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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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3 The progressive American vowel system


Various sound changes which have occurred in the vast geographic area of the U.S.A. and also in Canada during the last fifty or more years have led to an altered vowel system. In the last few decades these developments seem to have gained momentum and have produced a distinct sound pattern. The accent based on it may be viewed as an emerging second standard of American pronunciation. It appears to have achieved covert social recognition because its main phonologi­ cal property has, at least up to the mid­nineties, met with neither critical rejection nor praise (cf. Labov 1994: 344). This standard no longer so much reflects the natural speech of educated people from the Great Lakes region, but is grow­ ing into a rival type of General American that is maximally deregionalized. The accent and its underlying vowel system can be characterized as “progressive” because it is predominantly used by younger speakers, with female speakers – as is common in micro­diachronic events – showing the most advanced stages of the new system and spearheading innovative trends. Figure II represents a tentative outline of the progressive vowel system. i u ɪ ʊ e o ə ɛ ↖ɔɪ æ ↖aɪ aʊ↗ ɑ ɑ spa, palm, bar, start, pot, cot, caught, hock, hawk, don, dawn, law, dog, office, offer, water o [oʊ]: low, coat, comb; [ɔ]: for, door, north, force, horse, hoarse, border (orange, forest) ɛ arrow, harry, narrow, tarry, carry, marry Figure II: The vowels and true diphthongs of the progressive American system and illustration of some constant and altered lexical incidences...

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