In another part of the social media cybersphere Karen Chung, commenting on a picture of fractious children comforted by Santa with the caption bawl game over, asked
Are "bawl" and "ball" pronounced the same for everybody? Or differently?
I'm not aware of any variety of English in which they are distinct.
We know, of course, that many Americans do not distinguish the LOT and THOUGHT sets (although many other Americans do): but that’s not the issue. If there are people who consistently distinguish bawl from ball (and Karen insists that she is one such), then we have to recognize a split within the THOUGHT set, with an otherwise unreported choice of vowel in ball.
It turns out that for Karen ball rhymes with doll and Moll, as well as with tall, wall, fall, call, hall etc.; but not with words spelled with aul or awl, e.g. haul, maul, scrawl, trawl.
I was interested to hear this, but I continue to find it odd that there is no mention of this possibility in Kenyon’s American Pronunciation or as far as I can tell in any other descriptions of AmE phonetics. How come that no one seems to have mentioned it before?
Karen comments further
For me, the "a" in ball is the allophone of /ɑ/ which occurs before /l/ and is slightly rounded; the "au" and "aw" are the /ɔ/ phoneme, which has more inherent rounding. I expect I'm one of a minority, but it looks like others from my part of the US (Minnesota) and in my age group do have the distinction.
She also kindly supplied a sound file in support of her description.
Even if only a small number of people have this distinction, it certainly should be studied and mentioned in the literature.
We do have a comparable phenomenon in BrE, in the shape of the choice between ɔː and ɒ in words spelt als or alt — words such as false, salt, fault, halt, also. Since I knew about this at the time I wrote Accents of English, I created a special subsection (b) for THOUGHT, to cater for it (p. 146). If I’d known about Karen’s type of AmE, I’d have catered for that too: but I’d never then come across any mention of it.
There’s always something new to discover.
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I shall be away now until the end of the month. Next blog: 4 Feb.