[nd] abandon, grand, random command, demand, Flanders, remand, reprimand, slander jaundice, laundry, Maundy
_[n(t)ʃ] franchise avalanche, blanch, branch, ranch*, stanch, stanchion haunch, launch, paunch, staunch
_[n(d)ʒ] evangelist, phalange angel, arrange, change, danger, grange, mange, range, strange
_[ŋk] bank ("bench/financial institution"), canker, flank, plank, ranco(u)r, sanctity
_[ŋɡ] anger*, angle, strangle
_[ns] ancestor, finance, ransom, romance answer*, chance, chancellor, dance, enhance, France, lance, lancet, prance, stance, trance, transfer (trans-), launce ancient
Other salmon almond

* Not a French loanword

In some cases, both the /a/ and the /au/ forms have survived into modern English. For example, from Sandre, a Norman French form of the name Alexander, the modern English surnames Sanders and Saunders are both derived.[28]

Trap–bath split[edit]

An example of the trap-bath split

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The trap–bath split is a vowel split that occurs mainly in the southern and mainstream varieties of English in England (including Received Pronunciation), in the Southern Hemisphere accents of English (Australian English, New Zealand English, South African English), and also to a lesser extent in older Boston English, by which the Early Modern English phoneme /æ/ was lengthened in certain environments and ultimately merged with the long /ɑː/ of father. (Wells 1982: 100–1, 134, 232–33) Similar changes took place in words with o; see lot–cloth split.

In this context, the lengthened vowel in words such as bath, laugh, grass, chance in accents affected by the split is referred to as a broad A (also, in the UK, long A). Phonetically, the vowel is [ɑː] in Received Pronunciation (RP); in some other accents, including many Australian and all New Zealand accents, it is a fronter vowel ([ɐː] or [aː]), and it may be a rounded [ɒː] in South African English. In accents unaffected by the split, these words usually have the same vowel as words like cat, trap, man, the short A or flat A.

The sound change originally occurred in southern England, and ultimately changed the sound of [æ] to [ɑː] in some words in which the former sound appeared before [f, s, θ, ns, nt, ntʃ, mpl], leading to RP [pɑːθ] for path and [sɑːmpl] for sample, etc. The sound change did not occur before other consonants; thus accents affected by the split preserve /æ/ in words like cat. (See the Variations section below for more details on the words affected.) The lengthening of the bath vowel began in the 17th century but was "stigmatised as a Cockneyism until well into the 19th century".[29]

British accents[edit]

The presence or absence of this split is one of the most noticeable differences between different accents of English English. An isogloss runs across the Midlands from the Wash to the Welsh border, passing to the south of the cities of Birmingham and Leicester. North of the isogloss, the vowel in most of the affected words is usually the same short-a as in cat; south of the isogloss, the vowel in the affected words is generally long. (Gupta 2005)

There is some variation close to the isogloss; for example in the dialect of Birmingham (the so-called "Brummie") most of the affected words have a short-a, but aunt and laugh usually have long vowels. Additionally, some words which have /æ/ in most forms of American English, including half, calf, rather and can't, are usually found with long vowels in the Midlands and Northern England.

In northern English dialects, the short A is phonetically [a ~ a̠], while the broad A varies from [ɑː] to [aː]; for some speakers, the two vowels may be identical in quality, differing only in length ([a] vs [aː]) (Wells 1982: 356, 360). John Wells has claimed that Northerners who have high social status may have a TRAP-BATH split (Wells 1982: 134) and has posted on his blog that he grew up with the split in Upholland, Lancashire.[30] AF Gupta's study of students at the University of Leeds found that (on splitting the country in two halves) 93% of northerners used [a] in the word "bath" and 96% of southerners used [ɑː].[31] However, there are areas of the Midlands where the two variants co-exist and, once these are excluded, there were very few individuals in the north who had a trap-bath split (or in the south who did not have the split). Gupta wrote, "There is no justification for the claims by Wells and Mugglestone that this is a sociolinguistic variable in the north, though it is a sociolinguistic variable on the areas on the border [the isogloss between north and south]".[32]

In some West Country accents of English English where the vowel in trap is realized as [a] rather than [æ], the vowel in the bath words was lengthened to [aː] and did not merge with the /ɑː/ of father. In those accents, trap, bath and father all have distinct vowels /a/, /aː/ and /ɑː/. (Wells 1982: 346–47).

In some other West Country accents, and in many forms of Scottish English, there is no distinction corresponding to the RP distinction between /æ/ and /ɑː/.

Trap–bath split in Received Pronunciation[edit]

In Received Pronunciation (RP), the trap–bath split did not happen in all eligible words. It is hard to find a clear reason why some changed and others did not. Roughly, the more common a word the more likely that the change from flat /æ/ to broad /ɑː/ took place. It also looks as if monosyllables were more likely to change than polysyllables. The change very rarely took place in open syllables, except where closely derived from another word with /ɑː/. Thus passing is closely derived from pass, and so has broad A /pɑːsɪŋ/: passage is not so closely derived, and thus has flat A /pæsɪdʒ/. Here is the set of words that underwent transition, and counterexamples with the same environment:

      RP sets for the trap–bath split 
Set Broad [ɑː~äː] Flat/short [æ]
/-ðər/ father, lather, rather blather, gather, slather
/-f/ calf, chaff, giraffe, graph, half, laugh, photograph, staff, telegraph Aphrodite, chiffchaff, Daphne, gaff(e), graphic, staph
/-ft/ aft, after, craft, daft, draft/draught, graft, haft, laughter, raft, rafter, shaft kaftan, Taft
bath, lath, path hath, math(s), polymath
brass, class, glass, grass, pass ass (donkey), bass (fish), crass, gas, lass, mass (amount), morass, sass
/-sk/ ask, bask, basket, cask, casket, flask, mask/masque, rascal, task Asquith, gasket, mascot
clasp, gasp, grasp, hasp, rasp asp
aghast, avast, bastard, blast, cast, caste, caster, contrast, fast, ghastly, last, mast, master, nasty, past, pasteurize, pastime, pastor, pastoral, pasture, plaster, repast, vast bast, iconoclast, p(a)ederast, hast
castor, disaster, master, nasty, pastor, plaster Aston, astronaut, castigate, chastity, drastic, pasta, pastel, plastic, raster
/-ʃ/ m(o)ustache all other words in this set
calve, halve, salve (note: [ɑːv] only when spelled alv) chav, have
/-mpəl/ example, sample ample, trample
/-nd/ Alexander/Alexandra/Sandra, chandler, command, demand, Flanders, remand, reprimand, slander all other words in this set
/-nt/ (ad)vantage, aunt, can't, chant, Grant, grant, plant, shan't, slant ant, banter, cant, fantasy, mantle, phantom, rant, scant
all words in this set (branch, planche, ranch, etc.)
/-ns/ advance, answer, chance, chancellor, dance, enhance, France, glance, lance, lancet, prance, stance, trance Anson, cancer, fancy, ransom, romance
[changed] castle, fasten, raspberry

For the words in the last row, subsequent sound changes have altered the conditions initially responsible for lengthening

There are some words in which both pronunciations are heard among southern speakers:

  • the words Basque, bastard, chaff, Glasgow, lather, mass (church service)
  • Greek elements as in telegraph, blastocyst, chloroplast
  • words with the prefix trans-

Use of broad A in mass is distinctly conservative and rare now: other international fluctuations are both common, but with further complications.

While graph, telegraph, photograph can have either (now in Received Pronunciation, they have broad A), graphic and permutations always has a flat A.

Broad A fluctuates in dialects that include it; before s it is a more common alternative when in its common voiceless variant (/s/ rather than /z/) (in transfer [tʰɹɑːnsfɜː], transport [tʰɹɑːnspɔːt] and variants) than when it is voiced (thus translate [trænzleɪt], trans-Atlantic [tʰɹænzətlæntɪk]).

Social attitudes[edit]

Some research has concluded that many people in the North of England have a dislike of the /ɑː/ vowel in BATH words. AF Gupta wrote, "Many of the northerners were noticeably hostile to /ɡrɑːs/, describing it as 'comical', 'snobbish', 'pompous' or even 'for morons'."[32] Whilst writing on a Labovian study of speech in West Yorkshire, KM Petyt wrote in 1985 that several respondents "positively said that they did not prefer the long-vowel form or that they really detested it or even that it was incorrect".[33] However, Joan Beal said in a 1989 review of Petyt's work that those who disliked the pronunciation still associated it with the BBC and with the sort of professional jobs that they would aspire to.[34]

Southern Hemisphere accents[edit]

Evidence for the date of the shift comes from the Southern Hemisphere accents, those of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

In Australian English, there is generally agreement with southern British in words like path, laugh, class. But before N+consonant, as in dance, plant, most Australians use a flat A; aunt and can't, however, are invariably pronounced with a broad A. Phonetically, the broad A is [äː]. In Australia there is variation in the word castle, both pronunciations are commonly heard. For more information, see the table at Variation in Australian English. In South Australian English the broad A is usually used.

South African and New Zealand English have a distribution of sounds similar to that of RP.

North American accents[edit]

Most accents of American English and Canadian English are unaffected by the split. The main exceptions are parts of New England (see Boston accent), where the broad sound can be used in some of the same words as in southern England, such as aunt, ask, bath etc. ("aunt" though is unique, as the broad a pronunciation is found sporadically throughout the U.S., not only in New England)

Related, but distinct, phenomena include the following:

  • The phonemic tensing of /æ/ in the accents of New York and particularly Philadelphia, in which tensing occurs specifically before [f, s, θ, n, m] (in New York tensing occurs in more environments; see section below).
  • The drawled pronunciation /æ/ → [æə] in Southern accents; many South Midland, Appalachian English, and inland Southern speakers also raise the /æ/ in aunt, dance, plant to [ɛ] or [e].

Bad–lad split[edit]

The bad–lad split is a phonemic split of the Early Modern English short vowel phoneme /æ/ into a short /æ/ and a long /æː/. This split is found in some varieties of English English and Australian English in which bad (with long [æː]) and lad (with short [æ]) do not rhyme. (Wells 1982: 288–89, 596; Horvath and Horvath 2001; Leitner 2004).

The phoneme /æ/ is usually lengthened to /æː/ when it comes before an /m/ or /n/, within the same syllable. It is furthermore lengthened in the adjectives bad, glad and mad; family also sometimes has a long vowel, regardless of whether it is pronounced as two or three syllables. Some speakers and regional varieties also use /æː/ before /ɡ/, /ŋ/, /l/ and/or /dʒ/; such lengthening may be more irregular than others. Lengthening is prohibited in the past tense of irregular verbs and function words and in modern contractions of polysyllabic words where the /æ/ was before a consonant followed by a vowel. Lengthening is not stopped by the addition of word-level suffixes.

British dialects with the bad–lad split have instead broad /ɑː/ in some words where an /m/ or /n/ follows the vowel. In this circumstance, Australian speakers usually (but not universally) use /æː/, except in the words aunt, can't and shan't, which have broad /aː/.

Daniel Jones noted for RP that some speakers had a phonemic contrast between a long and a short /æ/, which he wrote as /æː/ and /æ/, respectively. Thus, in An outline of English phonetics (1962, ninth edition, Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons) he noted that sad, bad generally had /æː/ but lad, pad had /æ/. In his pronouncing dictionary, he recorded several minimal pairs, for example bad /bæːd/, bade /bæd/ (also pronounced /ˈbeɪd/). He noted that for some speakers, jam actually represented two different pronunciations, one pronounced /dʒæːm/ meaning 'fruit conserve', the other /dʒæm/ meaning 'crush, wedging'. Later editions of this dictionary edited by Alfred C. Gimson, dropped this distinction.[citation needed]

Outside of England, can meaning 'able to' remains /kæn/, whereas the noun can 'container' or the verb can 'to put into a container' is /kæːn/; this is similar to the situation found in æ-tensing in some varieties of American English. A common minimal pair for modern RP speakers is band /bæːnd/ and banned /bænd/. Australian speakers who use ‘span’ as the past tense of ‘spin’ also have a minimal pair between longer /spæːn/ (meaning width or the transitive verb with a river or divide) and /spæn/, the past tense of ‘spin’ (/spæn/). Other minimal pairs found in Australian English include ‘Manning’ (the surname) /ˈmænɪŋ/ and ‘manning’ (the present participle and gerund of the verb ‘to man’) /ˈmæːnɪŋ/ as well as 'planet' /ˈplænət/ versus 'plan it' /ˈplæːnət/.

Apart from Jones's, dictionaries rarely show a difference between these varieties of /æ/.

/æ/ tensing[edit]

In the sociolinguistics of English, /æ/ tensing is a process that occurs in many accents of American English, and to some degree in Canadian English, by which /æ/, the "short a" vowel found in such words as ash, bath, man, lamp, pal, rag, sack, trap, etc., is tensed: pronounced as more raised, and lengthened and/or diphthongized in various environments. The realization of this "tense" (as opposed to "lax") /æ/ varies from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] to [eə] to [ɪə], depending on the speaker's regional accent. A common realization is [eə], and this transcription will be used for convenience in this article.[35] For the purposes of the chart below, the symbol "~" represents a continuous (rather than a phonemic split) system. The most commonly tensed variant of /æ/ throughout North American English is when it appears before nasal consonants (thus, for example, in fan as opposed to fat).[36]

/æ/ tensing in North American English[37]
Environment Example words Dialect
Consonant after /æ/ Syllable type Canadian, Northwestern, Upper Midwestern USA Cincinnati (traditional)[38] Delaware Valley Eastern New England General USA & Midland USA Great Lakes New York City & New Orleans Southern USA & African American Vernacular Western USA
/r/ open [ɛ(ə)] [ɛ(ə)] [æ] [ɛ(ə)~æ] [ɛ(ə)] [ɛ(ə)] [æ] [ɛ(ə)] [ɛ(ə)]
/m/, /n/ closed [ɛə~æ] [eə] [eə] [eə~æ] [eə~æ] [eə] [eə] [ɛ(j)ə~eə] [eə~æ]
open [æ] [æ]
/g/ closed [e~æ] [æ] [æ] [æ] [eə] [ɛ(j)ə~æ] [æ]
open [æ]
/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/ closed [æ] [eə] [ɛə~æ] [eə] [ɛə~æ]
/f/, /s/, /θ/ closed [eə]
all other consonants [æ] [æ] [æ]

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

/æ/ tensing has two possible forms: either "non-phonemic" 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 dialects, though, including the New York City and Mid-Atlantic ones (such as spoken in Philadelphia), the variations of "short a" can actually become 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 the Mid-Atlantic dialects, the surname Manning can only be pronounced with a lax vowel as [ˈmænɪŋ]; if it is pronounced tensely as [ˈmeənɪŋ], it may be perceived as an entirely different word: the verb manning (as in "he was expertly manning the vehicle"). Therefore, these dialects have a phonemic split of the "short a." This relationship between two words (like Manning and manning) that differ in only a single sound is known as a minimal pair. Here are further examples of minimal pairs of the short a, using the Mid-Atlantic and General American accents for reference as, respectively, phonemic and non-phonemic accents:

Example words Mid-Atlantic U.S. 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]

In the Mid-Atlantic dialect, including Baltimore and Philadelphia, but also in the traditional dialects of Greater New York City, New Orleans (Yat), and Cincinnati (amongst older speakers), the tense /eə/ is an entirely separate phoneme from /æ/ (in Labovian linguistic variable notation, the phonemes are represented as "aeh" and "ae" respectively), since certain minimal pairs can be found.

In these accents there has thus been a phonemic split. Nevertheless, the distribution between /æ/ and /eə/ is largely predictable in the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York regions: In Philadelphia and Baltimore, tense [eə] occurs in closed syllables before the /n/, /m/, /f/, /θ/, and /s/, as well as the words mad, bad, and glad. In New York, tensing occurs in all those environments in addition to before voiced stops and /ʃ/. Lax [æ] usually occurs before /ŋ/, /l/, and voiceless stops, and also usually occurs in open syllables regardless of the following consonant. The word avenue normally has tense [eə] (unlike average, etc.).

In Philadelphia, tensing in some lexical items before /l/ and nontautosyllabic nasals has been reported.[40] 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]

The main Philadelphia/Baltimore exceptions to the above generalizations are:

  1. 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
  2. When a polysyllabic word with [æ] in an open syllable gets truncated to a single closed syllable, the vowel remains:
    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
  3. 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

[eə] is also used in these accents before intervocalic /r/ in words like dairy and Mary and in non-rhotic varieties of these accents in words like square and scarce (which rhymes with glass for many non-rhotic speakers).

The phonemic tensing of /æ/ is similar to the "broad a" phenomenon of certain other 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).

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.[41] 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 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.[42]

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

For some speakers in 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.

In foreign borrowings[edit]

Many foreign borrowed words such as taco, llama, drama, piranha, Bahamas, pasta, Bach, pecan, pajamas etc. vary as to whether or not the have the PALM vowel or the TRAP vowel in various dialects in English. In Canadian English, such words usually have the same vowel as TRAP, whereas in American English they usually have the same vowel as PALM. In RP and Australian English and New Zealand English such words usually have the vowel in PALM (although pasta has the TRAP vowel in RP), whereas for many speakers in Northern England they have the same vowel as in TRAP. However the pronunciation of certain words can vary even in regions which either usually assign the TRAP vowel or usually assign the PALM vowel to such words; pajamas and pecan, for instance, vary among Americans as to whether or not they have /æ/ or /ɑː/. [43] [44]

Other pronunciations[edit]

Other pronunciations of the letter a in English have come about through:

  • Rounding caused by a following dark L (which may no longer be sounded), to produce (in RP) the sound /ɒ/ in also, alter, halt, etc., and /ɔː/ in ball, call, chalk, talk, etc.. See English-language vowel changes before historic /l/.
  • Rounding following /w/, resulting in the same two vowels as above, as in wash, what, quantity, water, warm. This change is typically blocked before a velar consonant, as in wag, quack and twang, and is also absent in swam (the irregular past tense of swim). See Phonological history of English low back vowels (17th-century changes).
  • Reduction to schwa in most unstressed syllables, as in about, along, Hilary, comma, solar, standard, breakfast. (Like other instances of schwa, this can combine with a following /l/, /m/ or /n/ to produce a syllabic consonant in certain environments, as in rival.) Another possible reduced pronunciation (depending on dialect) is /ɪ/ in cases where the face vowel might be expected, as in the second syllables of palace and orange.
  • Irregular developments in a few words, particularly any and many. In the case of any, the spelling represents the pronunciation in the Midland dialect of Middle English, while the modern pronunciation comes from that of the southern dialect (the alternative spelling eny is also found in texts up to around 1530; the spelling ony, representing a northern dialect pronunciation, is also found).[45] The situation is similar with many (with the spellings meny and mony formerly occurring).[46]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Only some speakers, mainly from London.
  2. ^ a b c de Jong et al. (2007:1814–1815)
  3. ^ a b c Roach (2011:?)
  4. ^ a b c "Wells: Whatever happened to Received Pronunciation?". 1997. Retrieved 10 February 2015. 
  5. ^ Dobson, p. 594
  6. ^ Wells (1982), p. 141, 155.
  7. ^ Dobson, p. 548
  8. ^ Wells (1982), p. 129.
  9. ^ Wells, p. 206
  10. ^ Dobson, pp. 517–519
  11. ^ Dobson p. 533
  12. ^ Dobson, p. 531
  13. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, entry father, retrieved 2011-02-01
  14. ^ Dobson 531-532
  15. ^ Words that had historical or /ar/ are excluded. Words are classified according to their pronunciations given in Wells, John C. (1990). Longman pronunciation dictionary. Harlow, England: Longman. 
  16. ^ Dobson, p. 988
  17. ^ Dobswon, p. 500
  18. ^ Dobson, p. 947
  19. ^ Dobson, pp. 500–501
  20. ^ Dobson, p. 501
  21. ^ Dobson, pp. 968–969
  22. ^ Dobson, p. 941
  23. ^ Wells, 206
  24. ^ Wells v. 3.
  25. ^ Wells, p. 387
  26. ^ Wells, pp. 352–355
  27. ^ given as THOUGHT by OED first edition
  28. ^ Reaney, Percy Hide (1967). The origin of English surnames, part 1. Routledge & K. Paul. p. 145. OCLC 247393450. 
  29. ^ Kortmann and Schneider, p. 122.
  30. ^ English Places, John Wells's phonetic blog, post of Friday, 16 March 2012
  31. ^ Baths and Becks, AF Gupta in English Today, page 23, Cambridge University Press, 2005
  32. ^ a b Baths and Becks, AF Gupta in English Today, page 25, Cambridge University Press, 2005
  33. ^ KM Petyt, Dialect and Accent in Industrial West Yorkshire, page 286, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1985
  34. ^ Beal, Joan (September 1989). "Reviews: K. M. Petyt, Dialect and accent in industrial West Yorkshire. (Varieties of English around the World. General Series, 6.) Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1985.". Language in Society 18 (3): 447–448. doi:10.1017/s0047404500013798. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 
  35. ^ It is also used in Wells, 1982.
  36. ^ 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."
  37. ^ Labov et al. (2006), p. 182.
  38. ^ Boberg, Charles; Strassel, Stephanie M. (2000). "in Cincinnati: A change in progress". Journal of English Linguistics 28: 108–126. doi:10.1177/00754240022004929. 
  39. ^ 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.
  40. ^ Labov (2005), p. 39.
  41. ^ Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006:ch. 13)
  42. ^ Labov, "Transmission and Diffusion"
  43. ^
  44. ^
  45. ^ Taavitsainen, I., Melchers, G., Pahtap, P., Writing in Nonstandard English, John Benjamins 2000, p. 193.
  46. ^ Bergs, A., English Historical Linguistics, de Gruyter 2012, p. 495.


  • Dobson, E.J. (1968). English pronunciation, 1500–1700 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press. OCLC 310545793. 
  • de Jong, Gea; McDougall, Kirsty; Hudson, Toby; Nolan, Francis (2007), "The speaker discriminating power of sounds undergoing historical change: A formant-based study", the Proceedings of ICPhS Saarbrücken, pp. 1813–1816 
  • Roach, Peter (2011), Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary (18th ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521152532 
For the trap–bath split
  • Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7. (vol. 1). ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2)., ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3). 
  • Gupta, A. F., Baths and becks, English Today 81, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp21–27 (2005).
  • Kortmann, Bernd; Schneider, Edgar W.; Burridge, Kate; Mesthrie, Rajend; & Upton, Clive (Eds.). (2004). A handbook of varieties of English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Horvath, Barbara M. and Ronald J. Horvath. (2001). Short A in Australian English: A geolinguistic study. In English in Australia, ed. D. Blair and P. Collins, 341–55. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
For the bad–lad split
For æ-tensing
  • Benua, L. 1995. Identity effects in morphological truncation. In Papers in optimality theory, ed. J. N. Beckman, L. Walsh Dickey, and S. Urbanczyk. UMass Occasional Papers 18. Amherst: GLSA, 77–136.
  • Ferguson, C. A. 1972. "Short a" in Philadelphia English. In Studies in linguistics in honor of George L. Trager, ed. M. E. Smith, 259–74. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Kahn, D. 1976. Syllable-based generalizations in English phonology. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA. Reproduced by the Indiana University Linguistics Club.
  • Labov, W. 1966. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics.
  • Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Labov, W. 1981. Resolving the Neogrammarian controversy. Language 57:267–308.
  • Labov, W. 2005. Transmission and Diffusion.
  • Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  • Trager, G. L. 1930. The pronunciation of "short a" in American Standard English. American Speech 5:396–400.
  • Trager, G. L. 1934. What conditions limit variants of a phoneme? American Speech 9:313–15.
  • Trager, G. L. 1940. One phonemic entity becomes two: The case of "short a". American Speech 15:255–58.
  • Trager, G. L. 1941. ə ˈnəwt on æ ənd æ˔ˑ in əˈmerikən ˈiŋɡliʃ. Maître Phonétique 17–19.
  • Wells, J. C. 1982. Accents of English. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Wood, Jim. 2011. Short-a in Northern New England. Journal of English Linguistics 39:135-165.
For the pasta vowel

External links[edit]

  • Sounds Familiar? – Listen to examples of regional accents and dialects on the British Library's 'Sounds Familiar' website, including an audio "bath" map of the UK