Fronted high back vowel /u/

Geoff Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Tue Dec 22 14:51:36 UTC 2009

James asks indeed a very good question, which we all wrestle with as phonologists/phoneticians.  Here are some random thoughts from a phonologist who has done some thinking about these issues.  Apologies for non-IPA transcriptions and I'm using CAPS for emphasis, not shouting.

In most English dialects at least some of the tense (eat, ate, oat, boot) vowels move from a lower to a slightly higher position, at least in long contexts (before voiced consonants at the end of syllables).
The Trager/Smith phonemicization identified these upward gliding movements as the same PHONEME as that found in 'yes' and 'watt' respectively, and thus wrote /iy, ey, uw, ow/.

Even at the time other phonologists (particularly Ken Pike) argued that these upglides were not PHONEMIC, but allophonic (i.e. automatic consequences of the tenseness of those vowels).  Given my experience trying to teach Trager-Smith I agree that most Americans don't perceive these sounds as biphonemic (unlike /ai, au, oy/ about which I won't pontificate here).

Even if we agree to this (which I think is correct for most American dialects) there is still the debate about how to TRANSCRIBE these upglides--some prefer to continue to use [w,y/j], while others prefer to think of them as more vowelish and transcribe them [i/I, u/U]--the question of whether to use the tense or lax variant is another issue, and the precise character is actually a non-syllabic [e,o] for most Americans.

Making this more ugly is the fact that Canadians and Minnesotans do not have these diphthongy things and have pure [e,o] in 'late', 'vote'--think Mackenzie Brothers, or Sarah Palin (yes, I know, she's not really, but that's what she sounds like anyway).

So it's a mess, and it's not our fault--it's the fault of these pesky speakers who keep breaking their vowels.

Geoffrey S. Nathan
Faculty Liaison, C&IT
and Associate Professor, Linguistics Program
+1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT)
+1 (313) 577-8621 (English/Linguistics)

----- "James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at>" <JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM> wrote:

> From: "James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at>" <JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM>
> Sent: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 7:01:47 AM GMT -05:00 US/Canada Eastern
> Subject: Re: Fronted high back vowel /u/
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "James A. Landau <JJJRLandau at>"
>               <JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Fronted high back vowel /u/
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Tue, 22 Dec 2009 01:12:12 Zulu plua 0000 (apparently he's writing
> from London, England) Tom Zurinskas <truespel at HOTMAIL.COM> asked:
> >Does anyone really hold that vowel plus glide equals a diphthong?
> Just
> >about all vowels can be said with glides before certain other
> sounds.
> >Do they sometimes become diphthongs and other times not?
> Pardon my ignorance, but I too would like an answer to this question.
> I know that the vowels in "reign" and "stein" are diphthongs, but I
> remember someone (Mark Mandel?) stating that in English the vowel of
> "seize" is also a diphthong, which baffles me.  Are the vowels of
> "beaux" and (ignoring the initial /y/ sound) of "beaut" also
> diphthongs?\
>     - Jim Landau (who at least is aware that his surname ends in a
> diphthong)
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