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A Checklist of Varieties of American English

 

Byron W. Bender

Department of Linguistics

University of Hawai`i

 

 

  1. Introduction
  2. The pronunciation of r
  3. The influence of r on preceding vowels
  4. The influence of r on preceding consonants
  5. The instability of low vowels
  6. Simplification of consonant clusters
  7. The t, d, and th sounds show some interesting variation
  8. The coalescence of "eh" and "ih" before nasals
  9. Certain sounds in certain words: Miscellaneous
  10. Prepositions
  11. Distinctive vocabulary

 

 

1. Introduction. This checklist is designed to serve two purposes: to give some idea of the range of variation to be found in American English today, and to enable you to place yourself somewhere within this range. Running throughout the checklist there are alternatives for you to choose from. Recognizing that your own usage may vary according to circumstances, please mark your choices as follows:

 

[1] your usual, relaxed, informal, colloquial usage

 

[2] a form you might use under more formal circumstances, such as in the classroom

 

Where only one usage applies, mark it with the [1] and do not use the [2] . In the final section on vocabulary where you are to encircle the words you use, please number your circles in the same way where necessary. If you do not find your usage offered as one of the choices for any item, please write a note in the margin to help improve future versions of the checklist.

 

Professors Michael Forman, George Grace, and David Reibel have read and commented on the first draft. The designer is thankful to them for their help, but wishes to claim all credit for imperfections remaining in this draft. He is indebted to a number of publications growing out of the Linguistic Atlas of the U. S. and Canada for much of the information that went into this checklist.

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2. The pronunciation of r. All speakers pronounce a full r at the beginning of words and syllables, as in run and chevron, but in some areas of the country r's that follow vowels are reduced to an "uh" sound or to a prolongation of the preceding vowel, so that store for example comes to be pronounced more like "stoa" or "sto’". How do you pronounce your r's? Mark the one box on each line that is closer to your pronunciation:

r store r "stoa" or "sto’"
r better r "betta" or "bettuh"

(The right-hand pronunciations are typical of eastern New England, New York City, and the cotton belt of the South.)

 

Some speakers who drop their r's tend to add them elsewhere:

r law and order r "law’r ‘n order"
r Cuba and the United States r "Cuba’r and the U. S."

(This "intrusive" r is typical of eastern New England.)

 

r wash r "warsh"
r oil r "oirl"
r boil r "boirl"

(Inserting an r in words like the above is typical of the southern Midland, especially the Ohio River basin, including southwestern Pennsylvania, southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and parts of the "Border States" to the south.)

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3. The influence of r on preceding vowels. Most if not all Americans pronounce meat and mitt with different vowel sounds (/i/ vs. /I/, respectively), but when the following consonant is an r, many speakers have only the vowel sound of mitt, and do not differentiate mere from the first syllable of mirror, for example, while others do. The pairs of words that follow contain this pair of vowels, and others that are sometimes equated before an r. Indicate for each pair of words whether you pronounce the relevant portions the same or differently.

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/i/ vs. /I/ mere [mir]ror

r

r

  spear [spir]it

r

r

(Differentiating the above is typical of Eastern New England and New York City.)

 

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/e/ vs. "eh" Mary merry

r

r

  fairy ferry

r

r

"eh" vs. // merry marry

r

r

  hairy Harry

r

r

  Terry tarry

r

r

"eh" vs. "uh" merry Murray

r

r

  [ter]rible [tur]tle

r

r

  A [mer]ican e [mer]gency

r

r

(Equating the last three pairs is typical of southwestern Pennsylvania and some other parts of the Midland.)

 

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/U/ vs. /o/ poor pore

r

r

  gourd gored

r

r

  moor more

r

r

(Equating the last three pairs is typical of southern California.)

 

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/U/ vs. /I/ p[ure] year

r

r

  c[ure] year

r

r

  f[ury] eerie

r

r

/U/ vs. "uh" toured turd

r

r

  gourd gird

r

r

  moored [murd]er

r

r

"oh" vs. "aw" hoarse horse

r

r

  mourning morning

r

r

  four [for]ty

r

r

  oral aural

r

r

(Differentiating the last four pairs is typical of the Northern area--New England, the Great Lakes area including the northern counties of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and of much of the South. Equating them is typical of the New York City area and the Midland--a belt between the northern and southern areas just mentioned.)

 

Although all speakers differentiate for from far, there is considerable variation between these vowels in other words:

     

like FOR

like FAR

"aw" vs. "ah"   foreign

r

r

    orange

r

r

    borrow

r

r

    tomorrow

r

r

(Pronouncing all four like far is typical of New York City, while pronouncing all four like for is typical of Chicago!)

 

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

"err" vs. "oy" adjourn adjoin

r

r

  Burl boil

r

r

(Equating the above two pairs is typical of some speakers from New York City.)

 

The l sound sometimes behaves a bit like r, dropping out or changing to a w, u, or o sound:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

local loco

r

r

kneel new

r

r

Neil Niu

r

r

fuel field

r

r

fuel few

r

r

Dole dough

r

r

toll toe

r

r

told toe

r

r

scold Phil Schofield

r

r

 

And like r, it sometimes crops up in unexpected places:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

draw it drawl it

r

r

saw it "Sol it"

r

r

 

Also like r, vowels occasionally interchange before it:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

really "rilly"

r

r

milk "melk"

r

r

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4. The influence of r on preceding consonants. r not only affects neighboring vowels, but neighboring consonants as well, especially a preceding s, t, or d. Only in the South do the following words begin with an [s] sound; elsewhere the s has become an sh sound under the influence of the following r, as the spelling indicates:

r shrink r "srink"
r shrug r "srug"
r shrimp r "srimp"
r anniversary r "annivershry"

 

This influence of r on a preceding s to make it pronounced as sh may cross an intervening consonant, especially t (which becomes ch in the process):

r street r "shchreet"
r strong r "shchrong"
r strict r "shchrict"
r history r "hishchry"
r extra r "ekshchra"
r that’s true r "thatshchrue"

 

There is some evidence that it is also spreading across an intervening k sound, as in:

r ice cream r "eyesh cream"
r screen door r "shcreen door"
r screw r "shchrew"

 

But there is little evidence that it has begun to spread across an intervening p:

r spring r "shpring"
r spry r "shpry"

 

Note that when r changed s to sh in "hishchry" above it also changed the t to ch. This sometimes happens too even when no s is present:

r try r "chry"
r petroleum r "pechroleum"

 

Similarly, d may change to j before r:

r draw r "jraw"
r bedroom r "bejroom"
r bus driver r "buhsh-jriver"

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5. The instability of low vowels. Some varieties of English almost never distinguish "ah" and "aw", as in la--the syllable of the musical scale--and law. In such varieties, the following pairs of words are pronounced identically, with both sounding like the first does in varieties that do make the distinction.

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

tot taught

r

r

cot caught

r

r

sod sawed

r

r

stock stalk

r

r

rot wrought

r

r

(Equating the above is typical of eastern New England, western Pennsylvania, and parts of Canada and the western U. S. A.)

 

In some other words, the vowel may sound like that of la or law, or in some cases, like the vowel of luck:

 

like LA

like LAW

like LUCK

crop

r

r

r

lot

r

r

r

on

r

r

r

fog

r

r

r

fought

r

r

r

hog

r

r

r

frog

r

r

r

dog

r

r

r

log

r

r

r

wash

r

r

r

wasp

r

r

r

water

r

r

r

God

r

r

r

gods

r

r

r

what

r

r

r

squash

r

r

r

(The Northern area typically has the vowel sound of la in on, hog, frog, and fog, but the sound of law in dog and log. New York City is similar but includes log in the first group.)

 

There are some words that vary between the vowel of fat and that of father:

 

like FAT

like FATHER

afternoon

r

r

glass

r

r

bath

r

r

France

r

r

aunt

r

r

laugh

r

r

(Having a vowel more like that of father is typical of eastern New England.)

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6. Simplification of consonant clusters. All speakers of English except those of Dogpatch ("confoozin’ but not amoozin") retain a y-glide after velar and labial consonants, and before the /u/ vowel in words like cute, argue, pure, beauty, few, view, music as well as in confuse and amuse. After apical consonants, however, this glide is lost in some varieties of English:

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/ty/ vs. /t/ [Tues]day twos

r

r

  [tu]ne to

r

r

/dy/ vs. /d/ due do

r

r

  [du]ty do

r

r

/ny/ vs. /n/ news s[nooze]

r

r

  [nu]meral [noo]n

r

r

/ly/ vs. /l/ [lun]ar loon

r

r

  il [lum]inate loom

r

r

/sy/ vs. /s/ [sup]er soup

r

r

  as[sume] [Sum]eria

r

r

/zy/ vs. /z/ pre[sume] zoom

r

r

(Differentiating many or all of the above is typical of the Northern and Southern areas, but not of the Midland.)

 

An initial /h/ tends to be lost before /w/ and /y/:

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/hw/ vs. /w/ where wear

r

r

  whether weather

r

r

  whoa woe

r

r

  why Y

r

r

  which witch

r

r

/hy/ vs. /y/ hue you

r

r

  [hu]ge you

r

r

  [huma]n Yuma

r

r

  Hugo you go

r

r

/y/ vs. // (zero) yeast east

r

r

(Speakers from the Midland generally equate /hw/ and /w/; those from New York City equate /hy/ and /y/ as well; dropping the y from yeast is found in New England.)

 

Some speakers have simpler clusters in length and strength. These include speakers from Hawai`i.

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

l[ength]

t[enth]

 

r

r

str[ength]

t[enth]

 

r

r

Here follow miscellaneous clusters that are sometimes simplified:

 

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

cents sense

r

r

prints prince

r

r

wants once

r

r

posts pos’s

r

r

clothes close

r

r

sixths sixt’s

r

r

eights eight’s

r

r

past pass

r

r

build bill

r

r

cold coal

r

r

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7. The t, d, and th sounds show some interesting variation. Both t and d in the middle of a word may be pronounced with a very rapid flap or tap of the tongue against the roof of the mouth that is quite different from the "normal" t or d sound made at the beginning of a word, so that for many speakers the following words are coming to sound alike, and may be distinguished only by the duration of the first vowel--slightly longer in the d words--or not at all:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

latter ladder

r

r

metal medal

r

r

otter odder

r

r

petal pedal

r

r

fetus feed us

r

r

writing riding

r

r

bitter bidder

r

r

betting bedding

r

r

eaten Eden

r

r

 

But for some speakers, the t in the middle of a word remains very similar to the t at the beginning of a word:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

Bet[ty] tea

r

r

pret[ty] tea

r

r

kit[ty] tea

r

r

 

And in certain words, where an l or n sound follows close after the t, the t may not be enunciated as a t at all, but as a catch in the throat like the glottal catch in the Hawaiian language: Hawai`i, Ka`a`awa, etc.:

r bottle r "bo’le"
r sentence r "sen’ence"
r mountain r "moun’ain"
r fountain r "foun’ain"

 

Especially in certain urban areas, the th sounds are not distinguished from t and d:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

thin tin

r

r

these D’s

r

r

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8. The coalescence of "eh" and /I/ before nasals. This is typical of the Southern and the southern Midland areas, and makes pen sound exactly like pin, for example:

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

pen pin

r

r

many Minny

r

r

send sinned

r

r

mem ory Mim

r

r

[em]igrate [im]migrate

r

r

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9. Certain sounds in certain words: Miscellaneous. The oo (or u) in the following words is given several different pronunciations:

 

LIKE THE VOWEL SOUND OF:

 

SHOOED

[u]

SHOULD

[U]

SHUDDER

"uh"

hoof

r

r

r

roof

r

r

r

food

r

r

r

root

r

r

r

soot

r

r

r

broom

r

r

r

gums

r

r

r

(Pronouncing root and broom with the vowel of should is typical of the Northern area, as is pronouncing soot like shudder. Pronouncing food like should is typical of western Pennsylvania. Pronouncing gums like shooed or should is typical of folk speech of the Northern area.)

 

 

LIKE THE VOWEL SOUND OF:

 

BULL

[U]

HULL

"uh"

HALL

"aw"

bulk

r

r

r

bulge

r

r

r

budget

r

r

r

(Pronouncing all three of the above words like bull is typical of most of the South and of the South Midland.)

 

Not only do the vowel sounds of hoof and roof vary between those of shooed and should, but these two words can be pluralized with either ...fs or ...ves, thus making for four different pronunciations of the plurals of each:

 

LIKE THE VOWEL SOUND OF:

 
 

SHOOED

[u]

 

SHOULD

[U]

 
hoof

r

hoofs

r

hoofs
roof

r

hooves

r

hooves
food

r

roofs

r

roofs
root

r

rooves

r

rooves

 

The following item is a good test for Northern origins:

     

SAME

DIFFERENT

/s/ vs. /z/

gr[easy] easy

r

r

  he gr[eased] it he s[eized] it

r

r

 

(These two pairs would be marked the same by most speakers from the Midland and the South, while in the Northern area greasy rhymes with fleecy, and he greased it with he ceased it.)

   

SAME

DIFFERENT

[ei]ther eye

r

r

[nei]ther nigh

r

r

(These two pairs probably correlate more with social class or degree of affectation than with geography.)

 

LIKE THE VOWEL SOUND OF:

WOO

[u]

WOE

[o]

WON

"uh"

won’t

r

r

r

(Using the same vowel sound as in won is typical of the Northern area; using the same vowel sound as in woo is typical of New York City.)

 

Following are some miscellaneous variations among low and mid front vowels:

plenty r "planny" r
had r "hed" r
jet r "Jatt" r
pregnant r "pragnet" r
what else r "wadalse" r
elephant r "alaphant" r

 

The unstressed, weak vowels of certain words show interesting interchanges. Most speakers have just three possible vowel sounds in weak syllables, the final sounds of the three key words below--city, sofa, and follow--but not all speakers agree on which of these three occurs in a given word, although the final vowel of sofa seems to be gaining at the expense of the other two. Indicate below how you pronounce in relaxed, informal speech the indicated vowels of the words in the first column by checking one of the boxes in the same row in the proper column:

 

CIT Y

SOF A

FOLL OW

tomat o

r

r

r

Puert o

r

r

r

Ric o

r

r

r

Missour i

r

r

r

Cincinnat i

r

r

r

Alabam a

r

r

r

fell ow

r

r

r

wind ow

r

r

r

Chicag o

r

r

r

Mississipp i

r

r

r

Hawai i

r

r

r

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10. Prepositions may sometimes be omitted. It any of the following does not sound like something you might say in very casual speech (and under the proper circumstances, write in the changes necessary to make it something you could say:

"You're lucky you live Hawai`i Kai."

"Thanks for shopping Thrifty."

"He went Pearl City side."

"Jefferson Hall is across Kennedy Theater.

"I'm going store now; wait till I get back.

"He said he was going stay Maui until June.

 

 

11. Distinctive vocabulary. Following are four columns of words and expressions. The first three columns contain words that were characteristic of speakers several generations ago from each of the three major dialect areas of the U. S. Mainland. The fourth column contains a more general term that may in many cases serve to clarify for you what is being referred to by the more provincial terms in the first three columns. Encircle where possible the one term in each row that you would be most apt to use in everyday speech. It you do not find your usual term listed, write it somewhere in the same row.

Northern Midland Southern General

cherry pit

   

cherry seed

cherry stone

pail

bucket

 

metal, for milk or water

Dutch cheese
sour-milk cheese
(e. N. Engl.)
pot cheese (NYC)

smear case

clabber cheese

cottage cheese

 

french harp (s. Mid.)

mouth harp

harmonica

 

green beans

snap beans, snaps

 

whiffle tree,
whipple tree

single tree,
swingle tree

 

(piece of wagon gear)

   

tote

carry

faucet
tap (Canada)

spigot

 

(at kitchen sink)

brook
–kill (Hudson Valley)

"crick",
run

branch

creek

darning needle

snake feeder

snake doctor

dragon fly

angleworm

fishworm

redworm

earthworm

teeter-totter

   

see-saw

 

poke, toot (PA Ger.)

 

paper bag

eaves troughs

spouts, spouting

 

gutters (on roof)

 

window blinds

 

window shades

spider

skillet

 

frying pan

   

corn shucks

corn husks

olicook (Hudson Valley)

fat cake

 

doughnut

 

I’ll wait on you.

 

I’ll wait for you.

 

a little piece

 

a little way
(down the road)

 

I want off.

 

I want to get off.

 

It’s all. (PA Ger.)

 

It’s all gone.

clapboards

weatherboards
weatherboarding

weatherboards
weatherboarding

(finished siding on a building)

stoop

porch

stoop

porch

bonny-clabber
lobbered milk

thick milk (PA Ger.)

cruds, crudded milk

clabber

sour milk

   

pulley bone

wishbone

swill

slop

slop

garbage (esp. for hogs)

quite spry

right spry

right spry

 

fills, thills

   

buggy shafts

johnnycake

   

cornbread

 

sook

co-wench

(call to cows)

 

dove, div

 

div

dived

see

seen

see (e.VA), seed

saw

clim

clum

clome (e.VA)

climbed

   

riz

rose (vb, past tns.)

begin

 

begin

began

sick to the stomach

sick on the stomach
(e. PA)

   

all to once

   

all at once

quarter to eleven

quarter till eleven

 

quarter of eleven

hadn’t ought

   

oughtn’t

 

hay doodles

hay shocks

hay cocks

waked up

got awake (PA Ger.)

waked up

woke up

 

kindling
(fat) pine

lightwood
fatwood

(light) firewood

a bite between meals

a piece between meals

a snack

a snack

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