Wednesday, 16 June 2010

fronted GOOSE

Denis Lyons writes to express his worries about what he sees as recent unwelcome developments in English pronunciation.

One of them is the use of a close central vowel, [ʉː] or thereabouts rather than a fully back [uː], in words of the GOOSE set.

Long before this recent development, Daniel Jones pointed out, getting on for a century ago, that English [uː] is not as back as the cardinal-type quality that one hears in German. (Compare German du, or even French doux, with English do.) In my 1971 PhD thesis I commented on the backness of Jamaican [uː] as compared to what is usual in England. But it was Caroline Henton who first properly documented the new fronting of RP GOOSE, in her 1983 article ‘Changes in the vowels of Received Pronunciation’, JPhon 11:353-371.

Where does this development come from? As with most other sound changes, nobody really knows. But Jones pointed out in his Outline, nearly a century ago, that an ‘advanced’ variety of was used after j (see scan).
So perhaps what happened was essentially a takeover by this allophone, which became the default realization in all positions and thus displaced the backer variety used in words like spoon and food in conservative speech.

Since then things have gone further: today one can indeed hear unrounded mid or front varieties of GOOSE.
I’m fine. How are ˈjɨː?


  1. And there's no danger of confusion with the plural: sg [gɨːs], pl [gəɪs].

    In addition to regional accents, it's also used in "precious" pronunciation, isn't it? One of the things that made John Gielgud always sound a bit more artificial than Ralph Richardson.

  2. Andrej Bjelakovic16 June 2010 at 09:50

    There's a paper availabe online (/u/-FRONTING IN RP:A LINK BETWEEN SOUND CHANGE AND DIMINISHED PERCEPTUAL COMPENSATION FOR COARTICULATION? by Harrington, Kleber, Reubold link ) that concludes:

    "Finally, there is some evidence that younger listeners are less inclined to compensate perceptually for coarticulation when /u/ follows a fronting context such as /j/. This third finding, if supported by responses from a greater number of subjects, would be consistent with the acoustic analysis in that /u/-fronting in RP is a hypoarticulation induced sound change that is related to the prevalence with which /u/ follows a fronting

    Which is essentially what John suggested above.

  3. Not sure if I agree with him, but Labov (ANAE: 17) makes a claim that the fronting of /u/ is a continuation of a general process where peripheral vowels rise, but the structure of the vocal tract is such that /u/ moves to the front as well.

  4. My 4,000 or-so-word article ‘Changes in British English Pronunciation during the Twentieth Century’ in referring at Section 3.7.II.10 (iii) of my website, to what had been happening towards the end of that century remarked:
    Hardly anyone in the English-speaking world used a fully back version of /uː/ the 'too' vowel like a Spanish speaker's [u] unless they wished to sound "beautifully spoken" [or “refained”] for comic effect. But a very large proportion especially of younger speakers in England have very markedly advanced and weakly if at all rounded values, making 'too true' much more like 'tee tree' than it is in more conservative accents. It's possible of many younger speakers to be unsure on occasion whether they’ve said the word illumination or elimination or the name Gillian or Julian.

  5. Isn't [ʉː] what South African English uses? Or is theirs [yː]? But as far as I recall the vowel in South African ‹mood› is not the same as in German ‹müde› [ˈmyːdǝ].

  6. Thinking about it, I can't even remember whether South Africans used a different quality after /j/, for example in ‹use› vs. ‹ooze›.

  7. I wonder which other developments this correspondent regards as "unwelcome". Glottal stops, th-fronting and intrusive r, or something more imaginative?

    As for GOOSE, some people also seem to have a similar fronting of the glides of the GOAT and MOUTH diphthongs (and even here in Yorkshire, where GOAT often isn't a diphthong at all, it's often somewhat fronted).

    Is there any possibility that /l/ vocalisation is playing a role, so that /uː/ is moving forward to maintain separation from /uːl/? I guess that can't explain everything as GOOSE fronting occurs in many accents that don't have a tendency towards /l/ vocalisation...

  8. I find that the fronting of GOOSE is a pronunciation with a clear gender mark. Women are much more likely to use the fronted pronunciations than men are. It is possible that this trend has been around for longer than we think; women were not recorded speaking as often as men in days gone by.

    @JHJ: I know exactly what you mean about GOAT but not about MOUTH. I know you're from South Yorkshire. I find that MOUTH around West/South Yorks is either /aʊ/ or /a:/. What other realisations are possible?

  9. @JHJ: In Scotland at least, /w/ and syllable-final /l/ do not get fronted as far as I can tell, so you get pronunciations such as 'full' [fyw].

  10. @Ed: I wasn't talking about Yorkshire in the bit outside the brackets; I was referring to an [aʉ] or similar realisation in some other areas. I agree with you about [aː] in S. Yorkshire.

  11. /u/-fronting in RP is a hypoarticulation induced sound change that is related to the prevalence with which /u/ follows a fronting

    With the recent prominence of the word "Google", the English language has acquired an instance of the GOOSE vowel in an absolutely optimal phonetic environment for ensuring a fully back vowel (both preceded and succeeded by a voiced velar stop).

    No doubt Sergey Brin and Larry Page shared Mr. Lyons's unhappiness with GOOSE-fronting, and chose their company's name to reverse it!

  12. Revising what I wrote above, the difference between the singular and the plural in a very fronted-u pronunciation might be mainly in the second part of the diphthongs.

  13. From an aesthetic point of view, I don't welcome U-fronting in American accents. But I recognize this as my problem, not a problem with the English and American languages or its speakers. And I hasten to add that I never let my personal prejudice affect my work as a dialect coach. I leave that at the door.

  14. I remember hearing a linguist (name utterly forgotten, but an American by his accent) demonstrating the point by saying that ghosts used to say [bu] but now say [bʉ].

  15. @John Cowan:
    That was William Labov /ləˈboʊv/ actually. It was an NPR interview from over 4 years ago. Here's it is just in case you wanted to hear it again: You'll notice the interviewer pronounces his name wrong.

  16. I made my first spectrograms of EE speech in the late 1960s, recording speakers from BBC programms (yes, there were EE speakers on the radio in the 1960s, politicians or others being interviewed on the news etc). Typically F2 for a number of /u:/ instances would range over 1100-1600 Hz, never 700-900 Hz of a "perfect" [u]. Anything above 1000 Hz reflects weakened rounding. At the 15-1600 Hz end, you get /ju:/. About 20 years ago I did a model study similating tongue blade elevation during [u]-like vowels (which you get in the quoted example of goose) and this resulted in a rising F2, that phoneticians hear as "fronting".

    This is fine in English, with no other "high" or "close" rounded phoneme to contrast with /u:/. Speakers of German or Swedish, for example, would have to be concerned with maintaining the extra contrast (contrasts for Swedish), so they aim at a lower F2 (darker [u]) by rounding the lips more and depressing the tongue blade fully, and possibly delaying the tongue blade elevation for any oncomng dental.

    So I suggest the explanation for "fronted" instances of /u:/ is once again increasing exposure to the growing number of EE speakers graduating from the universities since the 1940s, coupled with weakening demands for them to acquire RP for employment, and what they're actually doing with their articulation is less rounding for /u:/ and possibly more tongue blade elevation in /u:/ when adjacent to dentals.

  17. "Here's it is" should be "here it is" in my last post.

  18. Sidney Wood: But that doesn't explain the exact same development taking place in all North American accents (as far as I know; some may be immune).

  19. John Cowan wrote:
    "But that doesn't explain the exact same development taking place in all North American accents (as far as I know; some may be immune)."

    True John.

    The regional part of my reply refers primarily to SE England. A similar situation might, or might not, apply in any English speaking community, namely that a variant pronunciation might already exist and gain increasing exposure and acceptance through social change.

    The phonological part, that varied pronunciations of [u] do not threaten phonemic contrasts of English, is true for all varieties of English. The extent to which that freedom is taken advantage of locally is probably a matter of local social pressures. So you see local variations in the pronunciation of /u:/.

    The physiological part, that tongue blade elevation during [u]-like vowels raises F2 (and F3), is true for every speaker of every langauge. How that behaviour is controlled and timed in any particular speech community is a matter of the phonological contrasts of the language and the social pressures of the community.

  20. Here in the Upper Midwestern US /u:/ has generally resisted the tendency to front, instead there seems to be a tendency to un-round the vowel