Wednesday 22 September 2010

room, now and then

For you, does room rhyme with tomb, boom and zoom, or not?

In one of my preference surveys (1988), 81% of my British respondents said ‘yes’. They are the people who prefer ruːm, with the GOOSE vowel. The remaining 19%, the ones who said ‘no’, prefer rʊm, with FOOT. The 81% must also include the people from Scotland and Ulster who have no GOOSE-FOOT contrast, just an undifferentiated u or ʉ vowel.

Yuko Shitara-Matsuo’s 1993 survey of AmE preferences showed an even larger majority, 93%, for the GOOSE vowel.

A few days ago Stevie Rickard wrote
I'm teaching 1920s RP to some actors and I've advised them to pronounce 'room' rʊm on the basis of almost nothing at all. Shame on me. One of the actors thinks he was told to use ru:m for the same accent in another play. Would one of these pronunciations have been more acceptable than the other in this accent 90 years ago, do you think?

Fortunately I can quite easily answer this question. In the 1956 edition of EPD (and perhaps earlier — I haven’t checked), Daniel Jones, while still prioritizing the FOOT vowel on this word, commented
Note.—The use of the variant ruːm appears to be much on the increase.
This suggests that previously it had been unusual. I conclude that in the 1920s rʊm would have been the more usual pronunciation in RP.

Returning to the present day, the pronunciation of room as an independent word is not necessarily a guide to its pronunciation in compounds. Some who say ruːm for this word on its own nevertheless say rʊm in bedroom.

Personally, I’m with the minority who say rʊm in all environments.

We also get some fluctuation between GOOSE and FOOT in broom and groom. But as far as I know boom, doom, loom, and zoom always have . So does bloom, although in the old-fashioned mild BrE expletive blooming some use ʊ.


  1. Re. "bloom" - I met an estate agent who pronounced Bloomsbury ˈblʊmzbri.

  2. In Australian English there's a difference between 'boom' (short) = imitative noise of a gun, and 'boom' (long) = all its other meanings.

    Robert Lindsay

  3. In my experience a rʊm tends to have higher ceilings and more original features.

  4. I've noticed the same variation in "roof" - any idea on how that's distributed?

  5. I'm one of your 81%. You might catch rʊm from my lips in a compound such as "bedroom", but only because I was taking less care than I might, and had reduced the vowel, as I might in, say, "waterproof", "fireproof" etc.

    @Daniel I add "hoof" to your "roof".

  6. "I conclude that in the 1920s rʊm would have been the more usual pronunciation in RP."

    Right you are: Jones 1917 lists rʊm first and ru:m second without comment. "Note.—The use of the variant ruːm appears to be much on the increase" appears in Jones 1943.

    I don't have any of the editions between 1917 and 1943 - at least, not yet.

    I think of rʊm and rʊf in AmE as midwestern, since I have heard it in a speaker from Illinois. One speaker not making a statistically valid sample, I conclude that I may be talking through my hat! In any case, I don't hear these pronunciations often.

  7. Jack Windsor Lewis has pipped me at the post:

  8. /rʊm/ or even /r(ə)m/ in connected speech, /ru:m/ as citation form.

  9. in the old-fashioned mild BrE expletive blooming some use ʊ

    Taboo deformation, perhaps?

  10. @ Amy Stoller: I'm from central Illinois and I've never heard anyone here say /rʊm/ for room. I associate that pronunciation with New England if anywhere, mainly because I've heard it on This Old House and from Bostonians not connected in any way to that show. I also read about it occurring in Boston somewhere. Yes, I know, one TV show and a few people doesn't make a statistically valid sample either, so if there's someone here from that area, I'd like to hear what they have to say about that.

    It's a different story with roof however. I've heard the pronunciation with FOOT quite a lot here. It may even be the more common pronunciation here for all I know. I've said it both ways. I'm not actually sure which pronunciation I prefer. FOOT sounds good, but so does GOOSE.

  11. Does anyone have the pronouncing dictionary of Afzelius, and could s/he kindly check if room is listed in it?

  12. I've heard /rʊm/ from Canadians too, so maybe it's kind of a northern US/Canadian pronunciation.

  13. Like many here, I say 'room' both ways. I usually have FOOT in compounds as well as in stock phrases like 'make room for', but can have GOOSE when the word 'room' is emphasized.

    I'm sure there are a number of such words that can be either FOOT or GOOSE for me, but it's difficult to think of any. 'Roof' is GOOSE for me. 'Poof', maybe.

  14. While this pronunciation of 'room' rhymes with another BrE word, 'schtum', I can't think of anything in AmE that it could rhyme with. this a phonotactic no-no in AmE, or just coincidence?

  15. @Jake, it's entirely possible that I've misremembered about Illinois, and that it was only roof I heard with FOOT!

    For whatever it may be worth, both roof and room are GOOSE words for me.

  16. Good point, Lynne. I'd always supposed that keep shtum / schtoom / shtum ʃtʊm 'keep quiet, be silent' was from Yiddish, but Yiddish words usually come via AmE, don't they? Anyhow, the OED confirms that it's from German stumm via Yiddish, first citation 1958 from F. Norman, a Londoner, no AmE citations.

  17. John, in LPD you don't distinguish the noun from the verb 'to room'. The OED agrees in having Brit. /ruːm/, /rʊm/, U.S. /rum/, /rʊm/ for both (saying the verb is orig. US). You have 'rooming and 'roomed' under the entry for 'room' as ˈruːmɪŋ, ˈrʊmɪŋ and ruːmd, rʊmd. If my impressions are anything to go by, I think you might have got very different results in your preference poll if you had differentiated these, and I think the difference would have been more significant than that between the unadorned ruːm and rʊm in compounds. I declare an interest in that I make that difference myself, replacing ruːm with complete consistency, and think it's a true lexically determined allomorph (with a possible free allomorph rəm, as pointed out by JWL in his linked article), as stress considerations alone would have me saying ʊ in "waterproof", "fireproof" etc., which is how Richard Sabey justifies his rʊm in 'bedroom' above, and which for me is even more unthinkable than ˈrʊmɪŋ. You have a separate entry for –roomed as likewise ruːmd, rʊmd, as in 'three-roomed', where you would presumably get the same results as for the unadorned noun in a differentiated preference poll. Does anyone sympathize with my intuitions on this?

    You also have the abovementioned 'roof' and 'hoof' listed with the alternatives rʊf and hʊf, and even more surprisingly hʊvz, none of them marked as non-RP, so perhaps my intuitions are not worth introspecting about.

    John Cowan,
    I am one of JW's old-fashioned mild BrE expletives who use ʊ in 'blooming', and I can't imagine doing otherwise, but while 'blooming' may well be expletive, it has been euphemistic enough for long enough not to be taboo, or even JWL's 'nauty'.

    Is 'schtum' perhaps an American spelling of the BrE word I have long known as 'shtoom', in which form it has even found its way into the OED? And don’t American guns ever go boom like Robert Lindsay's Australian ones this morning?

  18. I've heard frum as frʊm, although I believe other pronunciations exist — pronunciations of English speakers who don't customarily speak Yiddish, that is.

  19. I've asked my Twitter followers about AmE rhymes and got 'vroom' (sometimes, some people) and 'frum' (though it's not part of my vocab) and one Yankee-Georgia hybrid individual who says he uses the PUT vowel in 'room' and 'broom'. They all have the /r/ in common. Coincidence, or...?

    @mallamb: I'd originally written 'shtum' (which is also in the OED), then thought I ought to check it, and Macmillan dict (UK) (which labels it British) gave me the spelling with the 'c'. I don't think it's spelt much at all in AmE...

  20. PEAS (pp. 151–57) discusses a number of words that vary between GOOSE and FOOT (and in some cases STRUT) in early 20th-century eastern U.S. speech: broom, room, coop, Cooper, roof, hoof, root, soot, food, goober ('peanut'), cooter ('turtle'), spook.

    I personally have GOOSE in all of these except hoof and soot. Of the others, roof is the only one that sounds so "normal" to me with FOOT that it probably wouldn't make me think "That person pronounces that word strangely". Any of the remaining words with FOOT would probably make me think that. So would soot with GOOSE, but hoof with GOOSE would probably pass unnoticed.

    I'm from the U.S., specifically from Texas but without a Texas accent.

  21. I've got a copy of "English phonetics and Specimens of English", by Walter Ripman (Dent, London).

    Though I can't find the year of edition in the book (actually two books bound together), it seems to me that it describes the received pronunciation of the twenties or of the thirties.

    Curiously enough, at page 128 (of the first section) I read that the word "room" is "now generally" pronounced with [ʊ] (FOOT), and that [ru:m] (GOOSE) is "older". So, the pronunciation that's now much more common seems to have been somehow old-fashioned in the first decades of the XX century.

    Also at page 38 of the second section ("Specimens of English"), Ripman comments that [rʊm] is "now the usual pronunciation; older [ru:m]".

  22. I guess I fall into the 7%. For some thirty years now, my husband has teased me for saying rʊm and brʊm. Roof, boom, hoof, broom and and zoom are all FOOT, although the last two may be variable. As a child, I sometimes heard "root" with the same vowel and thought it was odd.

    Loom, doom, coop, root, food, mood, and tomb all have GOOSE. So I can't really answer the question at the top of the post, because the example words don't rhyme with each other.

  23. Tonio Green: That reminds me, I think I've pronounced hoof both ways as well, although I'm pretty sure I prefer FOOT.

  24. OED1 (1909 for this entry) has (rūm) (i.e. /ruːm/) only.

  25. @ Amy Stoller, not true, pronouncing "roof" or "room" with the same vowel as "foot" isn't Midwestern necessarily. You will find many speakers on the East Coast who prounce room as /rʊm/,

    Rhyming "root" however, with "foot" is very Midwestern sounding.


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