Back Vowel Phonemes

Nathan H Brown natebrown1 at JUNO.COM
Fri Sep 22 01:57:47 UTC 2000

One interesting thing you might want to look at is generational patterns
in /a/ and /)/ use in Eastern New England, as well as in Kentucky,
Minnesota and elsewhere. I've heard dozens of people talking in Salem
Massachusetts, and there seem to be clear generational patterns here,
ones that haven't been much studied. Basically, older people keep /)/ and
/a/ separate, while younger people merge them (except before /r/, where
they're always separate, and before /k/, where usage is scattered).
Generally, they're merged as /)/, but not in all positions. The cutoff
age seems to be around 40; people under 40 merge /a/ and /)/, their
elders keep them separate. Here's what I'd expect to find in Salem:

on, upon: /a/ in people over 40 (the traditionally Northern form), /)/ in
younger people (due to the merger).
lost: This word, and /a/ and /)/ before /s/ in general, seems to behave
weirdly. People both over and under 40 use both /)/ and /a/. This is also
heard in Boston; it's why Bostonians are stereotyped as calling their
city /bast at n/. Younger Salemites seem to lean more heavily towards /a/,
even in words like "sausage."
dog: /)/ in both age groups.
horror, foreign, orange, horrible, etc.: /a/ in both age groups. In many
coastal areas /a/ is used in these words, and Salem is no exception; the
merger hasn't affected anything before /r/.
water: Although nearby Bostonians often say /wad@/, everybody in Salem in
both age groups uses /)/.
wash: /)/ in both age groups.
lawn: /)/ in both age groups.
dollar, doll, etc.: /a/ in people over 40, /)/ in younger people.
walk, talk, block, etc.: This is another wierd class of words. Younger
people seem to use /a/ and /)/ interchangably before /k/, using both /a/
and /)/ in the same word, in just a few sentences. People over 40, while
keeping the word classes separate, seem to maintain the historical
distinction. They use /a/ in the traditional "short o" words, like
"block" and "mock," and /)/ in words spelled "alk" and "awk," like
"walk," "talk" and "gawk."

In general, except for the words before /s/, /r/ and /k/, Salemites under
40 turn /a/ into /)/, so that pairs like "caught" and "cot," "caller" and
"collar," "dawn" and "don," both have /)/.

Although many people have heard the "British o (IPA backwards /a/)" in
Eastern New England, I haven't ever heard it in Salem, except from
British tourists.

Hope this helps!

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