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 was a transitional phenomenon between the rhoticity which lasted to the 18th century in Southern Britain and the more monophthongal system we hear 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 proceeded gradually but systematically, spreading first up the back vowels and then up the front vowels.  So was the first to monophthongize; by 1791, dictionary-maker John Walker reported that in London bar was pronounced baa. In the 19th century monophthongized, merging with the THOUGHT vowel, though the centring vowel persisted in some words (e.g. hoarse) into the early 20th century, when RP was first codified.

Next to shift was , with an increasing number of words like your, sure and poor joining the THOUGHT set, though alternatively some words like cure and Stuart have become (or remain) sequences of GOOSE + schwa, while the first syllables of words like Euro(pe), tourist and during now exhibit a range of possible monophthongs.

Last to go were the front counterparts. The SQUARE vowel has generally monophthongized to ɛɛ. The first element of NEAR has shifted from KIT to FLEECE, so that NEAR words can be seen as sequences of FLEECE + schwa. Thus beer is identical to be a, as in this punning headline:A dynamic demonstration of the difference between RP’s “centring” nature and the more monophthongal system of today is provided by the optional phenomenon known as smoothing.  (I think the term is due to John Wells.)

Contemporary smoothing works very differently from the old smoothing of RP, which had this form:

V ɪ/ʊ + ə → Və
(when a closing diphthong is followed by schwa, optionally omit the second element of the diphthong)

So, in RP, fire faɪə could become faə and power pɑʊə could become pɑə.  Thus old-style smoothing had the effect of adding centring diphthongs to RP’s repertoire, even reinstating historically lost ones.  Given the relative scarcity of centring diphthongs in the world’s languages, the prevalence of them in RP (ɪə, , , ɑə, ɔə, ʊə) was one the features that gave the accent its distinctive flavour – a flavour which is 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”:

Contemporary smoothing, by contrast, has this form:

V j/w + ə → VV
(a closing diphthong followed by schwa optionally becomes a long form of the diphthong’s first element)

So unlike old smoothing, which created centring diphthongs, contemporary smoothing produces long monophthongs, e.g.

PRICE ɑj + ə → PALM ɑɑ
FACE ɛj + ə → SQUARE ɛɛ
CHOICE oj + ə → THOUGHT oo
MOUTH aw + ə → lengthened TRAP aa

Here is opera singer Simon Keenlyside smoothing variety from var[ɑjə]ty to var[ɑɑ]ty, which could rhyme with party:

And here is a TV interviewee smoothing liabilities from l[ɑjə]bilities to l[ɑɑ]bilities:

To demonstrate the monophthongal nature of the smoothing, I’ll now insert the speaker’s final fricative after his smoothed ɑɑ, then use a sliver of the fricative to make a t-burst – the result is a pretty natural-sounding last lɑɑst:

(I take this kind of evidence as confirmation that the standard BrE PRICE vowel is ɑj, with a first element identical in quality to PALM/START.)

When the MOUTH diphthong is followed by schwa, smoothing produces a lengthened version of the diphthong’s first element, i.e. TRAP. Here is chef Sam Clark saying sourdough with an unsmoothed MOUTH-schwa sequence in the syllable sour:

He also produces the word in a version with a smoothed first syllable, i.e. containing a monophthongal TRAP quality a:

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

When the FACE diphthong is immediately followed by schwa, the sequence is optionally smoothed into a lengthened version of the diphthong’s first element, DRESS, creating the long SQUARE vowel. Here is UCL’s Prof. Mark Miodownik saying thinner layers with a FACE-schwa sequence in layers:

But here, in an atomic layer of graphene, he produces layer smoothed to lɛɛ:

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

NEAR words can be thought of as sequences of FLEECE + schwa. FLEECE itself is a narrow diphthong ɪj, so that near in its most careful pronunciation is nɪjə. This may alternatively undergo smoothing, which produces a long version of the first element: ɪɪ. Here is Daniel Radcliffe pronouncing weird monophthongally as wɪɪd:

And here is radio/TV presenter Dominic Byrne saying Here is a lady with hɪɪ:

We can confirm that this is ɪɪ rather than ɪə by removing the beginning of the first word, leaving what sounds like It is a lady with t-glottaling:

Smoothing is particularly common before a following l, via schwa-insertion or “breaking”. So I’ll or aisle may be pronounced ɑjəl, or may be smoothed to ɑɑl, as in this clip of Prince Harry:

Similarly, mail or male may be pronounced mɛjəl, or may be smoothed to mɛɛl. Here is BBC presenter Emily Maitlis saying email with a second syllable which could rhyme with there’ll:

(In fact she says this quite rapidly, so that it could rhyme with tell. This kind of shortening can happen to any long monophthong in running speech.)

When CHOICE + schwa are smoothed, the result is the THOUGHT monophthong (as in the other cases, a lengthened version of the diphthong’s first element). Here is telecoms honcho Richard Hooper saying Royal Mail with Royal smoothed so that it rhymes with all (he also smoothes Mail):

Another difference between the old and the new smoothing is that the latter is less likely to occur in absolute utterance-final position. So fire can be fɑɑ in fire engine, sounding like far engine, but is likely to remain fɑjə when utterance-final. However, we can certainly find instances of contemporary smoothing in final position. Here is Sam Clark saying half an hour with pre-pausal hour clearly smoothed to aa:

And here is BBC presenter Andrew Plant saying utterance-final this year as ðɪs jɪɪ:

Unhelpfully, despite its obsolescence, the centring-diphthong system of old RP is still promulgated in dictionaries and elsewhere.  It’s worth pointing out that the less prestigious accents of Southereastern Britain are much more conservative in this respect.  I was recently on the London underground, where the official standard BrE voice told us that the next station was Leicester Squ[ɛɛ].  The driver then interrupted to tell us in Popular London English that, as Tottenham Court Road station was closed, passengers for Oxford Street should change at Leicester Squ[eə].  So if you want a relatively low-class accent, by all means follow the dictionary transcriptions.


10 Responses to Smoothing, then and now

  1. Geoff,
    Fascinating post as ever!
    Your readers might be interested to read this article of mine as well:

    • 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.

  2. 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 :)

  3. 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].

  4. Geoff
    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.

  5. Many many thanks Jack. (Of course the Wellsian re-boot of ‘smoothing’ is about turning 3 phthongs into 2, not 2 into 1.)

  6. 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.

    • 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.

  7. 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”?

  8. 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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