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Standard Vowel Systems of English, German, and Dutch

Variation in Norm

Ernst-August Müller

This is the first book-length study that, from a typological perspective, deals with the latest phonological changes which have affected the spoken standards of the three major West Germanic languages and offers a uniform theoretical analysis of the phenomena. It is primarily intended for professional linguists, but is also geared toward language instructors and students who want to acquaint themselves with these mainly vocalic developments in the pronunciation norms. The study is empirically grounded in personal auditory observations, which in many instances, however, have been verified elsewhere by instrumental acoustic evidence. For each of the three languages, including the American and British English standards, two vowel systems are described and explained: a conventional and slightly dated system, certain features of which younger speakers are inclined to consider somewhat stilted or outmoded, and a more modern and progressive system that incorporates substantive changes and seems to be favored by younger speakers. While a hypothesis is briefly put forward on the common sociopolitical causes of the recent changes, the main phonological finding relates to the role of vowel quantity. In the progressive systems of the three languages, segmental vowel length proves to be a secondary phonological parameter correlating with a specific phonotactic property of the sound.


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2 The conservative American vowel system


Figure I displays the vocalic inventory of the first of the four systems to be estab­ lished for English.2 For convenience, key words have been added illustrating sig­ nificant distributional properties of the vowels. i u ɪ ʊ e o ə ɛ ↖ɔɪ ɔ æ ↖aɪ aʊ↗ ɑ i sea, peat u blue, boost ɪ sit; peer, beard, fierce, mirror, nearer ʊ put, soot, pull; sure, cure, fury, boorish e bay, bait o low, coat (door, force, hoarse, court, story) ɛ bet; care, scarce, very, vary, merry, Mary ɔ law, dog, office; horse, orange (hoarse etc.) æ cat, bad, bath; arrow, carry, marry aɪ tie, tide; fire, tired, tyrant ɑ spa, palm, father, pot, bother; bar, start aʊ brow, doubt; sour, power, showery ə cup, sofa; fur, dirt, hurry, squirrel, expert ɔɪ boy, noise; coir Figure I: The vowels and true diphthongs of the conservative American system and illustration of their lexical incidence Before discussing the specific aspects and defining characteristics of the con­ servative accent a number of points relating to vowel height and its descriptive expression by means of feature analysis need to be clarified. The vowel system in Figure I is assumed to comprise five degrees of phonologically relevant vowel height, both in the front and the back dimension. The phoneme /æ/, which is pho­ netically realized as a near­open front vowel, is in the diagram positioned at the 2 For vowel systems generally and for the four English standard varieties to be posited here, see Lass 1984b, Wells 1982, Giegerich 1992 (esp. chap. 2 and 3), Cruttenden 62001, Roach 2004,...

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