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".:122
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. 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]. 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]".
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
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|
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]).
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'." 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". 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.
Southern Hemisphere accents
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
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 English 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].
- Kortmann, Bernd; Schneider, Edgar W; Burridge, Kate, eds. (2004). A handbook of varieties of English a multimedia reference tool. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-019718-1.
- English Places, John Wells's phonetic blog, post of Friday, 16 March 2012
- Baths and Becks, AF Gupta in English Today, page 23, Cambridge University Press, 2005
- Baths and Becks, AF Gupta in English Today, page 25, Cambridge University Press, 2005
- KM Petyt, Dialect and Accent in Industrial West Yorkshire, page 286, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1985
- 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.