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Query Details

Query Subject:   Short v. Long æ
Author:   Geoffrey Sampson
Submitter Email:  click here to access email

Linguistic LingField(s):  Phonology
Subject Language(s):  English

Query:   This query asks whether anyone can shed light on what seems to be a phoneme split in (British) English pronunciation which has been briefly mentioned in the literature but hasn't, anywhere that I have seen, been described in detail. The split is between long and short versions of the /æ/ phoneme. (I call it a split because I assume that at some earlier time there was just one /æ/ phoneme in English, though whether that is actually so is well outside my expertise.)

John Wells (_Accents of English_ vol. 1, 1982, p 130) comments ''Lengthening of this vowel is common in the South of England and in North America. This may well apply selectively to the lexicon, so that some words have a lengthened vowel and others do not in a way which is not phonetically predictable''.

That latter remark certainly applies to my own speech (born 1944, lived throughout my formative years in southern England, native language is an approximation to Received Pronunciation -- the main way my speech deviates systematically from RP as traditionally described is probably that I have ''Happy Tensing'', Wells op. cit. pp 257-8).

Let me say first that though Wells's remark quoted above suggests that he sees the long v. short /æ/ contrast for British speakers like me as much the same phenomenon as the ''lax v. tense'' /æ/ contrast in the eastern USA described by George Trager (''One phonemic entity becomes two'', _American Speech_ 15.255-8, 1940) and by William Labov, who calls it ''Middle Atlantic raising'' (''Resolving the Neogrammarian controversy'', _Language_ vol. 57, 1981, see p 284ff), I think the American phenomenon is a red herring. Historically, by the early 20c when the American split apparently began, the two populations were long separated and were not yet influencing each other's speech via modern media. Phonetically, the American contrast seems to be chiefly one of vowel quality (hence ''raising''), whereas the contrast in my own speech is exclusively one of length. And, reading Trager and Labov, the distribution of words between the two /æ/ variants seems quite different in the two cases. In the remainder of this query I focus exclusively on the contrast within southern English speech, as exemplified by my own version of RP.

For background, consider how the long/short contrast works in other vowels and diphthongs, where it is phonologically conditioned.

The checked vowels other than /æ/ are long if followed by two voiced segments but otherwise short, thus ''pot'', ''pod'', ''John'', ''Pont'' are all short but ''pond'' is long. (Probably the length in ''pond'' is phonetically realized as much or more through the /n/ segment as by the vowel phoneme itself, but structurally the length must, I believe, be attributed to the vowel.) With the ''unchecked'' vowels and diphthongs, i.e. those that can occur with no following consonant, they are long if followed by a voiceless C and otherwise short, thus ''field'' and ''feed'' long but ''feet'' short. (If the ''ee'' and ''oo'' vowels are regarded as phonemically /ij/, /uw/, then these two rules would I suppose collapse into one.) When a vowel is actually unchecked, i.e. the syllable is V-final, such as ''fee'', I have no clear feeling about short v. long -- if I had to decide I would say they were long.

So far so standard, as far as I know. But these rules don't apply to /æ/, a checked vowel, which is commonly long before a single voiced C, e.g. in ''bad'', ''man'', but is short e.g. in ''add''. Has anyone described in detail how short v. long is distributed?

Reflecting on my own pronunciation of monosyllables in /æ/ (as I would be the first to agree, introspection about one's own usage is not reliable evidence about the objective facts, but at least it is a reasonable place to start an investigation like this -- I accept that my self-reporting of my usage may contain errors), it seems to me that nouns and adjectives are usually long and verbs usually short (as in the cases just quoted), so that e.g. ''lag'' would be short in ''lag the pipes'' but long in ''a time lag''; but that nouns which are abbreviations of polysyllables are said short, e.g. ''grad'', ''Madge''. (I knew the name Madge, as the name of an aunt, for years before I realized it is a conventional abbreviation of ''Margaret'' -- I wonder whether I pronounced it short before that, but now I shall never know.) However, these rules are not exceptionless. I have a strong feeling that the country-name Chad should be said short (though I have scarcely ever heard it pronounced -- could this be because most country names are polysyllables, so Chad looks like an abbreviation though it actually is not one??) Similarly ''Cham'' is a word which I know only through literature, in the phrase ''the Great Cham'' as a nickname for Samuel Johnson: I doubt that I have ever either uttered the word or heard it uttered, yet it seems to me that if I said it I would have to say it short. I think I would say ''badge'' short, and likewise Scottish ''plaid''. I am sure that ''pal'', slang for ''friend'', is short.

Can anyone tell me what is going on here?

Geoffrey Sampson
LL Issue: 24.4030
Date posted: 15-Oct-2013


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