When ‘Price’ and ‘Prize’ Don’t Rhyme

English dipthongs

In recent years, I’ve noticed a growing phenomenon among American English speakers. People with otherwise “standard” accents exhibit a “non-standard” pronunciation of words like price, right, and kite. To use right as an example, this results in pronunciations which sound to listeners like “rate,” “royt,” or “ruh-eet.”  To put that into impressionistic terms, the diphthong seems to become “tighter.”

This quirk is due to what might be termed the price-prize split.  In many accents, there is a difference between the ay sound in “price,” “right,” and “kite,” and the /ay/ sound in “prize,” “ride,” and “flies.” Before a voiceless consonant, the /ay/ vowel is shorter in duration and sometimes different in quality (e.g. Canadian prize–IPA praɪz–contrasts with Canadian price–IPA prʌɪs).*

(I realize that, contrary to the title of this post, this isn’t a matter of “rhyme.”  But I dunno … “Price and Prize Aren’t Assonant” doesn’t pack the same punch. )

The price-prize split is most commonly referenced as a feature of Canadian Accents, part of the phenomenon of Canadian raising. But it’s heard in many other accents as well:

In Scottish English, prize = IPA praez while price = IPA prʌis 

–In some Newcastle (Geordie) accents, prize = IPA praɪz while price = IPA prɛɪs (See citation 1)

–In some contemporary Dublin accents, prize = IPA prɑɪz while price = IPA præɪs (see citation 2)

I’ve noted similar, less-discussed distinctions. For example, It’s apparent to me that some New Yorkers pronounce “right” and “ride” differently: where the former is similar to other American accents, the latter diphththong has a back onglide (i.e. IPA rɑɪd, making it sound like “royd” to outsiders).

In fact, it seems that various types of price-prize distinctions have become very widespread in the US.  Perhaps the most well-observed of these splits is found in parts of the American South, where price is pronounced as it is in General American English, while prize is “prahz” (IPA pra:z).

But I’ve heard similar splits in parts of New Jersey, various areas of the Northern US, California and the West. Indeed, I myself make a slight distinction between the two words (probably along the lines of IPA praɪz vs. prɐɪz, for you phonetics hounds out there).

A related observation is that most English speakers pronounce “price” with a much “faster” diphthong that the diphthong in “prize.” If you’re a native English speaker, give it a whirl: say the word “right” then the word “ride.”  You’ll notice the latter has a longer, more drawn out quality than the former. It’s logical that, when pronouncing a diphthong more rapidly, the actual distance between the two vowels might shorten, yielding a different pronunciation.**

What I wonder, though, is why some accents make such a large distinction between the two, whereas other don’t. For example, why do areas in the mid-Atlantic (i.e. Philadelphia, Baltimore, etc.) exhibit such a large divide between prize and price (often ɑɪ vs. əɪ), while New Yorkers only make a slight distinction (perhaps ɑɪ vs. )?

Any other PRICE-PRIZE splits worth mentioning?

*Phonetics novices may notice I’m using a lot of the International Phonetic Alphabet in this post.  I normally try to use accompanying “laymen’s transcriptions,” but since I’m discussing minute distinctions here, I found it difficult.  You may want to consult my IPA cheat sheet.  Or, if you have more time, the International Phonetic Alphabet tutorial I created some months back.

**Articulatory phoneticians would have a lot more to say about this.  I’m speaking very generally.

Citation 1:  Watt, Dominic & Lesley Milroy. 1999. Patterns of variation and change in three Newcastle vowels: Is this dialect levelling? In Foulkes & Docherty (eds.), 25–46.

Citation 2: Hickey, Raymond. 2000. Dissociation as a form of language change. In European Journal of English Studies (4:3), 2000, 303-15.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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20 Responses to When ‘Price’ and ‘Prize’ Don’t Rhyme

  1. Amy Stoller says:

    A related observation is that most English speakers pronounce “price” with a much “faster” diphthong that the diphthong in “prize.”

    Yes, of course we do. Any vowel or diphthong followed by a voiceless consonant will be shorter in duration than the same vowel or diphthong followed by a voiced consonant, or unchecked. It’s a fundamental timing rule of English in the British Isles (including Ireland), North American and Oceania.

    Indian English, which is syllable-timed, is a different matter. The voiceless vs voiced /no consonant rule does not apply there. I think that many Caribbean Englishes may also not follow the “standard” rules, which leads me to speculate that some exceptions can be found in Africa – but now we are far beyond what I know for sure. I don’t know enough about Hong Kong or Singapore English even to speculate.

    Incidentally, I’d suggest using rite or write, rather than right, as an example to contrast with ride. Words with diphthong + “gh” frequently form mini-sets of their own. In many dialects, right will sound different from rite, and weigh from way.

    • trawicks says:

      “Words with diphthong + “gh” frequently form mini-sets of their own. In many dialects, right will sound different from rite, and weigh from way.”

      That is a good point. I will say that I’ve usually heard that associated with more rural and “older” dialects in England (i.e. in parts of Lancashire “right” = rəi:t and “thought” is θɒʊt). Are there any North American accents that do this as well?

  2. Carin says:

    I’m from DC with a mother from Philly (though I wouldn’t say I have anything resembling a Philly accent) and I have əɪ in price and ɑɪ prize. Did you swap the order of those in your last full paragraph above?

  3. AL says:

    Forgive me, but could you explain the difference between ɑɪ , əɪ , and aɪ? I always struggle with these symbols and wikipedia lists aɪ for my, wise, high, flight, and mice (before both voiced and voiceless consonants)?

    I can’t tell how my price and prize vowels are different. >.< (But I do speak price much faster, as you and Amy pointed out.)

    And if price and prize are different, which one sounds like pry?

    • AW says:

      Since I don’t know your accent it’s not easy to describe, but ‘ə’ is the vowel at the beginning and end of “America” and ‘ɪ’ is the short i of “kit”

      If you are American/Canadian then ‘ɑ’ is the vowel of “cot”, unless you’re from the Great Lakes (US) region in which case ‘a’ is the vowel of “cot”.

      If you’re English then ‘a’ is the vowel of “cat” and ‘ɑ’ of “cart”. Unless you’re from London in which case ‘a’ is the vowel of “cut”.

      If price and prize are different then I think pry should go with prize, since it is “free” and can go on as long as it likes.

      • dw says:

        If you’re English then ‘a’ is the vowel of “cat” and ‘ɑ’ of “cart”. Unless you’re from London in which case ‘a’ is the vowel of “cut”.

        [a] is the vowel of “cat” only for speakers from Northern England.

        For those in the South of England, “cut” is probably the closest you’re going to get to [a].

      • Peter S. says:

        I have an /ʌ/ at the end of America. If you want a /ə/, you need to use a word like panda. But that’s probably a different blog post.

    • trawicks says:

      To add to what AW says, I’d suggest that each of these sounds might be associated with a particular accent:

      [aɪ] is, broadly speaking, the diphthong commonly associated with General American and British Received Pronunciation for /ay/ words. It’s the diphthong you’d hear most American newscasters use, for example.

      [əɪ] is associated with the broadest of Irish accents. Although it starts in the center of the vowel space, people often mishear it as an “oy” sound (i.e. “ride” = “royd”).

      [ɑɪ] is typical of London English, or New York English. Again, some people occasionally mistake it for “oy.”

      • Frank says:

        I think [aɪ] for PRIZE is more of a northern pronunciation in the United States. My own pronunciation, which I of course consider to be “General American”, has a centralized starting point [äɪ]. I know this may seem like nitpicking, but I can hear this difference really well. [aɪ] sounds exaggerated to me. I’m not sure about the offset actually being [ɪ] either, but I’m not going get into that right now.

      • IVV says:

        Here’s where I’m confused, again, regarding ɪ. Maybe it’s my kinda-East Bay accent (closest to Billie Joe Armstrong) coming through again. Whenever I read texts about ɪ, they say that the vowel in “kit” is the same as the first vowel in “English” or the second vowel in the long-i diphthong. But for me, the “kit” vowel is the second vowel sound in “English.” The English/ring/thing/thinking vowel is /i/.

        Now, I know that I personally have an odd long-i because of my travel and living around the country (I ran into my high-school girlfriend after a long time, and that was the first thing she commented on). It’s very back-formed, more like /ɑe/. Not sure where I picked that up. But, once again, it’s not the “kit” vowel.

    • AL says:

      Best I can tell, I use aɪ for all of the mentioned examples, but feel like it’s hard for me to analyze my own speech impartially. (I grew up in SF bay and the DC metro areas.)

  4. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    Also worth mentioning is that most Southern speakers would monophthongize prize to /pra:z/, but not price to /pra:s/.

    The Economist language blog had a post on it recently:

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2011/07/accents-0

  5. AW says:

    Peter Anderson – Structural Atlas of the English dialects – p.40 has several other instances of this.

    The question is – does it ever lead to a phonemic split ?

    or for one half to merge with another phoneme?

    • trawicks says:

      “The question is – does it ever lead to a phonemic split ?

      or for one half to merge with another phoneme?”

      Good question. In terms of this yielding a phonemic split, I can’t think of any examples. The only way I could see that being possible is if a final voiceless consonants were systematically dropped in the way that ‘r’ is systematically dropped in Received Pronunciation. Thus far, I don’t believe there are any accents that do this (although “local” Dublin English often drops post-vocalic /t/).

      As to the second half of your question, I don’t believe it’s led to a merger yet, but it HAS led to some near-overlap. For example, William Labov found one speaker from Philadelphia for which the word “diaper” nearly overlapped with some realizations of the FACE vowel. But that’s only one word, and for the time being, the two phonemes seem firmly distinct.

  6. m.m. says:

    Whenever people bring up this split in california accents, I’m always left a bit dazed because my experience doesn’t corroborate with that assertion. There definitely *is* allophonic raising though, but speakers still perceive them to rhyme.

  7. Ed says:

    In the Hull accent in Britain, “prize” is [prɑːz] whereas “price is [praɪs]. A following voiced consonant takes a monophthong and a following voiceless consonant takes a diphthong.

    Reference:
    Urban Voices, Arnold, London, 1999, pages 146, 156–7

    • Frank says:

      According to your source, “prize” would actually be [praːz] in the (working class) accent of Hull. It does mention [ɑː] as a possible realization for south east London English (SELE) PRICE/PRIZE though in that same book. Once again, not trying to be nitpicky here, but [ɑː] vs. [aː] is a fairly large difference. It also seems to be easy to hear for many laypeople.

  8. Nathan Brown says:

    In some regions, like the Boston area and maybe the Tidewater, Canadian raising in “price” and “about” travel together. In some other areas, though, this isn’t the case. In most of New York north of Poughkeepsie, “price” and “right” usually take the /^I/ sound, while “about” and “house” take the same /aU/ as “loud” and “how.” You don’t hear Canadian Raising in the /aU/ words until you get to the North Country. I grew up in Schenectady, and consistently use an /^I/ in price but an /aU/ in about; from my observations, I think that my speech is typical in this aspect at least. My family in Utica pronounces these words the same. Maybe it’s spread further because people don’t notice it in the “I” words, while it’s a known Canadian shibboleth in the “ou” words.