Thursday 26 August 2010

forceful sports supporters

Russ Stygall asks
In the cases of the following FORCE words, do the compounds agree with the base forms in having the same sound [or]: force/forceful, sport/sporty and support/supporter?

If Russ is a native speaker of English, why is he asking? (He should say the words aloud and find out.) If he is not, the answer is very simple: yes, they agree with the base forms. The suffixes -ful, -y, -er do not normally trigger any vowel change in the stem to which they are attached.

Whether the sound is or or something else depends on the kind of English you speak. In RP and similar accents these words all have ɔː, thus fɔːs, ˈfɔːsfl̩, spɔːt, ˈspɔːti, səˈpɔːt, səˈpɔːtə. In Scottish English, and for some Americans and others, yes, they have or, thus fors, ˈforsfl̩ etc. For other Americans, of course, they have ɔr.

But there are certain other suffixes which do indeed trigger a vowel change (for some of us). Historically, this is the alternation that we see in pairs such as tone–tonic, episode–episodic, verbose–verbosity, where a stem with the GOAT vowel switches to the LOT vowel when the triggering suffix is attached. (We have the same “trisyllabic laxing” with other pairs of vowels in serene–serenity, divine–divinity, profane–profanity and so on, as students of Chomsky and Halle’s Sound Pattern of English know.)

Since historical GOAT plus r becomes FORCE, in stems ending in r the alternation is instead between FORCE and LOT. We see it in pairs such as historian–historical, floral–florist, explore–exploratory, in which in RP and most accents of England there is a vowel difference ɔː–ɒ, thus (h)ɪˈstɔːriən, (h)ɪˈstɒrɪkl̩, ˈflɔːrəl, ˈflɒrɪst, ɪkˈsplɔː, ɪkˈsplɒrətri. But others may have lost this alternation.


  1. He could be a speaker with a FORCE=THOUGHT(+r) merger, wondering whether for those who have ɔə or or, it's replaced by ɔr in compounds.

  2. I have the historian/historic(al) split, but floral/florist is consistently LOT=PALM and explore/exploratory is consistently FORCE=NORTH. That's something I can hold up against confounded Westerners who claim my accent type is "English" (by which they mean "pretentious").

    I note with distress that the revamped site no longer has any pronunciations given, though you can still see NID3 at (a back door they apparently have forgotten about, so no snitching). Instead, they give you a selection of words that the headword rhymes with! While this may be a laudable attempt at ease of use, the rhyme words given for "floral" are aural (NORTH=FORCE), chloral (ditto), choral (LOT=PALM), coral (ditto), laurel (NORTH=FORCE), moral (LOT=PALM), oral (ditto), quarrel (ditto), and sorrel (NORTH=FORCE)! What good is that, I ask you? (I have complained to, but it would be useful if others did too.)

    More seriously, do all these actually rhyme for some Americans, or even most Americans? I was under the impression that even people with a firm /ɒ/-/ɔ/ merger do not have it before /r/, leaving START unmerged with NORTH=FORCE, with the exception of "barn in a born" folks, mostly Southern.

    Update: I just discovered that if you click on the audio icon, the pronunciation is given in a pop-up box. That's annoying, but I suppose tolerable.

  3. @ John Cowan: Hey, I didn't say English people were pretentious. I said it's very pretentious when Americans try to sound English (which it is).

  4. I would assume Russ Stygall is a NORTH=FORCE speaker, and wants to know if the derived "forceful", "sporty", and "supporter" agree with their bases in having FORCE rather than NORTH. It's not totally obvious that they should (cf. "forty"), though I'll admit it is suggestive that those suffixes never cause vowel changes in other words that I can think of.

    John Cowan, I would guess that for the majority of American speakers "floral", "aural", "chloral", "coral", "laurel", etc. all rhyme. START doesn't enter into it: in most American varieties, LOT before intervocalic /r/ is merged into NORTH (much as DRESS and TRAP before /r/ are merged into SQUARE, KIT into NEAR, and STRUT into NURSE), and this apparently took place prior to the general merger of LOT with PALM. So words like "moral" never had START in them in the first place.

    As for me, I have LOT=THOUGHT but PALM distinct, and I don't have the mergers before intervocalic /r/. So for me the basic pattern is LOT=THOUGHT in "aural" and "laurel" and "quarrel" and "sorrel", and NORTH=FORCE in "chloral"; but I have a heavy admixture of lexical diffusion influence from merged dialects in these words, so "choral", "coral", "moral", "floral", and "oral" are all NORTH=FORCE for me, without historical justification.

    (And I thought "barn in a born" is mostly associated with St. Louis and Utah, not with the South.)

  5. I distinguish NORTH and FORCE, and all three of those compounds have FORCE.

    Isn't "barn in a born" referring to a merger of START and NORTH while FORCE remains separate, perceived by outsiders as a reversal of START and NORTH?

  6. I'm Irish (FORCE not = NORTH as I'm well away from Dublin and Belfast) and like JHJ, all the above compounds have FORCE rather than NORTH for me.
    Note that Forty=NORTH, four=FORCE. This alternation is understandable when we compare three-thirty and five-fifty.
    For all those NORTH=FORCE speakers out there wondering about unmerged speakers, the rule for compounds is as follows:
    Compounds of NORTH and FORCE words have NORTH or FORCE as per their base form. The single excepion to this are polysyllables beginning with fort-, thus fortnight, fortress, fortune, etc. all=NORTH even though fort=FORCE.
    Note that compounds derived from suffixing
    -fort do NOT have NORTH, e.g. ringfort=FORCE.
    Regarding the word 'important', the Irish have NORTH but the Scottish have FORCE. I would be interested to hear which set West Indians and unmerged Americans have; I think John lists important with NORTH for (now ultra ultra conservative!) GenAm in 'Accents of English'.
    Finally, for certain southern Irish speakers, there is a further split of NORTH into LOT and THOUGHT. Thus 'cork' and 'dork' do not normally rhyme for me, the former having the LOT vowel, the latter THOUGHT. I don't know of any linguistic literature that picks up on this split, I checked AoE!
    Dan McCarthy

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  8. I have FORCE in "fortress", though NORTH in "fortify". OTOH I have FORCE in "corridor", perhaps by analogy with "indoor". It would seem the FORCE--NORTH distinction is recessive in my idiolect...

  9. @ Mollymolly
    I also have FORCE in 'corridor'. I also have it in 'El Salvador' and other foreignish words. It's also in the word 'dinosaur' presumably as I learnt it from an accent with the merger. Idiosyncratically, I have FORCE in 'adorn' and 'scorn'. Though I have NORTH in 'California' as expected, I have heard Irish people such as Dáithí Ó Sé who have FORCE. This again could be due to contact with merging accents.

    The distinction between the two sets is undoubtedly recessive in Ireland. Outside of Dublin and Belfast the merger is strongly associated with younger, middle-class speech. Within these two urban areas, however, I suspect the merger is simply too general to carry any kind of social marking. Instead, it's the quality of the merged vowel that's a variable; working-class Dubliners typically have a lower realization of merged NORTH-FORCE (weakly rounded Cardinal 6 and lower) than more middle-class speakers. In this respect, the realization of the merged vowel is more-or-less the same as the realization of the THOUGHT vowel for that same speaker.
    Dan McCarthy


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