cannot: OED pronunciation

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Tue Jan 18 20:59:52 UTC 2005

On Tue, 18 Jan 2005 09:32:08 -0500, David Bowie <db.list at PMPKN.NET> wrote:

>FWIW, just to add more fuel, in my pronunciation (where @ is short-a):
>can (n., container; v., to put in a container): [k at n]
>can (v., showing possibility or permission): [kEn]
>cannot/can not (negative of v., possibility): [kEnat] (w/ second
>   syllable stress)
>can't: [k at nt]
>I was in a graduate seminar once where the professor said that only
>speakers of NYC English phonetically distinguish the two verbs 'can' and
>'can'. I said i (from Maryland, south of DC) make such a distinction,
>and said professor responded that i didn't (by definition, i suppose),
>and that i was merely forcing the distinction i'd just demonstrated.
>Not the most glorious moment in the history of teaching about American
>dialects, i'd say.

Yep, your professor should have known that the "short a split"
distinguishing lax "(I) can" from tense "(tin) can" characterizes not only
New York City but also the Mid-Atlantic region encompassing Baltimore,
Wilmington, and Philadelphia.  Labov notes that short a is tensed in a
much wider range of environments in the NYC system compared to the
Mid-Atlantic system, but in both regions short a is tensed in closed
syllables before front nasals (except for auxiliaries and irregular


Hmm, based on Labov's maps the part of Maryland south of DC *is* a bit far
south for inclusion in the Mid-Atlantic system.  Perhaps that region (or
your idiolect) is influenced by Baltimore?  I also wonder how extensive
your short-a split is beyond the nasal environment -- you might have grown
up in a transitional region.

The NYC and Mid-Atlantic regions are separated by a swath of New Jersey
that lacks the short a split (or has an intermediate system in which short
a is tensed only before /n/ and in a few other lexical items).  I grew up
in a part of central New Jersey where short a is tensed very sporadically
if at all.

--Ben Zimmer

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