3.10 Transcribing Vowels in Canadian English

This section clarifies details of the low and mid-vowels, and looks at some of the ways that Canadian English differs from American English.

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Canadian English and American English have a lot in common, but some of the more noticeable differences between them are in how vowels get pronounced. US textbooks often classify this symbol that looks like a lower-case [a] as a low back vowel, but you probably noticed in an earlier section that this book puts [a] in the low front position and lists this character, known as the script [ɑ], in the low back position. What’s the difference between them? To figure this out, let’s look at a pair of words.

How do you pronounce these two words?

I’m a fairly typical speaker of middle-class, middle-aged Canadian English, and for me, these two words are homophones: they sound exactly the same, whether I’m saying, “I caught the ball” or “I slept on a cot“. Caught/cot. So my dialect has what Linguistics calls the “caught/cot merger””. This is pretty typical of Canadian English, but not of many other varieties of English.

In many varieties of US English, the past tense of the verb catch is pronounced with the low-back [ɑ] like mine, but the noun uses the low front [a], [kʰat]. I like to think of this low front vowel as the Chicago White Sox vowel, because it’s very typical of Chicago English, where the south-side baseball team is known as the [saks].

And in many of the varieties of English spoken in the UK, the past tense of catch has a mid-back rounded vowel, [kʰɔt], while the noun version has the low back vowel [kʰɑt].

Since this book concentrates on Canadian English, I’m going to suggest the following convention. When transcribing Canadian English, use the low back vowel that we represent with the script a [ɑ] for the simple vowel in words like father, box, and log.

The low-front [a] doesn’t usually appear in Canadian English as a simple vowel. It shows up in the major diphthongs, [aɪ] like in fly, and [aʊ] as in brown, and it turns up before an [ɹ] as in car or farther.

And this mid-back rounded vowel also doesn’t show up as a simple vowel in Canadian English. It appears in the diphthong [ɔɪ] like in coin, and before [ɹ] like fork or short.

Note that this convention that I’m suggesting does over-simplify the variation that exists in the real world, but that’s ok at this introductory level.

With the low vowels taken care of, let’s talk about the mid and central vowels. Think about these two words, funny and phonetics. They start with almost the same syllable, don’t they? But there’s one important difference. In funny, the stress is on the first syllable, while in phonetics, the second syllable is stressed. This has consequences for the vowel in the nucleus of each syllable.

Remember that we talked about syllable stress in an earlier section. Stressed syllables are more prominent than unstressed syllables. They’re louder, longer, and higher in pitch. So stressed syllables get pronounced with full vowels. In the word funny, the first syllable has this mid-back unrounded vowel that we represent with the wedge symbol [ʌ]. But when a syllable is unstressed, it gets reduced — it’s shorter and quieter. That means that speakers pronounce the vowel with the mid-central reduced vowel that has the funny name schwa [ə] and looks like an upside-down e.

You can hear this stress difference between the “uh” sound in bun and the first syllable of banana, and between the first syllables of apple and apply. So being able to recognize stress is important in producing an accurate transcription.

Speaking of unstressed syllables, in an earlier section we talked about what happens when a syllable is so reduced that the vowel nucleus disappears entirely and the sonorant consonant from the coda becomes a vowel. This is another oversimplification, but at this intro level let’s treat a syllable with a reduced nucleus as equivalent to one that has a syllabic consonant as its nucleus. So we’ll consider these transcriptions on the left as equivalent to the ones on the right.

Many words in English end with an unstressed -er syllable, so [ɹ] is maybe the sonorant that becomes syllabic the most frequently. It just so happens that the IPA also has a way of transcribing a vowel that takes on a rhotic, or r-like quality. So in addition to considering the schwa-r transcription as equivalent to the syllabic-r, we’ll also consider the rhotic-schwa transcription to be equivalent. Again, this is an oversimplification, but it makes sense for when you’re first learning to do IPA transcription.

Now, you already know that schwa is a reduced vowel that only appears in unstressed syllables, so what about when a word has that “er” sound in a stressed syllable, like in bird? We’ll use a different symbol to represent the stressed one: this is the mid-central, unreduced vowel. Notice that looks a lot like the symbol for the mid-front [ɛ] vowel, but it faces the opposite direction!

The only place this vowel shows up in Canadian English is when it’s rhotic, that is, in a stressed syllable with an [ɹ] in the coda. You can hear the difference if you compare the word bird with the second, unstressed syllable in amber.

There’s one more central vowel we need to pay attention to, and that’s the high central vowel that looks like a little crossed-out lower-case letter i. Again, it has a very predictable distribution in Canadian English. We’ll use it only in unstressed syllables where the syllable is a suffix. For example, the final syllable in heated and excited is a past-tense suffix, and the final syllable in horses and quizzes is a plural suffix, so we’ll transcribe them all with this high central vowel.

That’s a lot of details! But paying attention to these subtle differences will develop your phonetic listening skills, and your transcription skills.

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Essentials of Linguistics by Catherine Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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