Smoothing, then and now

The description of standard British English today does not require centring diphthongs.  In this it’s very different from the earlier prestige accent Received Pronunciation.  RP’s system of centring diphthongs, though still hammered into the public’s mind by its promulgation in conservative dictionaries and the internet, was just a transitional phenomenon between the old rhotic system which pervaded England until the 18th century, and the contemporary monophthongal system we have in the 21st.

The source of the centring diphthongs (diphthongs ending in schwa) was the vocalization of r when not before a vowel, simplistically as follows:The monophthongization of the resultant centring diphthongs spread first up the back vowels and then up the front vowels. (Splitting the diphthongs into 2-syllable sequences was an alternative fate for and .)

A dynamic demonstration of the difference between RP’s centring nature and the system of today is provided by an optional speech process known as smoothing.  This affects certain long vowels when they occur before a schwa in the next syllable. The 2-syllable sequence may optionally be smoothed into a single (1-syllable) long vowel.

Smoothing has been around for a long time, but contemporary smoothing works very differently from the old smoothing of RP. The old smoothing was described by John Wells as follows:

A long vowel or diphthong changes: iː becomes ɪ, uː becomes ʊ, and a diphthong loses its second element, so that aɪ and aʊ become a.
(Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd ed., p. 173)

Note that in this old-style smoothing, the following schwa was unaffected, so that the process had the effect of adding a huge number of centring diphthongs, even reinstating historically lost ones:

iː + ə → ɪə
eɪ + ə → eə
aɪ + ə → aə
ɔɪ + ə → ɔə
uː + ə → ʊə
ɑʊ + ə → ɑə
əʊ + ə → əə (not actually a diphthong)

So fire faɪə could become faə and power pɑʊə could become pɑə, etc, etc. Given the relative scarcity of centring diphthongs in the world’s languages, the prevalence of them in RP was one the features that gave the accent its distinctive flavour – a flavour perceived as very old-fashioned today. Here from 1948 is George VI (the one portrayed in The King’s Speech) saying “It gives me much pleasure… to decl[eə]… [stammer] the Kingston p[ɑə] station open”:

The newer smoothing is simpler: since contemporary FLEECE and GOOSE are diphthongs, we can just say that the process applies to diphthongs. The output of the (still optional) process is a long monophthong:

ɪj + ə → ɪː
ɛj + ə → ɛː
ɑj + ə → ɑː
oj + ə → oː
ʉw + ə → ʉː
aw + ə → aː
əw + ə → əː

Let’s listen to some examples. First, opera singer Simon Keenlyside, smoothing variety from var[ɑjə]ty to var[ɑː]ty, which could rhyme with party:

Here a TV interviewee smooths liabilities from l[ɑjə]bilities to l[ɑː]bilities:

To demonstrate the monophthongal nature of the smoothing, here is the speaker’s smoothed ɑjə edited before –st, which gives a pretty natural-sounding last lɑːst:

(This also supports the analysis of the contemporary PRICE vowel as ɑj, with a first element identical in quality to PALM/START.)

Now let’s look at the MOUTH diphthong aw followed by schwa. Here is chef Sam Clark saying sourdough with an unsmoothed awə in sour:

Nicely demonstrating the optionality of smoothing, he also produces the word in a smoothed version with saː in sour:

The first part of this word sounds like a longish pronunciation of the word sad:

which supports the analysis of the MOUTH diphthong as beginning with the same quality as the TRAP vowel, a.

Next, the FACE diphthong ɛj followed by schwa. Here is UCL’s Prof. Mark Miodownik saying thinner layers with an unsmoothed sequence ɛjə in layers:

Whereas here he produces layer smoothed to lɛː (identical to lair) in an atomic layer of graphene:

When the GOAT diphthong is immediately followed by schwa, there is no difference between the effects of old RP smoothing and those of the newer kind. Since GOAT begins with schwa, the result either way is a long schwa, ie the NURSE vowel. Here is RP speaker John Wells saying lowered with a smoothed əː vowel:

Words in the NEAR set are often pronounced as sequences of FLEECE + schwa. FLEECE itself is a narrow diphthong ɪj, so that near may be pronounced nɪjə. When this undergoes contemporary smoothing, it produces a long version of the first element, ɪː. The hɪjə pronunciation of here can be heard from Prof Mark Miodownik saying here a carbon fibre composite is being made:

And this is BBC presenter Andrew Plant saying all these Christmas cards here, with the smooth hɪː pronunciation:

(Many speakers produce NEAR words only in the smooth ɪː form.)

Smoothed monophthongs are particularly common before a following r or l. Above we heard Mark Miodownik smoothing layer in layer‿of. Similarly, I’ll and aisle may be pronounced ɑjəl but are often smoothed to ɑːl, as in this clip of Prince Harry saying “he’s going to walk down that aisle with his future wife”:

Similarly, Royal Mail may be pronounced rojəl mɛjəl, but is smoothed here by telecoms honcho Richard Hooper to roːl mɛːl:

I’ll end with GOOSE + schwa. The Oxford Advanced online dictionary’s audio pronunciation of secure is unsmoothed sɪkjʉwə. On the other hand, the audio for security exhibits contemporary smoothing, sɪkjʉːrɪtɪj, with ʉwə smoothed to ʉː before r:

Of course the dictionary sticks to the old-fashioned transcription /ʊə/ in both words, /sɪkjʊə/ and /sɪkjʊərɪti/. This transcription reflects neither of the actual pronunciations. Furthermore, the old account of smoothing as stated by John Wells has nothing to say about why the two words should exhibit this pronunciation difference, since old smoothing didn’t even apply to /ʊə/.

10 replies
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Thanks for the link, Alex. I could have made it clearer in my post that, in contemporary smoothing, [ɑɑ] comes from PRICE + ə, while [aa] comes from MOUTH + ə, e.g. flower pot [flaapɒt]. On a blog post, John Wells suggested that Cowell might possibly be heard as [kɑɑl], but I’d be very surprised to hear this: nowadays [kɑɑl] comes only from Carl/Karl and (by smoothing) from Kyle.

      An apparent exception is the common pronunciation of our as [ɑɑ], but that is a lexicalization of old smoothing, like prayer, which I presume was once disyllabic.

      Incidentally, I increasingly hear mayor desmoothed as [mɛjə]; I can’t say whether this is American influence, a spelling pronunciation, or a hypercorrection which confirms the productive (but of course optional) status of smoothing in the language today.

  1. dw
    dw says:

    Interesting post.

    Surely the NORTH vowel must have gone through a similar process before merging with THOUGHT: /ɒr/ -> /ɒə/ -> /ɒː/ -> /ɔː/?

    I’m not sure I buy your claim that the NEAR vowel should be seen as containing a hiatus of FLEECE followed by schwa. “Sun” headlines aren’t necessarily the source of linguistic truth :)

  2. Geoff Lindsey
    Geoff Lindsey says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting! I described r vocalization “broadly” with five vowel qualities to illustrate, and without differentiating e.g. NORTH v. FORCE. I’m no authority on Middle or Early Modern English, but I believe I’m right about the sequence that the subsequent Modern English monophthongization has followed.

    Do you have any actual evidence for not buying NEAR as FLEECE + schwa? Obviously the pronunciation of near as literally [nɪə], with KIT gliding to commA, sounds very old-fashioned today. In a stressed citation form, speakers today will typically produce something that certainly sounds like FLEECE gliding to commA. Of course, in continuous speech with less stress, NEAR words are likely to undergo contemporary smoothing and to be pronounced as [ɪɪ], e.g. n[ɪɪ]sighted or b[ɪɪ]glasses.

    P.S. I’m certainly open to puns and language games as a source of evidence, rather than just swallowing what dictionaries (and YouTube tutorials) claim. But as it happens, that Sun headline doesn’t really bear on the issue, since old-fashioned R.P. would have neutralized “beer” and unstressed “be a” too – as [bɪə].

  3. Jack Windsor Lewis
    Jack Windsor Lewis says:

    Congratulations on your splendid bloggery
    JCW seems to have re-invented ‘smoothing’
    Sweet used the term repeatedly, first acc to OED in
    1888 Sweet Eng. Sounds 22 Smoothing or the levelling of the two elements of a diphthong under a monophthong is the result of absorption.

  4. Lipman
    Lipman says:

    Very interesting things about this new smoothing.

    Still, I think it’s simply not correct (other than politically maybe, which I don’t imply) to claim the SQUARE diphthong is a matter of the past. Obviously, one could label every living instance to be either obsolete or PLE, but that wouldn’t be useful, I think. (To see if I’m imagining this, I searched YouTube for “leicester square”.) Also, given that there are still RP speakers around who have a diphthong in FORCE vowels, the 19th century sounds a bit early for its general death.

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I didn’t exactly say that centring SQUARE is a matter of the past – I pointed out that [eə] is well preserved in less prestigious accents, but otherwise is perceived as very old-fashioned. (I’ve made the same point about STRUT and the allophony of commA in my latest post.)

      I just checked the audio for square on Google Translate, Oxford Advanced Learners, Macmillan and Cambridge (I also made spectrograms). The first three are monophthongs; Cambridge glides slightly, but goes nowhere near schwa. I don’t think these dictionaries have trendy, politically correct agendas; if they did, why would they all give skweə as the transcription, which they do?

      As a practical standard for learners, I actually do consider that centring SQUARE is – or should be – a matter of the past; I think it’s silly to teach it to the general (and generally young) learner of British English today. In audio terms, reference sources seem to agree with me.

  5. Gassalasca
    Gassalasca says:

    Interestingly, my biggest problem was with your comment on the CURE vowel. Are you familiar with Bente Hannisdal’s 2006 “Variability and change in Received Pronunciation: A study of six phonological variables in the speech of television newsreaders”?

  6. Hernán
    Hernán says:

    Hi, I re-read your old blog entries whenever I can and always find something I had missed the first time. Thanks for demystifying English transcription system! I’d always been mislead by the great gap between the IPA vowel chart and the actual phonetic quality in contemporary English. Now I’ve got a question for you, and I’d really appreciate it if you could answer it.

    I’ve never been able to hear the final schwa of centring diphthongs when followed by a fully pronounced ‘r’, as in ‘hearing’, ‘Europe’, or the old-fashioned diphthongal variant of ‘hairy’. I’ve been demonstrated these diphthongs in this context by my (young, native, Southern British) English teachers in careful speech, but I’ve never heard it in natural speech.

    I know your views on SQUARE, NEAR and CURE, and how each of these are disappearing due to their instability. But I suspect that where a native speaker hears a diphthong, I can’t hear one. Can you point to some audio clips where (even in dated English) these schwas are actually fully pronounced? Or are dictionary transcriptions also mythical in this respect? Is there a phonological rule that states that the schwa is lost in the presence of a following /r/? Or that the schwa and the /r/ merge into one segment? Or does the schwa become ultra-short? I’ve searched Cruttenden’s revision of Gimson’s Pronunciation of English, Wells’ Accents of English, Roach’s English Phonetics and Phonology, and more, but I found no such phonological rule or even a comment on this, so I suspect it’s lack of ear-training on my part.

    Thanks a million!! (even if you don’t get round to replying)

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