Tuesday, 21 December 2010

early c20 /ɑː/?

I'm currently looking for some evidence for the pronunciation of words such as 'laundry', 'launch', 'haunch' etc. with /ɑː/ instead of the now exclusively used /ɔː/. When did the former pronunciation fade out? Already in the c19? Early or mid-c20? Was the /ɑː/~/ɔː/ variation restricted to certain letter combinations? Was it associated with some particular social stratum (~upper class)?
Jon Arvid Afzelius in his Engelsk Uttalsordbok (Stockholm) of 1909 lists these items (randomly selected by me):

credit: www.twitterstash.com
item Afzelius
haunch hɔɔnʃ, haanʃ
haunt hɔɔnt, haant
launch lɔɔnʃ, laanʃ
laundry lɔɔndrĭ, laandrĭ
gauntlet gɔɔntlĭt, gaantlĭt
jaundice ʤɔɔndĭs, ʤaandĭs
paunch pɔɔnʃ, paanʃ

But only /ɔː/ is indicated in 'daunt' or 'flaunt'. I don't have access to the first editions of either Ward's The Phonetics of English or Jones's An Outline of English Phonetics who may have mentioned this. If one of my gentle readers happens to have one of these and is inclined to check what they say about the variants, I would be very grateful. Also - could you point me to some other secondary sources that shed light on this matter?


  1. I don't know how far you want to go back, but these are almost all French loanwords into Middle English, in which the nasality of French resulted in variation between /auN/ and /aN/ (using N for a nasal) in the Middle English dialects.

    This class of words has notoriously inconsistent outcomes in modern English. There are examples in all of the FACE (change, chamber), PALM (palm, calm), BATH (aunt, dance) and THOUGHT (shawm) lexical sets.

    I believe that Dobson ascribes the outcome in part to spelling pronunciation (explaining e.g. daunt, laundry, etc., but not aunt). When I get home I can take a look and tell you more.

  2. Here's a quote from Dobson: hope it's useful: (English Pronunciation 1500-1700, second ed. 1968, pp. 790-791):

    It therefore appears that the combinative development of ME au to [a:] was not native to educated StE [vp: Standard English], which at first knew only the isolative development to [ɒ:] in dance, half, &c. as in all other ME au words. The combinative development to [a:] must have been characteristic of some other form of English, probably vulgar London speech (Cockney) of the Eastern dialects, from which, a century or more after its full development [vp: this means around 1650], it made its way into educated StE. Then followed a conflict between the originally vulgar [a:] (later [ɑ:]), developed combinatively, and the hitherto normal [ɒ:], developed isolatively -- a conflict now largely settled, though some words (e.g. launch) still vary between the two pronunciations. in general [ɑ:] is now used when the spelling is a (dance, half &c.) but [ɒ:] where the au spelling has maintained itself (haunt, vaunt, &c.); but there are exceptions, e.g. aunt with [ɑ:], halm (also haulm) with [ɒ:] beside [ɑ:]. It seems probably that the more frequently used words were more likely to take on the originally vulgar [ɑ:] pronunciation.

  3. Anecdotally: the only person I knew who said [lɑːntʃ] (launch) etc was the squire's widow in the Derbyshire village where I lived from 1954 to 1957. She must have been about 70 then, i.e. born about 1885. As a member of the landed gentry, she spoke the RP of her time. This pronunciation was sufficiently unusual in the fifties for me to notice it and remember it distinctly.