Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/January 1888/English Phonology



LANGUAGES, like nations, have their growth and decay. Their evolutionary phases have, in many instances, after much learned research been clearly traced. A living language, however complete a development it may have attained, never preserves for any great length of time precisely the same grammatical structure or phonetic character, but it undergoes constant changes both of form and of sound.

The formative stages are usually attended by the most active organic alterations, and the decided mutations of the old, middle, and modern English periods are familiar to the linguistic student.

Within the last century, however, there have been no like radical changes in the English tongue, although many terms and phrases have become obsolete, and hosts of new words and expressions, chiefly technical and scientific, have been added. This permanency in the outer forms of the language has favored a greater uniformity in its elementary sounds. In England, at the present time, apart from the dialects confined chiefly to the ignorant in the various shires, and overlooking the slightly individual variations such as have existed at all times and in all languages, there may be said to be a uniform pronunciation of the mother-tongue among the educated classes. Even slight departures from this generally accepted orthoëpical standard, especially if they occur in the original elements of the language, strike the ear in an unfamiliar way like the sounds of a foreign tongue. Such departures have always arisen among colonists long and widely separated from the mother-country. It would be a contradiction, therefore, of all historical precedents in this regard if any American, native of the second generation, and bred in the United States, were to speak English, or any other modern language, with absolutely the same phonetic effect as a native of the mother-country. It is an undoubted fact that decided differences of English pronunciation exist between the educated classes in England and in the United States, and it is the object of this article to show in what these differences consist.

A careful comparative study of British and American English reveals the important fact that the phonetic differences are not confined to timbre of voice, or to accent and inflections, but that they are of a more radical nature, and are to be found in the component vowel sounds themselves. It is not within the limits of this article to take into comparative consideration the broad subject of the various accents and dialectic peculiarities which exist in various parts of the United States and England, but it is intended to confine this phonological analysis to such patent differences of speech as prevail between educated Englishmen and the great mass of the more intelligent natives of this country. As social and business ties between the two countries are becoming constantly stronger and more direct, attention is more frequently drawn to these existing inconsistencies of utterance. Some Americans have in a measure modified their pronunciation to accord with English usage, and some of our actors especially have been at no small pains to reform their speech in accordance with the English standard which has come to prevail in the principal theatres of this country.

It would greatly facilitate the analysis here undertaken if there were some universal alphabet of the elementary sounds of all languages into which a translation could be made of such special modifications of vocal elements as are to be described. The nearest approach to such a universal alphabet is the one invented by Alexander M. Bell, and now successfully employed in the instruction of deaf mutes, but as it is only known to comparatively few the more ordinary terms of orthoepists will be used.

The subject will be presented in the following order:

1. Differences in vowel and diphthongal sounds.

2. Differences in the consonants.

3. Differences of syllabic accent.

4. Differences of emphasis, inflections, and vocal timbre.

The subdivisions under these heads will be as far as practicable in alphabetical order.

Differences in Vowels and Diphthongs.—First in the order of the vowels there are the various sounds of the letter a, which furnish some of the most typical instances of the departures of the American the customary English pronunciation. The open sound of a in the word father is known as Italian a, and it was until the beginning of the present century in almost universal use in England, in a certain class of words in which Walker, and other lexicographers influenced by him, substituted short a, as in hat. The short a never became popular, and it was regarded by many as a species of learned affection, and in these words at the present day the open Italian a is very generally used in England. In the United States, on the contrary, the short a has come to be the sound employed by the vast majority of both the learned and less-educated classes in these instances. This sound of a occurs in a large class of words, such as last, past, after, ask, etc., and unfortunately it is not the explosive short a in hat as recommended by Walker, but a more prolonged and flattened sound, as it is uttered by most Americans, and one not authorized by any lexicographer. Fulton and Knight, and subsequently Webster, advised in this class of words a shortened sound of Italian a. Their intention, which was that this sound should differ in quantity only and not in quality from the Italian a, seems to have been misapprehended by certain cultivated speakers who, not satisfied with the flat a of common speech in this country, have adopted a sound intermediate in quality between short and Italian a. No such intermediate sound is ever uttered by native Englishmen. In the schools and universities, at the bar, in the pulpit, and on the stage, among officers of the array and navy, and among the learned and ignorant alike, the prevailing sound heard in these words in England is the open Italian a. It is not to be overlooked that a minority of New Englanders and a few Southerners have preserved this native English sound in this class of words.

But there is another series of words, like bath, aunt, half, path, calm, palm, etc., in which Americans depart still further from English usage by the employment of the flattened and prolonged a above mentioned. Now, it is needless to say that not only all English precedents but all lexicographers, American as well as British, demand the use of the full Italian a in these words; for, though there may be a choice of the short a of Walker, or of the open a in the first class of terms, there is absolutely no option in this instance. Helmholtz long ago proved that this Italian a has more harmonic overtones than any other vowel, and it is unfortunate that this most sonorous and musical sound should have so largely disappeared from English as spoken in the United States.

Another kind of a, known as long a, as in the word fate, is in reality like most of the vowels, of a composite nature, consisting of a fundamental and initial sound somewhat less open than Italian a, and a vanish in e long. This initial element is more open, and the diphthongal nature of a long more evident in the English than in the American pronunciation. This difference of utterance may be detected in a great many positions of long a, but especially in words like day, pay, etc., in which y represents the vanishing sound of the vowel. The long sound of this vowel in the article a before words beginning with a consonant—e. g., a man, a book, etc.—instead of the short and obscure sound, is also very common in the United States, but seldom heard in England.

Again, a before r, in such words as care, rare, and in many like positions, is also a double sound, with a primary vocal element resembling short a, and a final one, like a in are, according to some writers. This final element is more open as given by Englishmen, and approaches nearly Italian a, and the r is so slightly sounded, even by correct speakers, that in the mouths of many it probably has no organic formation, and thus corresponds to the provincial pronunciation given by some Southerners to the final syllable of words like door, drawer, etc., in which the open a, as in ah, is heard. As pronounced by most Americans, the final sound in these words is ur, and the final r has a real value, of which further mention will be made under the head of this letter. A few New Englanders and Southerners differ but little from the English usage, either with radical or terminational elements of a in the above instances.

A, as in walk, water, awe, fall, etc., is produced with a deeper and broader sound by Englishmen than by Americans. Some of the latter, in fact, pronounce such words so that they have more nearly the sound of short o than the deeply-formed vowel which issues from native British throats, and which is more profoundly formed than the German gutturals.

There is a corresponding difference, also, in the open and brief sound of a in what, wash, wallow, was, and in other words in which a has the value of o in odd.

The varieties of the vowel e also illustrate well the phonological differences of the vernacular of the two countries. The sound of accented e before r, not followed by a vowel or another r, as in her, term, mercy, etc., is that of u in fur, as uttered by most Americans, but English speakers give it a less guttural and more open sound, verging toward a in are, which sound is fully heard in a few instances as in clerk, pronounced dark in England. The correct sound between u in fur and e in met is only formed by the minority of speakers in this country.

The American long e, as in evil, is produced by a closer approximation of the tongue to the palate. The English name-sound of this e has less firmly closed lingual points of lateral contact.

The short e, as in met, contrary to American custom, resembles somewhat in quality long a as pronounced by many Englishmen. The latter always give a brief and obscure sound to e in the definite article before words beginning with a consonant, as the man, the book, etc., but in this country long e is often heard in these instances.

The long i in ice, shine, time, find, etc., like most vowels, is a phonetic compound, and it has Italian a as the radical and long e as the vanish, and the American transition from the former to the latter is quicker. The English i is more diphthongal and the radical element is a more open sound. In fact, this distinctly audible separation of the pharyngeal and lingual modifications of the vowel elements constitutes an important point in the comparative phonology of British and American English.

For the relative differences in i before r in accented syllables, as in virgin, third, etc., reference is made to the above description of e under like circumstances.

Short i, as in pin, as the equivalent of y final in beauty, badly, philosophy, etc., is the usual pronunciation in the United States, but British usage is a sound like a in quality, but more nearly identical with the open e (c ouvert) of the French. In fact, the frequent recurrence of this sound in English mouths at the present day is probably a relic of the influence of Norman French upon the Anglo-Saxon vernacular. The short i in pin has in American articulation its correct shut and explosive sound, such as exists in few other languages, but it more closely approaches long e in quality in British usage.

The long sound of o, as in home, bone, etc., has an initial element, formed more deeply in the throat than Italian a with a slight vanish in oo. The American differs from the English pronunciation in two ways—first, in that the labial modification is more decided with lips more nearly approximated; and, secondly, in that the secondary element is omitted, and the o approaches short u among many New Englanders, as in stone, home, broke, spoke, whole, and many similar words. In most Americans, however, the difference is in the labial modification alone, and if the lower jaw is allowed to drop slightly in the articulation of the word blow, for instance, the long o with the enlarged labial aperture becomes almost identical with the native English sound of the same letter. On the other hand, there is in England a cockney and provincial separation of the posteriorly and anteriorly formed elements of this vowel which is not to be found among natives of the United States.

The short o, as in hot, odd, cot, etc., is formed by Englishmen with more laryngeal depression and greater posterior oral enlargement. The American short o issues from a less deep throat-formation, is not as broad, and is usually a less abrupt sound. The long sound of double o as in food, moon, etc., is one of the extremes of the scale of vowel elements, and it is uttered by Americans with greater labial contraction than is customary among Englishmen. New Englanders are wont to substitute for it the short sound of oo in foot, in words like broom, roof, root, and in a large number of similar words. British custom always retains the long double o in these instances. There is a British fault in Yorkshire and other northern parts of giving the long instead of the short double o in cook, book, etc., for although Walker favored this pronunciation all good usage at present is opposed to it.

The name of the letter u consists of a double sound of which the first element is y or e, and the second is long oo. This compound nature of the vowel u is more generally marked in English than in American pronunciation. The most careful speakers are equally correct in the orthoëpy of this letter, but the majority of Americans substitute simply the long oo in words like tune, duty, Tuesday, nude, suit, etc. Some Southerners, however, fall into the opposite error, and give the initial element of this vowel undue distinctness.

In the short u, as in tub, sun, fun, etc., there is also a very perceptible difference between the pronunciation of the two peoples. The American sound comes forth naturally without any active oral adjustment—is similar to the u in furl, and is very much like that which is known as the neutral vowel. The English sound is shorter, more open, and is attended by a pharyngeal opening effort which is wanting in the American utterance. Similar corresponding differences obtain in a numerous class of words like hurry, flurry, etc, in which short n precedes the letter r.

The above are the chief phonological dissimilarities in the vowel scale, and attention is now asked to a few diphthongs. In the words boy, oil, join, etc., the diphthong oi is compounded of broad a, for the initial and short i for the terminational element. In English speech the broad a receives the full and decided stress of voice, and the final element is very brief, and the transition from the former to the latter is instantaneous. In American utterance the first element is dwelt upon, and the passage to the final one is less direct.

There is a want of agreement in the diphthong ou, in out, now, house, etc., as pronounced by Americans and Englishmen. Some of the former interpose between the vocal constituents of this diphthong a species of neutral vowel, while others use a much less open sound than Italian a, as the radical element. The latter fault is not confined to this country, however, but is equally a cockney peculiarity.

The chief points of phonetic variance in the consonants must now receive some notice.

Differences in the Consonants.It is well known that Englishmen "drop their h's," as they express it. To be sure this practice is more common among the lower classes, but even among the highly educated, either through inadvertence or the force of early habit, this gross error occasionally occurs. The more ignorant, as if determined to be at cross-purposes with this letter, not only omit it from syllables in which it should be sounded, but they prefix it to words beginning with a vowel. Natives of the United States are singularly free from these erroneous practices.

The letter r, which is of such phonological importance in modern languages, has many divergent phases in British and American English. The lingual or trilled r is properly used when this letter begins a word, e. g., round, rattle—when it is one of two initial consonants, e. g., proud, stream, and when it is between two vowels, as in spirit, orange, etc. In general this rough r is more distinctly trilled by Englishmen than by Americans, and their vibration is formed more anteriorly with a touch of the tip of the tongue against the hard palate. This vibration is very brief except in the most formal oratorical efforts, and it should be simply a double contact and never a distinct roll as given by the Scotch and Irish. R final or before a consonant, as in bar, born, has a guttural vibration in American utterance, but it is so smooth in English usage that the question has been raised by some orthoëpists whether it has any real value in these words or after a long vowel in the same syllable as in here, fire, our, and in many similar words. Whatever sound the obscure r may have in these instances is by Englishmen joined immediately to the preceding vowel or diphthong, but most Americans interpose between the previous vowel and the r a species of neutral vowel like u in urge, and slightly stiffening the tongue and raising the tip a little toward the dental arch they produce not a true dental r but a peculiar guttural r, which is in general use in the United States, except among some New Englanders and Southerners whose usage accords more exactly with the native English sound.

The writer's views of the English varieties of the letter r were published some years ago in England,[1] and a satisfactory physiological explanation of the soft r was then offered. In certain positions r has such slight value that some orthoëpists have regarded ah and are, for example, as identical in sound, while others, not admitting this view, have given no anatomical distinctions or rational theory as to this r. The original view advanced and still held by the writer is that the essential organic formation of this soft r is laryngeal, and consists in the tension and approximation of the true vocal ligaments so as to produce a friction-sound of the escaping breath. The breath thus roughened in its passage through the rima glottidis is the true basis of this r, which in some speakers receives a little additional value from slight pharyngeal constriction. Various analogies support this view of the organic nature of soft r, for several rough sounds are produced by the contraction of the "cordæ vocales" to a degree not productive of vocalization. The "spiritus asper" of the Greeks was thus produced. The fricative quality of our own h has a similar origin, and there is an obscure Teutonic r best heard among the Saxons having a like organic formation.

In July, 1878, the writer gave a written description of the English uvular and labial r's. The former is the basis of what is popularly known in England as the Northumberland burr, and it corresponds to the uvular r of the Germans, and to the r "grasseyé" of the French. If this r is produced skillfully by the vibration of the uvula alone it is to be distinguished from the lingual r only by a practiced ear, but if as in Swiss, German, and certain Gallic dialects, the pillars of the soft palate take an active part in its formation, it acquires a very harsh and disagreeable character. The substitution of w for r, by which real becomes weal, great, gweat, etc., is so far as personally observed English and not American. It is also probable that the use of w for v, as weal for veal, wery for very, is cockney, and never heard in the United States,

Did space permit much might be added to this description of the more patent differences of the elementary sounds of the mother-tongue as spoken by Americans and Englishmen, but syllabic accent, inflections, and vocal timbre also claim some attention.

Accent.—In all English words there is one syllable which receives greater stress of voice than the others. In words of two syllables the accent falls on the first one, and in polysyllabic words on the antepenult. The exception to this rule and the general laws of accent can not receive any notice here, but it is to be kept in mind that nothing more decidedly alters the phonetic character of English than changes in syllabic accent. A good pronunciation is distinguished by a firm and prompt attack of the accented syllables which are like the emphasized notes of a song, and they sustain the rhythmical flow of speech.

Apart from the primary accent there is a secondary and tertiary one laid on other relatively less emphatic syllables, and in the misuse of these is to be found one American peculiarity. In general, Englishmen have a more emphatic and superior delivery of the primary accent, but they are more wont to slur over the remaining syllables. This gulping of long words is offset by an opposite and equally great defect among Americans, who sometimes give the secondary accent in many words almost the same force as the primary, and their speech thus becomes drawling. Instead of giving one they employ a double decided accent as here marked in mil'ita'ry, mat'rimo'ny, ter'rito'ry, cir'cumstan'ces, and also in words of fewer syllables there is a like fault as in gi'gan'tic, im'men'se, rhu'barb, and a great many similar instances in which there should be a strong primary, and a very light secondary accent. To a native English ear this slow division and double accentuation of words is one of the most striking of the many peculiarities of American English.

Emphasis, Inflections, and Vocal Timbre.—For the learned the above orthoëpical differences are all important, but for the great mass of the people the vocal qualities embraced under the present heading constitute the most striking distinctions which the unpracticed ear recognizes between the vernacular of the two countries. Even the child without knowledge or thought of correct pronunciation is struck by the foreign tone of voice and the novel inflections. The American in London, though he may assume the dress and manners of the people, .is immediately recognized by his speech, just as a Londoner in New York betrays his nativity by the first sentence which he utters. The facts under this heading are not fully within the limits of science, as they have not been classified by any definite laws, but they are sufficiently understood to afford some general grounds for comparison.

Emphasis is the stress laid upon particular words in a sentence, and it is to phrases what syllabic accent is to words. Englishmen excel in emphasis in common conversation, but they are less successful in its use in public speaking, whereas Americans seem to require the stimulas of public occasions for effectual delivery. The shifting of the emphasis from one word to another alters the entire meaning of sentences, and it has been even claimed by some that all who conceive a like meaning must make a like use of emphasis. This is a mistake, however, and the writer has convinced himself that there are actual differences in the employment of emphasis between Englishmen and Americans, but to discuss it would involve the natural rhythmical division of sentences—the laws of poise of voice and other lengthy subjects.

The rising, falling, and circumflex inflections express interrogation, affirmation, denial, and many shades of meaning and of feeling, and they always have a wider range when the emotions are deeply stirred. Englishmen use more inflections than Americans, and both in conversation and in sustained oratorical efforts they resort more constantly to the rising inflection. Even the most careless listener will be impressed with this fact. Their voice is modulated from the middle to the upper register very frequently, the conversational pitch is higher, and the grave monotone so common in this country is seldom to be heard.

The emotional modulations in different keys are more common in English conversation, and little children with plaintive appeals in minor keys, and also in their exultant moods most effectually express feeling by vocal modulation.

Finally, there is a physiological difference between Americans and Englishmen in the organs of speech due to changed climatic and other physical conditions of life. That the inherent quality of voice which characterizes different nationalities is due in part to differences of telluric and meteorological influences as well as to diversity of race and language can not be doubted. Instructors in vocal music know the various foreign voices and the effects of locality and climate in this regard. Vocal timbre, then, is a fundamental quality of voice distinct from syllabic accent, oral adjustments, emphasis, or inflections, and it is dependent in part on the individual's physical environment.

The English timbre of voice is generally harder and clearer than the American. It has been said that throat-troubles and pharyngeal relaxation are more common in this country, but reliable data are wanting to prove this The nasal tone so common in the United States is due exceptionally to uvular relaxation, and it is more frequently a bad habit which it is difficult for the possessor to recognize or to correct. Nasal intonation also has unfortunately grown to be an emotional modulation among Americans who unwittingly employ it in moments of embarrassment or indecision, and also when expressing religious emotion and various other feelings. Fortunately Americans are relatively free from the various kinds of stammering and affected hesitancy of speech so often heard in England.

The practical conclusions to be drawn from all of the above facts are briefly as follows:

1. That in keeping with the logic of past events in other languages American English, in a new physical and moral environment, has undergone a radical modification of vocal type.

2. That Americans can not be expected to conform to British customs so far as mere emphasis, inflections, and timbre of voice are concerned.

3. There are cogent reasons for efforts to keep the fundamental sounds of the language alike in the two countries, and it is the duty of all educated persons to correct such provincial or unauthorized utterances of the vowel-sounds as have been here described, and to strive to preserve the purity of the mother-tongue. If this article shall serve to awaken an interest in this important subject, or to aid any in its study its object will have been fulfilled.

  1. Professor Plumptre's, "King's College Lectures on Elocution," London, 1881.