Guide to Pronunciation

by James W. Hartman


The treatment of pronunciation in DARE differs from that in standard dictionaries in several ways. First, pronunciation is not included in the heading for words that are widely used in American English (AE) and have little or no variation in pronunciation (such as slap), or that vary by well-known regular processes (for example, presence or absence of postvocalic /r/, as in brier). At the other extreme, pronunciation is not included when there is no oral evidence at all for the pronunciation (as with cadulix), when there is too little information from which to generalize (as with cadarup), or when DARE quotations are solely from written sources that give no indication of pronunciation even though the word is obviously well known in a region (as is caballero). The last case results in seeming inconsistency, since words such as the Spanish loans caballada and caballero are treated quite differently; however, the principle of providing pronunciations only from oral evidence or phonetic transcriptions has been adhered to despite the resulting variability in treatment.

A second way in which DARE’s treatment differs from that in other dictionaries is that pronunciation may be indicated in any of several ways: it may be given in the heading immediately following the part of speech; it may be provided in one or more of the quotations; it may be suggested by inclusion of pronunciation-spellings; or some combination of these alternatives may be used. As to accuracy, DARE is responsible only for transcriptions in the headings.

Third, DARE’s use of symbols to indicate pronunciation varies depending on whether a generalization (a “broad” transcription) or a precise rendering (a “narrow” transcription) is called for (see further below). The purposes of this Guide to Pronunciation are to give the reader information that will suggest the likely or possible regional pronunciation of words for which transcriptions are not given in DARE, and to provide a basic outline of the kinds and patterns of variation that occur in AE pronunciation in general.

The Guide to Pronunciation has three major parts: Section 1 gives the reader basic information about the symbols used to indicate pronunciation. Section 2 presents a brief overview of the nature of regional and social pronunciation variation in AE, its historical development, and some present-day influences on it. Section 3, the DARE Pronunciation Key, has three major divisions: 3.I describes the use of different sound units in the same word; 3.II describes the most important variations heard in each of the sound units; and 3.III summarizes the most notable regional patterns of pronunciation and provides maps to illustrate some of them. Section 3 is intended to be used as a reference. DARE entries refer the reader to the appropriate subheadings in section 3 for general descriptive information on geographical variants in pronunciation.

AE has been described, abstractly, as having a set of distinctive sound units (phonemes), a reservoir that is drawn upon and assigned a reality (articulation) and a sequence to produce the pronunciation of a word or string of words. AE speakers can distinguish bit from pit because, although b and p are similar in articulation, there are differences between them that native speakers hear as being fundamental or distinctive. But not all sound differences are distinctive. For example, the final t on bit and pit may be articulated with or without a strong puff of air (aspiration), but AE speakers treat either of these as being fundamentally the same sound, a t. The English spelling system goes far in identifying what is distinctive and what is not. For example, b and p are distinct not only in function to distinguish words but also in the alphabet, whereas the two kinds of t are distinct in neither. But traditional spelling cannot be relied on to represent distinctive differences, or not to represent nondistinctive differences. The th spelling, for example, covers two distinct units, as in thigh and thy. Although these two words otherwise sound alike, they are kept separate by two distinct sounds, both represented by th in conventional spelling. On the other hand, for many AE speakers words like cot and caught sound the same, even though the spelling differs. Likewise, for some, god and guard sound alike. Therefore traditional orthography cannot be relied upon to represent the many phonetic variations that occur in AE.

In order to indicate pronunciation unambiguously in writing, it is necessary to have a system with a one-to-one correspondence between written symbols and speech sounds. Because there are more speech sounds than there are letters in the alphabet, certain additional symbols must be used. (At the same time, a few letters of the alphabet are not used, because their sounds are adequately represented by other letters.) The additional symbols are taken for the most part from the International Phonetic Alphabet, along with a few other symbols that are in regular use among American linguists. The basic symbols used in DARE are shown below, between diagonal slashes, each one accompanied by an illustrative word.

I Vowels

/i/ beat /o/ boat
/ɪ/ bit /ɔ/ caught
/e/ bait /ɑ/ father
/ε/ bet /ǝ/ above
/æ/ bat /ɜ/ bird, father
/u/ boot /aɪ/ bite
/ᴜ/ book /aᴜ/ bout
  /ɔɪ/ boy


II Consonants

/p/ pop /v/ valve
/b/ bob /s/ sass
/t/ tot /z/ zeroes
/d/ did /š/ ship, wish
/k/ kick /ž/ measure
/g/ gag /č/ church
/m/ mom /ǰ/ judge
/n/ none /h/ hot
/ŋ/ sing, ink /w/ web
/θ/ thimble, ether /j/ yes
/ð/ them, either /r/ run
/f/ fife /ə̯/ far (in r-less areas)
  /l/ little

Although the illustrative words used above were chosen to indicate the correspondence between the symbols and speech sounds, because of regional differences in pronunciation not everyone will pronounce these words in exactly the same manner. To this extent, the indication of the speech sound associated with each symbol is necessarily somewhat imprecise. For example, many people in the North and South pronounce cot and caught so that they sound different; that is, they distinguish between the vowels /ɑ/ and /ɔ/. In the West, however, cot and caught are often pronounced so that they sound the same; that is, many speakers do not distinguish between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, lacking the vowel /ɔ/ entirely. But, on the whole, the illustrative words are pronounced similarly by speakers throughout the country.

The symbols shown above are used in two basic ways: simply to indicate particular sounds; or to show more detail about the way those sounds were produced. For example, the pronunciation of the word pep can be represented by the set of symbols /pεp/; it can also be represented by the set [pʻε˅pˉ]. The first transcription shows the three distinctive sounds used in saying the word; it is enclosed in diagonal slashes that indicate a “broad” or general rendering. The second transcription not only gives the three basic sounds but also shows that the first sound was articulated with a puff of air, the vowel was pronounced with the tongue in a slightly lower position than usual, and the last sound was unreleased (that is, the lips did not open immediately after coming together); this “narrow” or more detailed set is enclosed in square brackets. The set of modifying signs used to indicate such details of articulation is shown below. (Additional symbols and combinations used to indicate variants of the basic symbols are discussed in section 3.II.)

̃ (over a symbol) = nasalized

̶ (through the middle of a symbol) = articulated toward the center of the mouth

: (following a symbol) = length

˂ (following a symbol) = forward in the mouth

˃ (following a symbol) = back in the mouth

˄ (following a symbol) = higher in the mouth

˅ (following a symbol) = lower in the mouth

ʻ (following a symbol) = aspirated

ˉ (following a symbol) = unreleased

̥ (beneath a symbol) = voiceless

̬ (beneath a symbol) = voiced

̮ (beneath a symbol) = labialized

̯ (beneath a consonant) = dentalized

̯ (beneath /ǝ/) = unsyllabic

̣ (beneath a consonant) = syllabic

̣ (beneath a vowel) = retroflex

In the dictionary entries, narrow transcriptions may occur in quotations, especially those from such sources as the Linguistic Atlas of New England, where great care was taken to transcribe utterances as precisely as possible; they also occur in DARE quotations, in cases where fieldworkers felt that minute detail was useful. For the sake of uniform presentation, however, all of the DARE transcriptions, whether narrow or broad, are enclosed within brackets. Quotations from written sources of course follow the practice of the author with respect to brackets or diagonal slashes. For sources written before transcription practices had been standardized (such as early volumes of Dialect Notes), the editors have regularized the transcriptions. Pronunciations given in the headings of entries are generalizations based primarily on evidence in the quotations. Because the evidence includes both narrow and broad transcriptions, the symbols in the headings are enclosed in vertical strokes to signal a middle ground between the detailed and the general.

Although DARE’s use of diagonal slashes and brackets is similar to that favored by linguists to represent phonemic and subphonemic levels, it should not be viewed as representing a unified phonemic-phonetic system for all of AE, or even for one region within the whole. Because the data were not analyzed with the goal of actually setting up phonemic systems, the symbols, as used here, are to be taken as indicators of the speech sounds themselves, without reference to their place in an overall system.

The details of variation in AE pronunciation are highly complex. The amount of data needed to establish patterns in individuals, social groups, regions, and circumstances of style and linguistic context is enormous. Constant change, moreover, rapidly or slowly erodes the applicability of data collected at any given time. And there are local, even neighborhood, pronunciations that are yet unrecorded. The pronunciation features discussed here should not be unduly generalized—they are, of necessity, taken from individual speakers at a particular time. Nevertheless, patterns of pronunciation do tend to be stable, as evidenced by the fact that many young speakers still exhibit the same regional features described in studies done nearly three generations ago.

Variation is implicit in the use of any spoken language. To document this variation is to reveal historical and social ties that run deep in the culture of the groups involved; to share forms of language is to share values. The more broadly pronunciation data are viewed, the more consistency and stability are seen. Beyond the intrinsic interest of “knowing what is there for its own sake, the social and regional differences of AE have a larger significance. The American past, linguistic and cultural, is embedded in contemporary variation. And not only do users of the forms attach social meaning to them, but nonusers often make judgments—positive or negative—about them. Some features are considered quaint, some colorful, some ignorant, some cultivated, some irritating, some pleasing. These attitudes can be very strong and often subtly affect our judgments about the speakers. The native who claims “we don’t have any accents around here” reveals the tenacity of our perceptions of “us” and “them.” In truth, of course, every speaker is from somewhere, regionally, educationally, and emotionally, and it is impossible not to reveal through pronunciation some part of that background. It is useful to remember that AE is the sum total of its variation and that all its varieties are the current results of complex historical and linguistic developments.

The information presented below is derived from many sources: studies of American speech that deal with small neighborhoods as well as large regions; with single features as well as entire systems; with social class, race, educational and generational differences; with theories of change and histories of development. In addition, the sources include a unique body of pronunciation data, the DARE audiotapes, a collection of 1843 field recordings of the DARE informants. These tapes average approximately one half-hour each. Each tape has two major sections: a reading of a set passage, “Arthur the Rat,” in which each word is chosen to indicate known variations in pronunciation; and a period of free conversation in which the informant is encouraged to speak casually on familiar topics. The set passage elicits more formal speech (“reading style”), while the free conversation samples more informal speech. From the total number of field recordings a nationwide sampling representing the geographical and social grouping of the informants was taken for analysis. These tapes were transcribed phonetically, charted, and plotted on maps to provide much of the basic data presented here. Intonation data (pitch, stress), the consequences of intonation (for example, vowel length), and many narrow phonetic qualities (such as palatalization and lip rounding) were excluded as being too technical for a general treatment. The text of the DARE version of “Arthur the Rat” is as follows:

Once upon a time there was a young rat who couldn’t make up his mind. Whenever the other rats asked him if he would like to come out hunting with them, he would answer in a hoarse voice, “I don’t know.” And when they said, “Would you rather stay inside?” he wouldn’t say yes, or no either. Hed always shirk making a choice.

One fine day his aunt Josephine said to him, “Now look here! No one will ever care for you if you carry on like this. You have no more mind of your own than a greasy old blade of grass!”

The young rat coughed and looked wise, as usual, but said nothing.

“Don’t you think so?” said his aunt, stamping with her foot, for she couldn’t bear to see the young rat so cold-blooded.

“I don’t know,” was all he ever answered, and then he’d walk off to think for an hour or more, whether he would stay in his hole in the ground or go out into the loft.

One night the rats heard a loud noise in the loft. It was a very dreary old place. The roof let the rain come washing in, the beams and rafters had all rotted through, so that the whole thing was quite unsafe.

At last one of the joists gave way, and the beams fell with one edge on the floor. The walls shook, the cupola fell off, and all the rats’ hair stood on end with fear and horror.

“This won’t do,” said their leader. “We can’t stay cooped up here any longer.” So they sent out scouts to search for a new home.

A little later on that evening the scouts came back and said they had found an old-fashioned horse-barn where there would be room and board for all of them.

The leader gave the order at once, “Company fall in!” and the rats crawled out of their holes right away and stood on the floor in a long line.

Just then the old rat caught sight of young Arthur—that was the name of the shirker. He wasn’t in the line, and he wasn’t exactly outside it—he stood just by it.

“Come on, get in line!” growled the old rat coarsely. “Of course you’re coming too?”

“I don’t know,” said Arthur calmly.

“Why, the idea of it! You don’t think it’s safe here any more, do you?”

“I’m not certain,” said Arthur undaunted. “The roof may not fall down yet.”

“Well,” said the old rat, “we can’t wait for you to join us.” Then he turned to the others and shouted, “Right about face! March!” and the long line marched out of the barn while the young rat watched them.

“I think I’ll go tomorrow,” he said to himself, “but then again, perhaps I won’t—its so nice and snug here. I guess I’ll go back to my hole under the log for a while just to make up my mind.”

But during the night there was a big crash. Down came beams, rafters, joists—the whole business.

Next morning—it was a foggy day—some men came to look over the damage. It seemed odd that the old building was not haunted by rats. But at last one of them happened to move a board, and he caught sight of a young rat, quite dead, half in and half out of his hole.

Thus the shirker got his due, and there was no mourning for him.