Home  »  The American Language  »  2. The Vowels

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

VII. The Standard American Pronunciation

2. The Vowels

IN Chapters II and III, I have already discussed historically the pronunciation of a in the United States—not, I fear, to much effect, but at all events as illuminatingly as the meagre materials so far amassed permit. The best study of the pronunciation of the letter today is to be found in George Philip Krapp’s excellent book, “The Pronunciation of Standard English in America,” from which I have, already quoted several times. This work is the first adequate treatise upon American phonology to be published, and shows very careful observation and much good sense. Unluckily, Krapp finds it extremely difficult, like all other phonologists, to represent the sounds that he deals with by symbols. He uses, for example, exactly the same symbol to indicate the a-sound in cab and the a-sound in bad, though the fact that they differ very greatly must be obvious to everyone. In the same way he grows a bit vague when he tries to represent the compromise a-sound which lies somewhere between the a of father and the a of bad. “It is heard … chiefly,” he says, “in somewhat conscious and academic speech,” as a compromise between the former, “which is rejected as being too broad,” and the latter, “which is rejected as being too narrow or flat.” This compromise a, he says, “is cultivated in words with a, sometimes au, before a voiceless continuant, or before a nasal followed by a voiceless stop or continuant, as in grass, half, laugh, path (also before a voiced continuant, as in paths, calves, halves, baths, when the voiced form is a variant, usually the plural, of a head form with a voiceless sound), aunt, branch, can’t, dance, fancy, France, shan’t, etc.” Later on he says that this compromise a-sound is the same that occurs in heart, star, large and Clarke, but this, it seems to me, is not quite accurate; there is a perceptible difference. The usual sound of a in heart is far nearer to that of a in father.

In any case, as Krapp says, this a-sound is commonly an affectation, save in New England, and, as we have seen, it originated as an affectation even there. The flat a, on the contrary, is “widely distributed over the whole country,” and may be regarded as the normal American a, as the a of father is the normal English a. No other difference separates the two dialects more sharply. Krapp notes “the purist tendency to condemn [the flat a]” and goes on:

  • The result has been to give to [the compromise a] extraordinary dictionary and academic prestige in the face of a strongly opposing popular usage. The reasons for this are several: first, that standard British speech and some forms of New England speech have [a broad a] in the words in question; second, that New England has exerted, and to some extent continues to exert, a strong influence upon formal instruction and upon notions of cultivation and refinement throughout the country; and third, that [the flat a] is often prolonged, or drawled, and nasalized in a way that makes it seem not merely American, but provincially American. To steer between the Scylla of provincialism and the Charybdis of affectation and snobbishness, many conscientious speakers in America cultivate [the compromise a]. The writer has tested this sound on many different groups of speakers from various sections of the country, and has never found one who used the sound who did not do so with a certain degree of self-consciousness. If the cult of this sound continues long enough, it may in time come to be a natural and established sound in the language. In the meantime, it seems a pity that so much effort and so much time in instruction should be given to changing a natural habit of speech which is inherently just as good as the one by which the purist would supplant it. Especially in public school instruction it would seem to be wiser to spend time on more important matters in speech than the difference between half and haalf.
  • Meanwhile, “the dictionary and academic prestige” of the broad a, whatever its precise form, has established it pretty generally in the United States in certain words which formerly had the flat a. Those in which it is followed by lm offer examples: psalm, palm, balm and calm. They were once pronounced to rhyme with ram and jam, but their pronunciation that way has begun to seem provincial and ignorant. Krapp says that the a has likewise broadened in alms, salmon and almond, but it is my own observation that this is not yet generally true. The first syllable of salmon, true enough, does not quite rhyme with ham, but it is nevertheless still very far from bomb. The broad a, by a fashionable affectation, has also got into vase, drama, amen and tomato—in the last case probably helped by the example of Southern speech, in which a few words, notably master, tomato and tassel, have shown the broad a for many years. Its intrusion into tomato has been vigorously denounced by an Englishman, Evacustes A. Phipson. “It is really distressing,” he says, “to a cultivated Briton visiting America to find people there who … follow what they suppose to be the latest London mannerism, regardless of accuracy. Thus we find one literary editress advocating the pedantic British pronunciation tomahto in lieu of the good English tomato, rhyming with potato, saying it sounds so much more ‘refined.’ I do not know whether she would be of the same opinion if she heard one of our costermongers bawling out: ‘Ere’s yer foine termarters, lydy, hownly tuppence a pahnd.’ Similarly, we sometimes hear Anglomaniac Americans saying vahz for vase. Why not also bahz, and cahz?” Another Englishman calls my attention to an even more curious use of the broad a in America, to wit, in piano. In England the flat a is invariably used in this word. But here, perhaps, a mistaken Anglomania is not to blame. The majority of the better sort of music-teachers in the United States are Continental Europeans, chiefly Germans, and no doubt they teach their pupils to say piahno as they teach them the correct Continental pronunciations of such words as scherzo, lied and ètude. The introduction of the broad a into drama is a pure affectation, and first showed itself, I believe, at the beginning of the heavily self-conscious movement which culminated in the organization of the Drama League of America, a society largely composed of college professors and social pushers. Amen, with the broad a, is a symptom of the movement of social pushers into the Protestant Episcopal Church, which serves, as I have hitherto noted, as the chief center of Anglomania in all parts of the country. E. W. Howe tells a story of a little girl whose mother, on acquiring social aspirations, entered this church from the Methodist Church. The father remaining behind, the little girl had to learn to say amen with the flat a when she went to church with her father and amen with the broad a when she went to church with her mother. In Canada, despite the social influence of English usage, the flat a has conquered, and along the Canadian-New England border it is actually regarded as a Canadianism, especially in such words as calm and aunt. The broad a, when heard at all, is an affectation, and, as in Boston, is sometimes introduced into words, e. g., piano and amass, which actually have the flat a in England.

    A broad a, though somewhat shorter than the a of father (a correspondent compares it aptly to the a in the German mann) is very widely substituted, in the United States, for the o in such words as got, hot, rob, nobby, prophet, stock and chocolate. The same correspondent suggests that it shows itself clearly in the sentence: “On top of the log sat a large frog.” To his English ears, this sentence, from American lips, sounds like “Ann tahp uv thu laug sat a lahrge fraug.” The same a is also occasionally heard in dog, doll, horrid, hog, orange, coffee and God, though it has a rival in the au-sound of audience. Here, as Krapp observes, there is a considerable variation in usage, even in the same speaker. The man who uses the first a in God may use the au-sound in dog. I believe that the former is generally looked upon as more formal. I have often noticed that a speaker who puts the au-sound into God in his ordinary profane discourse, will switch to the purer a-sound when he wants to show reverence. The broad a in father seems to have very little influence upon cognate words. Save in New England one never hears it in gather, lather and blather, and even there it is often abandoned for the flat a by speakers who are very careful to avoid the latter in palm, dance and aunt. Krapp says that the broad a is used in “some words of foreign origin,” notably lava, data, errata, bas-relief, spa, mirage and garage. This is certainly not true of the first three, all of which, save exceptionally, have the flat a. Garage, as one time, threatened to acquire the flat a, too, and so became a rhyme for carriage, but I believe that a more correct pronunciation is prevailing. In a number of other classes of words the pronunciation of the a varies. In patriot and its derivatives, for example, the a is sometimes that of hat and sometimes that of late. In radish the a is sometimes that of cab and sometimes a sort of e, hard to distinguish from that of red. In such proper names as Alabama, Montana, Nevada and Colorado the flat a is commonly heard (especially in the states themselves), but a broad a is not unknown. The usual pronunciation of again and against gives them a second a indistinguishable from the e of hen, but the influence of the schoolmarm has launched a pronunciation employing the a of lane.

    The other vowels present fewer variations from standard English. A spelling pronunciation often appears in pretty, making the first syllable rhyme with set; it always rhymes with sit in standard English. The use of the long e in deaf, though ardently advocated by Noah Webster, has almost disappeared from cultivated speech; it persists, however, in the vulgate, and is noted in Chapter IX. In the same way the i-sound, as in sit, has disappeared from get, yet, chest and instead; even the vulgate is losing it. So, again, the old ai-sound, as in laid, has vanished from egg, peg, leg and their cognates, though here the vulgate preserves it. As Krapp shows, the neutral e, toward which all our vowels seem to be tending, shows signs of itself disappearing. This is particularly noticeable, in American, in such words as moral, quarrel and real, which become mor’l, quar’l and re’l, each a single syllable. In the vulgar speech this neutral e is also dropped from other words, notably poem, diary, violet and diamond, which become pome, di’ry, vi’let and di’mond. Even in the standard speech it grows shadowy in the second syllable of fertile, hostile, servile, fragile, agile, reptile, etc. In standard English these words are pronounced with the second syllable clearly rhyming with vile. The long e-sound in creek is maintained in standard American, but changed to the short i-sound of sit in the vulgate. Sleek has divided into two words, slick and sleek, the former signifying cunning and ingratiating and the latter referring especially to appearance. Of late there has been a strong tendency to abandon the old e-sound in such terms as bronchitis and appendicitis for an ai-sound, as in pie and buy; this is a senseless affectation, but it seems to be making progress. A contrary movement to abandon the old ai-sound in iodine, quinine, etc., for an e-sound, as in sleep, has better support in etymology, but is apparently less popular. Chlorine is always pronounced with the e-sound, but iodine continues to be iodyne, and kin-een for quinine still sounds strange. In two other familiar words the ai-sound has been supplanted in American: in sliver by the short i of liver, and in farina by an e-sound. Both have the ai-sound in standard English. Been, in America, almost always is bin; bean never appears save as a conscious affectation. But in England bean is invariably heard, and in a recent poem an English poet makes it rhyme with submarine, queen and unseen.

    I have already mentioned the displacement of o by ah or au in such words as dog and God. “Whenever the o-sound is fully stressed and long, and especially when it is final, it tends,” says Krapp, “to become diphthongal, starting with o and closing with [the] u [of bush], as in dough, doe, toe, tow, flow, floe, château, etc.” But in British speech a greater variety of diphthongal shadings occur, “some of them familiar in the exaggerated representations of Englishmen and their speech on the American stage. In the speech of many, perhaps of most, Americans there is scarcely any trace of diphthongal quality in the sound.” Usage in the pronunciation of u still differs widely in the United States. The two sounds, that of oo in goose and that of u in bush, are used by different speakers in the same word. The oo-sound prevails in aloof, boot, broom, food, groom, proof, roof, rood, room, rooster, root, soon, spook, spoon and woof, and the u-sound in butcher, cooper, hoof, hoop, nook, rook and soot, but there are educated Americans who employ the oo-sound in coop, hoof and hoop. In hooves I have heard both sounds, but in rooves only the oo-sound. Rooves seems to be extinct in the written speech as the plural of roof, but it certainly survives in spoken American. In words of the squirrel, syrup and stirrup class Americans commonly substitute a u-sound for the e-sound used by Englishmen, and squirrel becomes a monosyllable, squr’l. In words of the com class, save company, Americans substitute a broad a for the u used by Englishmen; even compass often shows it. The English are far more careful with the shadowy y preceding u in words of the duty class than Americans. The latter retain it following m, f, v and p, and usually before r, but they are careless about it following n and g, and drop it following l, r, d, t, th and s. Nyew, nyude, dyuke, enthyusiasm and syuit would seem affectations in most parts of the United States, and ryule and blyue would be impossible. Schoolmasters still battle valiantly for dyuty, but in vain. In 1912 the Department of Education of New York City warned all the municipal high-school teachers to combat the oo-sound but it is doubtful that one pupil in a hundred was thereby induced to insert the y in induced. In figure, however, Americans retain the y-sound, whereas the English drop it. In courteous the English insert an o-sound, making the first syllable rhyme with fort; Americans rhyme it with hurt. In brusque the English give the first syllable an oo-sound; Americans rhyme it with tusk. In clerk, as everyone knows, the English change the e into a, and make the word rhyme with lark; in the United States it rhymes with lurk. Finally, there is lieutenant. The Englishman pronounces the first syllable left; the American invariably makes it loot. White says that the prevailing American pronunciation is relatively recent. “I never heard it,” he reports, “in my boyhood.” He was born in New York in 1821.