In previous posts I’ve discussed the central vowels of Standard British English, the ɵ of FOOT and the variable ə of NURSE, commA, STRUT and GOAT. Now let’s look at the Standard British vowel system as a whole.
Phoneticians describe vowels using reference qualities or “cardinal” vowels which map out the auditory vowel space. As systematized by Daniel Jones, there are eight primary cardinals. These are conventionally plotted on a quadrilateral very roughly corresponding to the positioning of the tongue body in the mouth (the front of the mouth to the left). Here they are, with demonstrations recorded by Jones himself, starting with the first cardinal vowel [i] and running anticlockwise to vowel number 8, [u]. (The lips are spread for [i], tightly rounded for [u], and intermediately positioned for the other vowels.)
These eight vowels, or vowels very like them, occur commonly in the world’s languages. We can therefore describe them in a technical sense as relatively unmarked or natural vowels, with two qualifications. Firstly, as we can hear in the demonstrations, the cardinals are very peripheral (especially the four corner vowels), whereas actual languages generally have vowels rather less close to the edges of the vowel space. Secondly, the most common number of vowel qualities in the world’s languages is five (as in Latin, hence the five vowel letters of the Roman alphabet): there are three qualities – between [e] and [ɛ], between [a] and [ɑ], and between [ɔ] and [o] – which are more natural still.
The use of the cardinal vowels is nicely described by John Coleman of Oxford University’s Phonetics Lab:
The idea is that in identifying the quality of each vowel in a particular language, one will compare it to the cardinal vowels, note its relationship to them, and then use the symbol of the nearest cardinal vowel as a basis from which to transcribe it. The relationship of the heard vowel to the nearest cardinal vowel is recorded by using the four subscript diacritics [for more open/close/front/back]… Once a body of impressionistic notes has been made, it becomes convenient to dispense with diacritics transcriptions whenever possible, especially in print.
To describe the 7-vowel system of Italian, for example, we can use the first three and the last three cardinals pretty much without diacritic qualification: in real speech the qualities will be a little less peripheral than the cardinals. Italian’s one low vowel, as in pasta, is the extremely common (= very natural) intermediate vowel between cardinals 4 and 5. Strictly, we could show this diacritically, say as [a̠] or even [ɑ̟], but in practice we can simply use a (as long as we make clear, say in a footnote or preface, that this is more central than cardinal 4).
Sometimes we encounter less common (less natural) vowels which require symbols other than the primary cardinals. For example some languages, including French and German, have contrastive rounding of the non-low front vowels. This means we have to exploit a secondary set of cardinal vowels, e.g. [y], the rounded counterpart of [i]. Thus we transcribe the contrast of French vie-vous-vu as [vi vu vy]. French also has contrastive nasalization, and so the diacritic [˜] is not dispensable in the description of that language. And occasionally phoneticians feel the need to use entirely non-cardinal symbols to capture more idiosyncratic qualities.
The old prestige accent of British English, Received Pronunciation (R.P.), as classically described in the mid 20th century, had a large and considerably unnatural vowel system requiring most of the primary cardinals, two secondary cardinals ɒ and ʌ, and the non-cardinals æ, ɪ and ʊ (plus the neutral vowel or schwa, which belongs approximately in the centre of the vowel space).
This R.P. vowel inventory was not only large but rather disorganized, phonologically speaking. The vowels were not evenly spread around the phonetic vowel space. Quite a few of the qualities occurred in only one lexical set, with little overlap between the short vowels and the long vowels and the diphthongs. Further, as I discussed in another post, R.P. was marked by a prevalence of centring diphthongs (a hangover from historic r-vocalization), which are unusual in the world’s languages.
By contrast, the vowel system of contemporary Standard British can be described with a high degree of accuracy using just the eight primary cardinal vowels, plus the two central vowels ɵ and ə:
I’ll now discuss these vowel qualities, paying attention to points of divergence from R.P., and considering one or two minor modifications.
A comparison of Standard British vowels with those of R.P. indicates what can be thought of broadly as an Anticlockwise Vowel Shift. This had three distinct components: lowering of the front vowels, raising of the mid back vowels, and fronting of the high back vowels.
The first two of these components are plausibly attributed to the fact that R.P. had crowding towards both the upper front corner (FLEECE, KIT, DRESS and TRAP all being non-low) and the lower back corner (PALM, LOT, THOUGHT and STRUT all being non-high). These two areas of crowding required the use of, respectively, the two non-cardinals ɪ and æ, and the two secondary cardinals ɒ and ʌ, all four of which tend to be problematic for foreign learners.
However, the PALM vowel has been remarkably stable. The de-crowding of the upper front vowel space has not pushed it away from its own corner, nor has the de-crowding of the lower back space pulled it upwards. Cardinal 5 [ɑ] remains an accurate description of the vowel of PALM and START, although of course it is a long vowel, [ɑː] or [ɑɑ].
(Double vowels are not incompatible with IPA transcription, as in u[mm]entionable, and actually have some advantages over the length mark [ː]. Doubling shows more clearly that long monophthongs and diphthongs form a single phonological group in opposition to short vowels. Pedagogically, learners whose first language lacks contrastive vowel length find double vowels harder to ignore than little dots or triangles. And though the length mark may once have saved time and ink, it’s now easier to click a vowel symbol twice than to insert a length mark separately.)
[ɑ] is also the first element of the Standard British KITE vowel. Here is the word by said by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, followed by its first half, which might be from the word balm or bar:
And the same thing with Daniel Radcliffe saying try:
A sequence of the KITE vowel and schwa may undergo smoothing, the contemporary form of which I described in another post. This replaces the sequence with a long form of the diphthong’s first element, producing the PALM vowel. Here is opera singer Simon Keenlyside pronouncing variety as var[ɑː]ty, which could rhyme with party:
And Prince Harry pronouncing aisle as [ɑːl]:
By contrast with the stable [ɑː] of PALM, the [a] of contemporary TRAP constitutes arguably the flagship change from R.P. The TRAP vowel varied among R.P. speakers, from a quality halfway between cardinals 3 and 4, all the way up to [ɛ], and it was responsible for the old joke that “sex is what posh people get their coal in” (i.e. sacks); in comedic parodies of old R.P., the TRAP vowel is generally a focus of attention. (Jack Windsor Lewis beautifully summarizes the saga of the ash vowel – as he more traditionally refers to it – here.)
The R.P. TRAP vowel was certainly considered different enough from cardinal 4 that the non-cardinal symbol æ had to be drafted in. This is no longer the case. Here are some contemporary TRAP qualities from Nick Clegg and Kate Winslet:
Clegg’s balance of power additionally shows that the [a] of TRAP also functions as the first element of the MOUTH diphthong. And, when the MOUTH diphthong is immediately followed by schwa, smoothing is again a possibility, producing a lengthened version of the diphthong’s first element, i.e. TRAP. Here is chef Sam Clark saying sourdough with a MOUTH-schwa sequence in the syllable sour:
But he also produces the word with a smoothed first syllable containing the TRAP quality [a], producing something very like sad:
True [æ] survives outside Standard British, for example in London-Estuary and of course in America. This pronunciation of rag as [ɹæg] is characteristic of General American:
– although that clip is actually from the BBC’s Watch With Mother in 1957:
So TRAP has moved closer to the a of languages like Italian. How close? Here, courtesy of Google Translate, are Italian pasta and English bastion:
We can test the similarity by swapping the initial consonant-vowel sequences of the two words:
Don’t those sound just as acceptable? And what if I told you that the first pair were the ones I’d edited, and the second pair were the originals? Would you believe me?
It’s obvious that contemporary Standard British TRAP overlaps with Italian a – so we should keep [æ] for American English, and use [a] for Standard British, even though cardinal 4 is if anything more front. (A very back TRAP vowel is stereotyped as a young, posh feature in this comedy video.)
It’s unsurprising that TRAP lowered, since the decidedly non-low quality maintained by old R.P. left a gulf between it and PALM. Given the large number of vowels in the R.P. system, a gap that wide – at least as wide as the gap between the e and a of Spanish, with only five vowels – quite naturally proved unsustainable. (This is less of an issue in General American, with its less back PALM.)
The vowel of DRESS also lowered, attaining a contemporary value very much like the third cardinal, [ɛ]. This quality does triple duty, also occurring as the long monophthong of SQUARE, [ɛː], and as the first element of the FACE diphthong, whereas R.P. as described by Jones had [ɛ] in SQUARE but [e] in DRESS and FACE. Daniel Craig and Nick Clegg:
Again, the presence of [ɛ] in both FACE and SQUARE is supported by smoothing. When the FACE diphthong is immediately followed by schwa, the sequence is optionally smoothed into a lengthened version of the diphthong’s first element. 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 [lɛː]:
R.P.’s crowding of the lower back corner was eased by the raising of LOT and THOUGHT to qualities better described by cardinals 6 and 7 respectively. The low LOT vowel of old R.P., [ɒ], was quite similar in quality (but not of course quantity) to PALM. Here is the then Princess Elizabeth in 1940, saying Margaret and tomorrow:
And here are along the path and to the log from Watch With Mother in 1957:
Contemporary LOT is similar to the THOUGHT of R.P., though of course shorter. Here is saw from Watch With Mother in 1957, followed by its first part, which sounds rather like the beginning of contemporary sock or sob:
Likewise the beginning of the Queen’s 1957 loyalty sounds like the start of contemporary lot:
Standard British LOT is also very similar to the [ɔ] of Italian. Here, again from Google Translate, are English bossy and Italian posso, then repeated with the initial consonant-vowel sequences swapped. I’ll let you decide whether the originals or the edited versions come first:
Incidentally, using [ɔ] for LOT reinstates Daniel Jones’s transcription for it. Jones (Outline of English Phonetics, 1962): “In broad transcription of particular languages it is generally convenient to use the symbol ɔ in place of ɒ.” I don’t know why Jones found this convenient; perhaps the symbol ɒ caused confusion among foreign learners commensurate with its oddity and scarcity in the world’s languages. Today, describing Standard British LOT with the more natural [ɔ] is no longer mere convenience.
The same applies to [o] for THOUGHT, though it is of course long, [oː]. The Standard British vowel is somewhat more open than cardinal 7, but closer to it than to 6. Here are Clegg and actress Emma Thompson:
The contemporary THOUGHT vowel is very similar to the o of German. This clip could easily be a native pronunciation of contemporary Standard British torn and dorm:
But in fact it’s a German speaker saying Ton and Dom.
And again, there’s some similarity to the o of Italian, though the latter tends to be more exactly cardinal 7-like. Compare English sauna from the online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary with Italian sono from the Dizionario italiano multimediale e multilingue d’ortografia e di pronunzia:
As in R.P., the THOUGHT vowel also functions as the first element of the CHOICE diphthong. Here from a 1945 newsreel is R.P. voice, followed by its beginning, [vɔ]:
And here is contemporary voice from the online Macmillan dictionary, again followed by its beginning, [vo]:
Once again, evidence from smoothing confirms that CHOICE begins with the THOUGHT quality. A sequence of CHOICE and schwa may optionally become 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):
Now to the upper corners of the vowel space, cardinals 1 [i] and 8 [u], which R.P. used as long monophthongs in FLEECE and GOOSE. Both of these pronunciations are now old-fashioned, the latter extremely so. Here is at least for a few minutes said by the Queen in her 1957 Christmas message:
And, from Watch With Mother the same year, big leaves and usually:
The subsequent diphthongizing of these two vowels was to some extent a loss of naturalness; but in doing this, Standard British phonologically rationalized its long vowel system. Whereas the five long monophthongs of R.P. (FLEECE, NURSE, PALM, THOUGHT and GOOSE) did not pattern together phonologically, the four long monophthongs of Standard British (SQUARE, NURSE, PALM, THOUGHT) are a natural class: they exhibit r-liaison with a following vowel. Meanwhile FLEECE has joined the class of front-closing diphthongs (FLEECE, FACE, PRICE, CHOICE) which exhibit j-liaison with a following vowel, and GOOSE has joined the class of back-closing diphthongs (GOAT, MOUTH, GOOSE) which exhibit w-liaison with a following vowel.
This is a basic part of English phonology; failing to observe it is a glaring but routine characteristic of non-native speech, even with advanced learners. For example, foreigners frequently pronounce initialisms like C.I.A. or U.R.L. as C[ʔ]I[ʔ]A and U[ʔ]R[ʔ]L rather than the native pronunciations, C[j]I[j]A and U[w]R[ɹ]L.
So in Standard British, the upper corners of the vowel space [i] and [u] function as the endpoints of its two classes of diphthongs. I prefer to transcribe them as the semivowels [j] and [w], which are exactly equivalent in terms of the vowel space, but have additional benefits. First, [j] and [w] make explicit that the English diphthongs are falling (moving from greater to lesser prominence). Second, they reinforce English vowel liaison for the foreign learner, e.g. by air [bɑjˈɛː], co-op [ˈkəwɔp], as well as initialisms like those in the previous paragraph. Additionally, they provide the best way to teach cardinals 1 and 8 to English-speaking students of phonetics: simply pronounce intervocalic [j] or [w], then “hit the pause button” in the middle of the semivowel.
In final position, especially when accented, the [j] and [w] of the two diphthong classes are sometimes followed by a short, schwa-like sound. Here are me and loo said by Kate Winslet:
Such pronunciations clearly differ from the closing diphthongs of old R.P. with their distinctively not-quite-high endpoints [ɪ] and [ʊ]. These sound very old-fashioned, especially in final accented position, e.g. May in this 1932 newsreel clip:
or the Queen saying Christmas Day in 1957:
or the narrator of the 1948 film Quartet saying 24 plays:
Of course, in the less accented contexts of continuous speech the contemporary [j] and [w] endpoints will often not be reached; this kind of target undershoot is a universal phenomenon in running speech.
The first element of the GOOSE diphthong brings us into the central region of the vowel space, which is characterized by considerable variability. I think this element is best analyzed as equivalent to the FOOT vowel. This, as I’ve discussed in another post, is no longer the German kaputt vowel [ʊ], as exemplified in old R.P. by took and good from Watch With Mother, 1957:
The FOOT of contemporary Standard British is very like “French schwa”, and is well described as the rounded close-mid vowel [ɵ]. Here is Kate Winslet’s could:
If we remove the final [d] and reduce the initial aspiration, it makes a pretty convincing French que:
And if we isolate the first part of her loo (so to speak), we again hear a similarity to French le:
The [ʊ] of kaputt survives in the north of England and in Australia, but for FOOT and GOOSE in contemporary Standard British, the widespread transcriptions ʊ and uː are fossils. I commend those Germans who trust their ears more than their dictionaries, and use their ü rather than their u when speaking English.
The fronting of FOOT and GOOSE may well be associated with the raising of LOT and THOUGHT. It may additionally or alternatively be associated with the inexorable rise of l-vocalization. This not only creates new w-diphthongs, but in its syllabic form also creates a new high back rounded vowel in words like hospital and model. This is sometimes transcribed as [o], but I speculate that it is really [u] – which arguably would do more to explain why GOOSE got pushed forward.
The KIT vowel seems to have lowered a little since R.P. In normal speech it’s generally less peripheral than cardinal 2 [e], but it’s nonetheless very similar to it. Descriptions of R.P. used the cardinal 2 symbol for R.P.’s relatively close DRESS vowel, and for KIT turned to the non-cardinal [ɪ]. I don’t have a recording of Daniel Jones demonstrating [ɪ], so here are both [e] and [ɪ] performed by John Wells and by Paul Meier:
I think I got those demonstrations in the right order; frankly I find it hard to tell them apart. Stressed KIT words are probably no further from peripheral cardinal 2 [e] than PALM words are from peripheral cardinal 5 [ɑ]; and the adoption of [e] as a transcription of KIT is perhaps supported by its frequent correspondence in unstressed syllables to orthographic e, as in wanted, between, knowledge, decide, basket, glasses, etc. But the potential for misleading foreign learners is probably too great. So, for practical rather than phonetic reasons, I’m willing to continue using the special non-peripheral symbol [ɪ] for KIT.
The FLEECE diphthong is a narrow one, but when accented it can be heard in its full form, [ɪj]. Here is Kate Winslet’s me again, followed by its first part, audibly [ɪ]:
Daniel Radcliffe’s me has a first element which is still more open, especially in the second of two utterances here:
Like all diphthongs, FLEECE is liable In continuous speech to be compressed towards a monophthong. But foreign learners should practice its full form.
In other posts I’ve touched on the mid and lower central area of the vowel space. Schwa [ə] is at least as important in contemporary Standard British is it was in R.P., appearing across the lexical sets commA, NURSE, GOAT and STRUT. It is variable. Some will want to carry over from R.P. a distinctive position in the vowel space for STRUT, probably a little lower and backer than schwa. But schwa (unstressed and stressed) is a far higher priority for the learner than a distinctive STRUT: foreigners are far better off saying Pizza H[ə]t than either Pizza Hat or Pizza Hot, which are the usual errors of those striving after the mercurial and function-lite grail of “ʌ”.
Finally, the lexical sets NEAR and CURE. In R.P., these patterned with SQUARE as centring diphthongs: [ɪə, ʊə, eə]. In Standard British, by contrast, SQUARE is one of the long monophthongs, while a number of CURE words have joined another long monophthong, THOUGHT. It’s possible to analyze the remaining CURE words, and the NEAR words, as basically containing sequences of GOOSE/FLEECE + schwa, i.e. [ɵwə] and [ɪjə]. The process of smoothing (illustrated above for sequences of KITE/MOUTH/FACE/CHOICE + schwa) means that these will often be pronounced as long monophthongs, [ɵː] and [ɪː]. Here is BBC presenter Andrew Plant saying this year as [ðɪs jɪː]:
And here is radio/TV presenter Dominic Byrne saying Here is a lady with [hɪː]:
We can confirm that this is [ɪː] rather than [ɪə] by removing the beginning of the first word, leaving what sounds like It is a lady with t-glottaling:
Of course intermediate pronunciations between fully disyllablic [ɵwə, ɪjə] and fully smoothed [ɵː, ɪː] are also heard. Whether Standard British still contains contrastive NEAR and CURE vowels is, I think, open to debate. As with STRUT, my view is that they’re an unnecessary burden on the general learner, for either communication or nativeness. What’s clear is that contemporary Standard British has shifted away from the prominently “centring” nature of old R.P. (though the less prestigious London-Estuary is more conservative in this respect).
Here, then, is a slightly modified vowel quadrilateral for Standard British:
And here are the vowels listed by lexical set and cross-classified, as on my website (without a commA-STRUT distinction):
In summary, the vowels of Standard British are spread more evenly around the vowel space than R.P.’s were. They employ fewer qualities, and fewer non-primary qualities, making them easier to learn. Each of the short vowels except LOT functions also in the long vowel system, which was not true of R.P. The long vowels of Standard British fall into three phonological classes according to liaison behaviour, an increase in pattern regularity compared with R.P. The relatively unnatural centring diphthongs of R.P. are diminished or eliminated, arguably reducing the overall inventory size.
There is of course no value judgement in any of this: no language or accent is better or worse than any other. For what it’s worth, I think R.P. was a rare orchid of great beauty. But Daniel Jones happened to codify the empire’s upper class speech during a phase of considerable phonetic unnaturalness. The social authority of the accent, and the scholarly authority of Jones’s description of it, enshrined and perpetuated that description, throughout and despite what has ironically been a period of quite exceptional sociophonetic change, driven both by shifts in British society and culture, and by the very unnaturalness, and hence instability, of the accent itself.
Today we can still identify a relatively prestigious accent which will serve those foreign learners who want a British model; this contemporary Standard British accent unsurprisingly embodies various developments away from the relative unnaturalness of R.P. Quite aside from the desirability of recording contemporary speech accurately, it makes overwhelming sense to avail foreign learners of its greater naturalness.