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English-language vowel changes before historic l

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Salary-celery merger

The salary-celery merger is a conditioned merger of /æ/ (as in bat) and /e/ (as in bet) when they occur before /l/, thus making salary and celery homophones.[1][2][3] This merger occurs in the English spoken in New Zealand and the Australian state of Victoria. In varieties with the merger, salary and celery are both pronounced /sæləri/ (Cox & Palethorpe, 2003).

The merger is not well studied. It is referred to in various sociolinguistic publications, but usually only as a small section of the larger change undergone by vowels preceding /l/ in articles about l-vocalisation. Most Victorians and New Zealanders do not exhibit l-vocalisation. The Cox and Palethorpe study tested just one group of Victorian speakers: 13 fifteen year-old girls from a Catholic girl’s school in Wangaratta, Victoria. Their pronunciations were compared to those of school girl groups in the towns of Temora, Junee and Wagga in New South Wales.

Horsfield (2001) investigates the effects of postvocalic /l/ on the preceding vowels in New Zealand English; her investigation, however, covers all of the New Zealand English vowels and is not specifically tailored to studying mergers and neutralizations, but rather the broader change that occurs across the vowels. She has suggested that further research involving minimal pairs like telly and tally, celery and salary should be done before any firm conclusions are drawn.

The merger is one of the few definite Australasian regionalisms. In the study conducted by Cox and Palethorpe, the group in Wangaratta exhibited the merge while speakers in Temora, Junee and Wagga in New South Wales did not. It is one of the very few features that New Zealand and Victoria share that the rest of Australia doesn't also share with New Zealand, and is thought by some to have begun in the 1970s in both regions[citation needed].

A pilot study was of the merger was done, which yielded perception and production data from a few New Zealand speakers. The results of the pilot survey suggested that although the merger was not found in the speech of all participants, those who distinguished between /æl/ and /el/ also accurately perceived a difference between them; those who merged /æl/ and /el/ were less able to accurately perceive the distinction. The finding has been interesting to some linguists because it concurs with the recent understanding that losing a distinction between two sounds involves losing the ability to produce it as well as to perceive it (Gordon 2002). However, due to the very small number of people participating in the study the results cannot be considered convincing.

The findings about the lack of perception between the distinction between /æl/ and /el/ for some speakers with the merger have been interesting to some linguists, because although they can clearly hear a difference between the sounds /æ/ and /e/ (in bat and bet), elsewhere they can't hear the difference when they come before a /l/ sound.

Fill-feel merger

The areas marked in red are where the fill-feel merger is most consistently present in the local accent. Map based on Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 71).
The areas marked in red are where the fill-feel merger is most consistently present in the local accent. Map based on Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 71).[4]

The fill-feel merger is a conditioned merger of the vowels /ɪ/ and /iː/ before /l/ that occurs in some dialects of American English. The merged vowel is usually closer to [ɪ] than [iː]. The heaviest concentration of the merger is found in Southern American English: in North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana (but not New Orleans), and west-central Texas (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 69-73).

Fell-fail merger

The same two regions show a closely related merger, namely the fell-fail merger of /ɛ/ and /eɪ/ before /l/ that occurs in some varieties of Southern American English making fell and fail homophones.In addition to North Carolina and Texas, these mergers are found sporadically in other Southern states and in the Midwest and West.[5][6]

Full-fool merger

The full-fool merger is a conditioned merger of /ʊ/ and /uː/ before /l/, making pairs like pull/pool and full/fool homophones. The main concentration of the pull-pool merger is in the North Midland accent of American English, particularly in Pittsburgh English. The merger is less consistently present in eastern Pennsylvania and southern Indiana.[7] Accents with /l/-vocalisation, such as New Zealand English, Estuary English and Cockney, may also have the full-fool merger in most cases, but when a suffix beginning with a vowel is appended, the distinction returns: Hence 'pull' and 'pool' are /pʊo/, but 'pulling' is /pʊlɪŋ/ whereas 'pooling' remains /puːlɪŋ/.[1][8]

Non-native observers of Australian English may mistakenly think the full-fool merger occurs there, as the vowel quality is the same: [ʊ]. A quantity distinction is still made, however, and the two phonemes are quite distinct to native speakers. Hence, full is pronounced [fʊl] and fool [fʊːl], so there is no merger.

Interestingly, the fill-feel merger and full-fool merger are not unified in American English; they are found in different parts of the country, and very few people show both mergers.[9]

Hull-hole merger

The hull-hole merger is a conditioned merger of /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization. As a result, "hull" and "hole" are homophones. The merger is also mentioned by Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 73) as a merger before /l/ in North American English that might require further study.

Doll-dole merger

The doll-dole merger is a conditioned merger of /ɒ/ and /əʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization. As a result, doll and dole become homophones. (Wells: 317).


Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 73)[10] mention four mergers before /l/ that may be underway in some accents of North American English, and which require more study:

  • /ʊl/ and /ol/ (bull vs bowl)
  • /ʌl/ and /ɔl/ (hull vs hall)
  • /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (bull vs hull)
  • /ʌl/ and /ol/ (hull vs hole)

See also

  • Phonological history of the English language
  • Phonological history of English vowels
  • English-language vowel changes before historic r


  1. ^ Cox, F., and Palethorpe, S. (2001). "The Changing Face of Australian Vowels", in Blair, D.B. and Collins, P (eds): Varieties of English Around the World: English in Australia. John Benjamins Publishing, Amsterdam, 17–44. 
  2. ^ Cox, F. M. and Palethorpe, S. (2003). "The border effect: Vowel differences across the NSW–Victorian Border". Proceedings of the 2003 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society: 1–14.  Note: online version is PDF.
  3. ^ Palethorpe, S. and Cox, F. M. (2003) Vowel Modification in Pre-lateral Environments. Poster presented at the International Seminar on Speech Production, December 2003, Sydney. Note: online version is PDF.
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2), ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3). 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
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