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The vowel sound in 'old' – a good example of allophony

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The vowel sound in 'old' – a good example of allophony

Sound Waves Literacy 20/5/16


By Tom Mylne, PhD (Linguistics), GradDipEd.

The purpose of this article is to discuss the pronunciation of “o before l”, as in old, doll, dole, bowl, and many other words. But first, a few words about the theoretical framework.

Phoneme selection and phonetic variation

Australian English is usually regarded as having twenty vowel phonemes (sounds). The exact number doesn’t matter; the important point is that phonemes are defined in terms of the contrast between different phonemes. The words bit and bet are different words because they differ by a phoneme. But a phoneme can have varying pronunciations. This is most easily heard across varieties of English. All Australians know that the New Zealand pronunciation of the igloo phoneme (as in fish and chips) is different from the Australian pronunciation. It’s still the igloo vowel (there is no contrast in a phonemic sense), but it sounds different in New Zealand.

Phonetic variation (variation within the phoneme) can be triggered by the phoneme’s phonological environment: usually either the sound(s) that come before or after, or the stress pattern. For example, try pronouncing the word potato so that the second t sounds just like the first one. Some speakers do this as a matter of course, but it’s not quite natural. Now say the word naturally and listen to how the second t is much less strongly articulated than the first one. It’s the same phoneme – tiger – but it’s pronounced in two different ways. The same difference can be heard in maternal vs matter.

A phoneme is not just a phoneme – each phoneme has rules about how it must or can be pronounced in different phonological environments. The phonetic variants are called allophones of the phoneme and we have a situation of allophony.

It is also possible to have variation at the phonemic level, as in “You say tomayto, I say tomahto”. This is not a case of phonetic variation; in this case, different speakers select different phonemes: “You use the snail phoneme, I use the star phoneme”. The two pronunciations of either (ice-cream vs bee) and of again (snail vs egg) are also a matter of phoneme selection.

Phoneme selection in “o before l”

Consider the following pairs: boll~bowl; doll~dole; moll~mole; poll~pole; roll~role; tolled~told; holly~holy; Polly~poley; collar~coaler. When I speak, I select different vowel phonemes for holly and holy: the short orange vowel for holly (and for boll, doll, moll, tolled, Polly and collar) and the longer, somewhat diphthongal boat vowel for holy (and for bowl, dole, mole, told, poley and coaler). However – no doubt to the despair of those who want language to be completely logical – I select the boat vowel for both poll and pole and for both roll and role. For me, those pairs are homophones.

Over the years I have had students who have told me that for them boll and bowl, and doll and dole, are homophones. I don’t think I ever asked about moll and mole; I have heard young men pronounce moll as if it were mole, but I suspect they may not know how to spell their insult. I find it hard to believe that there are speakers who don’t distinguish between disyllabic words such as holly and holy etc., but I have not explored this in any rigorous way.

Now if these (monosyllabic) pairs are all homophones, which vowel sound do speakers select? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have had some students tell me that they use the orange vowel sound for all these words (and for old), while others tell me that they use the boat vowel sound for these words.

Allophony in “o before l”

A factor which contributes to the confusion is that there are two major allophones (phonetic variants) of the boat phoneme: the one that occurs before l and the one that occurs “elsewhere”. We can hear this by listening to the pairs bowl~boat; dole~dome; mole~mode; pole~poke etc. The two variants are noticeably different, but they are not different phonemes because they can never contrast: one only ever occurs before l and the other one never occurs before l. They can afford to be different, so to speak; no-one notices – unless they start listening closely.

The more we listen and tune in to the way we pronounce words, the more variations we begin to notice. Suffice it to say, English is a fascinating but at times confusing language!

Dr Mylne has taught linguistics at the University of Queensland, Griffith University and most recently at James Cook University where he was Head, Discipline of Speech Pathology before retiring in 2012.

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