Saturday, 23 April 2011

transfer from /ʊə/ to /ɔː/

Should we write an elegy on the imminent demise of the diphthong /ʊə/? It's much too early I should say. The diphthong persists doggedly in an increasingly smaller number of words. One of the words which has surrendered almost completely to the monophthong /ɔː/ is poor (along - though to a lesser degree - with words such as sure, tour, your(s), you're, moor). LPD2 and LPD3 contain graphs for poor illustrating this change from a diphthongal to a monophthongal pronunciation - graphs which are based on pronunciation polls carried out by the dictionary's author John C Wells for the 2nd and 3rd editions.


One clearly sees the steady rise of the pronunciation /pɔː/; around 80 per cent of those aged around 40 or younger indicated that they pronounce the word with a monophthong. However, nobody knows if the pendulum will swing back.
Most of my EFL students (who are in their twenties) use a diphthong in poor, which is probably due to the fact that their teachers at secondary school used or still use a diphthong. To present them with a 'younger' pronunciation model I changed my pronunciation from /ʊə/ to /ɔː/. Doesn't make me younger physically - alas!


  1. Hannisdal's 2002 dissertation Variability and change in received pronunciation: a study of six phonological variables in the speech of television newsreaders states that "the recurrent statement that /U@/ is disappearing from the phoneme inventory of RP seems grossly exaggerated judging from the evidence provided by the broadcast data" (p. 153).

    I (near RP, grew up in the English midlands in the 70s-80s) had FORCE in poor, moor, sure and your, and CURE in the rest of the canonical CURE words. tore-tour would have been a minimal pair.

    In the US (where I live now) CURE seems much more robust than in England, outside AAVE and a few regions. Some mainstream speakers have FORCE in the -oor words, but I don't think I've ever heard FORCE in "sure", for instance.

  2. The mystery is why the change depends on lexemes. People who say ɛː for ɛə do that always, or at least if the phonetic environment is the same, whatever the lexeme.

  3. @vp: Hannisdal's sample consisted of 30 speakers, while the Wellsian sample sizes were N≈1900 for the 1998 poll (= LPD2) and N≈800 for the 2007 poll (= LPD3)

  4. @Kraut:

    There is no contradiction between Wells's polls and Hannisdal:

    p. 152:

    "The variability between /ʊə/ and /ɔː/ in CURE seems, then, to be largely determined by
    the phonetic context, though not so systematically that it can be reduced to an allophonic split.
    The main tendency is that /ʊə/ occurs in words where the vowel is preceded by /j/ (except
    your/you’re), while /ɔː/ dominates in words where the vowel is preceded by other consonants.
    This pattern is so consistent that we can almost talk about two different lexical subsets, CURE and POOR. While lowering to /ɔː/ is well-established, or well on its way, in most POOR-words, it is still resisted in CURE, where the use of /ɔː/ can be regarded as innovative or progressive.

    The second trend is for /ʊə/ to be retained, or replaced by an [uː]-like monophthong, in the
    environment of a following prevocalic /r/. It remains to be seen whether words like during,
    jury and rural will eventually lower to /ɔː/, or whether they will monophthongise to /uː/ and
    be reanalysed as GOOSE words."

    Wells's polls were only for the one word "poor". A change in that one word does not mean that the entire CURE phoneme is dying out.