‘Aunt’ in a New England Accent

Charley's AuntLike many New Englanders, I pronounce ‘aunt’ with a broad-a (i.e. the vowel in ‘father’). This is one of several ways the New England accent retains a linguistic connection to its semi-namesake (for most other Americans, ‘aunt’ and ‘ant’ are homophones). Many British accents, of course, also pronounce ‘aunt’ with a broad-a.

Here’s the problem, though. I don’t have a New England accent. I speak fairly unplaceable General American English, with the slightest hint of Kentucky (my place of birth)*.  My parents, like most Americans, pronounce ‘aunt’ with the short-a in ‘trap.’ So why do I still say ‘ahnt?’

Some years back, 60% of of the Connecticut respondents of the Harvard Dialect Survey stated that they pronounced ‘aunt’ with a ‘broad’ or back vowel. By contrast, slightly over 7% was attributed to New Jersey. It’s a startling fact given that Connecticut is often described as divorced from the classic ‘New England accent’ (outside of my neck of woods, the state’s rural East). So even in areas of New England that have ‘lost’ the accent, it seems that broad-a ‘aunt’ is still going strong.

It may carry even further. My wife is separated from New England by two generations, yet still uses broad-a in ‘aunt.’ It’s possible her New England-accented grandparents passed this feature on to their children, who in turn influenced their own children.  Where other aspects of New England English are quickly receding, this one has somehow survived.

One clue as to why New Englanders may persist with broad-a ‘aunt?’ This gripe from a former roommate from Maine: “Why do people pronounce it like ‘ant?’ There’s a ‘u’ in it!” Indeed, unlike words like ‘can’t,’ ‘bath,’ or ‘half,’ which featured a broad-a in older New England Accents, the spelling of ‘aunt’ supports the pronunciation (think of other ‘au’ words like ‘taut,’ ‘author,’ or ‘autumn’). Has orthography helped preserve this pronunciation, even as other Americans have gone over to ‘ant?’

*An astute actor once described my accent as ‘a Southerner trying to do a “Northern” accent,’ which is fairly spot-on.

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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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33 Responses to ‘Aunt’ in a New England Accent

  1. Lu says:

    Funny you should say this. I was just wondering this very fact. I’m from coastal Virginia (Hampton Roads, specifically) and everyone I know says aunt (as opposed to ant). But my dad is from Pennsylvania, so I have always grown up calling my aunts Ant So-and-So. My family from the north always considered it a southern quirk. So is this truly just a New England accent? Or is it southern as well? I’d love to know more!

    • trawicks says:

      Many speakers of African American English use the broad-a in ‘aunt,’ and seeing as that dialect largely derives from Southern Englishes, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Southern accents do this as well. That being said, the dialect survey I mentioned above suggests Virginia is a bit unique in terms of ‘broad aunt:’ they cite a higher than normal percentage of 28% in terms of speakers with some type of broad-a. Travel one state south to NC, however, and the rate plummets, to only about 12%.

      • Charles Sullivan says:

        I ‘m glad you mentioned that about AA English speakers pronouncing it “ont”. I was gonna add that if you hadn’t.

    • Preston says:

      I also live in Hampton Roads, but I am originally from southeastern Ohio. I found it very interesting when I moved here that the majority of people in our area pronounce “aunt” the way they do! I had always thought it was strictly New England that said that. Anyway, I like it more so I say it now as well.

  2. Ellen K. says:

    But, those other au words you mention don’t have the a of father. It’s a different sound. In my middle of the USA accent, anyway. The spelling fits with an awnt pronunciation, not an ahnt pronuniciation. Or so it seems to me (whose in the ant camp.)

    • dw says:

      Yes; the “au” spelling would normally suggest the THOUGHT vowel. This will only be the same as the SPA vowel for those who have both the father-bother and cot-caught mergers. Maybe slightly below 50% of Americans these days?

      Of course, nearly all the BATH-prenasal words (“dance”, “grant”, etc.) were equally likely to be spelled as “daunce”, “graunt” etc. in the early Modern and late middle English period. They’re nearly all loanwords from French, and it’s thought that the nasalized “a” on French was interpreted in different ways (somewhat similar to the different pronunciations of words like “envelope” and “envoy” today). Some Englishmen pronounced them with the [a] of TRAP and others with the [au] of words like “haunt”.

      BTW, you are in eminent company here. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that Dobson makes exactly the same suggestion: that the orthography preserved the lengthened vowel in “aunt” but not in other words such as “grant”. The real question is why “aunt” ended up in the BATH set rather than the THOUGHT set of words like “haunt”.

      • trawicks says:

        My LOT-THOUGHT distinction is rather weak, so ‘au’ for me mostly suggests ‘backness’ or ‘broadness.’ Why ‘aunt’ is in the BATH set, though, is certainly a mystery, even less so why some dialects (mostly American and Irish) dialects have it in the TRAP set. It may have to do with the word’s French etymology, as you suggest, since English speakers assign French nasal vowels to some pretty odd phonemes. This is even apparent in contemporary times: why do Americans pronounce ‘lingerie’ with a ‘broad a’ when the TRAP vowel would be so close to the French pronunciation?

        • Ellen K. says:

          Are you saying some people both have a different vowels in “bath” and “trap” and have also “aunt” with the TRAP vowel? I would expect “ant” speakers would be people for whom bath has that same vowel, thus putting it in a combined BATH/TRAP set.

        • trawicks says:

          @Ellen,

          ‘Ant’ was once more frequent in the UK, so it’s possible there was some type of dialect that made a distinction between ‘bath’ and ‘trap’ but had ‘aun’t’ in the trap set. I can’t say for sure, though.

        • Doug says:

          I think what she was trying to say was that if a person uses the vowel of father in aunt, but they don’t distinguish between bath and trap then you can’t say that aunt is in the BATH set for them. You would have to say it’s in the PALM or FATHER or something else set.

        • Doug says:

          Maybe I misread it actually.

        • dw says:

          @Ellen K:

          I believe that in Australian English many people have BATH=SPA before a voiceless fricative (e.g. “path”) but BATH=TRAP before a nasal (e.g. “dance”).

          I’d be interested to hear whether this is true of the word “aunt”, which is somewhat exceptional.

        • Doug says:

          I think aunt always has BATH in Australian English. That’s what they say here and also here on Wikipedia. I’m pretty confident that the people who wrote those things know what they’re talking about, which isn’t always the case on Wikipedia

  3. AL says:

    I pronounce aunt like awnt, as Ellen pointed out. This is very close to, but perhaps not exactly the same, as how I pronounce father. But I was raised in California and Maryland, with no prior ties to New England.

  4. Jeff says:

    I live in South Carolina and some white people here use the vowel of father in aunt too. Oh, sorry I forgot we’re not supposed to mention the race of the people. Forget I said that 🙂 They were just humans and if you think that they’re skin had some sort of color you’re wrong damn it, you racist bastard you!

  5. Itswendy says:

    I am from CT and now live in FL. There are a lot of ants around here! Great article.

  6. Josh McNeill says:

    Strange, I always thought the aunt-ant homophone phenomenon was peculiar for NJ but it appears to be the opposite. Broad-a aunt is supposed to be a NJ/New England thing whereas aunt-ant is what most Americans say? I’ve been out of that state for nearly 3 years now and my seriously backwards view on this hasn’t even registered on my radar.

  7. james says:

    In Nova Scotia (where I grew up) it’s also pronounced with a broad-a. Most people I’ve encountered in Ontario pronounce it as “ant”.

  8. Danny Ryan says:

    I’m a speaker of a close to RP variety I call ‘Northern (British) English Regional Standard’ (NERS). I have both the ‘broad’ and the ‘slender’ a-sound in my speech, though for me the distinction is not so much one of quality, but of length. Both my /a/ (= usually RP /æ/ or /ɑː/) and my /aː/ (= usually RP /ɑː/) are fairly close to the cardinal vowel [a].
    I say /aːnt/ for ‘aunt’, though when addressing my aunts I call them /ˈantɪ/ as in ‘Aunty Kitty’, ‘Aunty Vera’, ‘Aunty Mary’. Many speakers in the north of England have /ant/ for both the family member and the insect, so I reckon I get the short vowel when addressing my aunts from the more familiar close-to-home talk, while in the word ‘aunt’ the RP distribution (and substitution) comes in.

  9. m.m. says:

    My anecdotes corroborate with the 78% aunt-ant mergers in California. I myself use ‘broad A’ for aunt, but it seems like most others don’t here in socal.

  10. IVV says:

    My breakdown:

    TRAP: /æ/, ant, aunt, trap, bath
    LOT: /ɑ/, lot, thought, taut, autumn, Ah!, art
    /ɒ/: all, aura, awe, Aw!

    (It’s possible that my LOT vowel is actually more fronted, more of a central vowel than backed, and my ALL vowel is less rounded; here, I’m not so sure.)

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  12. Nicole says:

    Same with me. I pronounce “aunt” the proper way, NOT like “ant.” But yet I do not have a New England accent. I have the standard American accent. However, my parents and family members are from New England. I lived in NH till age 7, then moved to FL. In FL, I lost all traces of my New England vocabulary/accent (like saying “wicked” and pronouncing “idea” as “ideer”) but I still kept my pronunciation of “aunt” and “route” (like “root”). My 2 sisters – who do not have New England accents – also pronounce the words like that too. My friend in FL (who lived in MA till age 7 or 8) also says “aunt” the proper way, though she doesn’t have a New England accent either. I personally think the was we say it makes more sense. “Ant” is like the ant on the ground. They’re two different words. But anyway I think it’s all about how we LEARNED to say the words. I learned the word like “aunt,” so that’s how I’ve always pronounced it. Oh, another word: data. I pronounce it the New England/British way (the way I learned it): “dah-tuh.” The way many other people pronounce it is “day-tuh.” I’ve always said “dah-tuh,” and forever will. Sounds better that way 😛

  13. Therese says:

    The PROPER way, Nicole–really? Great New England attitude, there, I must say. I had the misfortune of living in that part of the country for seven years, where I first encountered a bunch of “awnts.” Sounds hilarious to me, and like they are giving themselves “airs.” However, that stuck up attitude was quite typical of the people I met while there.

    From the research I’ve done the last few years, the overwhelming majority of Americans pronounce the relative like the insect. And, as far as I know, this is still the pronunciation favored at MOST American broadcasting schools, and still heard most often in the media. Why? Because most Americans know that “ant” is the PROPER way to pronounce it, Nicole, in spite of the fact that New England is living in its own little world up there. Oh, and by the way, “fox” is an animal, and not the plural of an eating utensil. Another great New England original. Just sayin…

    • CSP says:

      Language is fluid and ever changing. The term “proper” can’t be applied without any qualifications to pronunciations. Your negative experiences with people living in New England may be slanting your views a bit. New England people tend to hurry from place to place, not make eye contact, not smile and wave hello, and not engage in small talk. FL is radically different. I’d take living in friendly (albeit “crazy”) FL over living in Mass.

      Different cultures. New England inherited Britain’s “stiff upper lip.” So, I hear where you’re coming from. It would be interesting to research the origins and evolutions of various accents. Why do NYC residents sound different from South Boston people? Why do Western Mass locals pronounce the “r” sound in a way that’s similar to people from rural Georgia?

      Again, language is fluid. Why can’t we have a diversity of accents without categorizing them as either “proper” or “improper”? Hey, I just wanted to find out if my pronunciation was totally incorrect (as in no one uses it) or if it was specific to a North England regional accent.

      Found my answer. Thanks fellow commentators and language lovers!

      • CSP says:

        I meant to write “New England,” of course, rather than “North England.”

        And forks would be pronounced like “fourks,” with the “ah” sound replacing the common “r” sound. “Fox” is no where close. My background: B.A. in English, M.A. in history, PhD in English with an emphasis on rhet-comp, media studies, and articulatory phonetics, and I served as a linguistics tutor and editor for a large population of Asians. Just so you know in the hopes of preventing mean and wasteful comments from you.

  14. T.B. says:

    I grew up in Mass., and while I have lost whatever accent I may have had, I still pronounce certain words like a New Englander. I remember asking my great Aunt (whom we simply called Auntie -broad “a” obviously) “Auntie why don’t we call you ‘ANTIE’?” Her response was “Do you see me crawling around on the floor?”. I was probably 6 or 7 at the time and had heard some friends, possibly, saying “ant” when speaking of their aunts.

    I have now lived in CA for the past decade. I still wear sneakers and certain things are wicked awesome. The one thing I don’t understand is why I pronounce about like a Canadian? Everyone asks me if I am from Canada? Lol

  15. CG says:

    Sounds like Therese has a massive chip on her shoulder! Sheesh. And plural forks in Mass accent doesn’t really sound like fox.

    Anyway, I grew up in southeastern Mass and while I regained the ability to pronounce the letter r after getting teased in college, certain words I still use and pronounce like I did as a kid. Including ahn-velope (envelope), aunt, scallops (sc-ah-llops), and also a very SE Mass word for water fountain: “bubbler”

  16. Anony-mouse says:

    Accents are interesting that way. I grew up in Delaware and I tend to use “ant” and “aunt” interchangeably, with a slight preference for “aunt”, but when I name specific people, I say “ant”. I seem to be the only person around me who says “aunt” at all. My great-grandfather is the most recent New Englander in my (known) family. I’ve never met him (since he died before I was born), but my grandmother describes how she used to visit her family in Maine and notes that her family has lived in New England for centuries.

  17. CSP says:

    I was trying to find the correct pronunciation of data and landed on this site. I say “dah-da,” whereas everyone else around me says “day-da.” I’m originally from Mass, so I’m glad to learn it’s an accepted regional version rather than an outright mistake. If you grew up in Mass, especially near the south Boston area, you’re most likely going to stick to “aunt” instead of “ant.” There are just some sounds you can’t change from the environment in which you grew up. My cousin became angry one day when her substitute teacher said that all the kids don’t pronounce the “r” sound properly. Frustrated, she told her mother, “I can pronounce my ‘ahs’ … see? ‘ah.'” I moved to FL at age 12 and made a concerted effort to pronounce my “r” sound. I get it right most of the time, but if you’re raised where “r” is pronounced “ah,” it’s very difficult to get the “r” sound right (meaning without an accent). And when you’re raised calling all of your aunts “Aunt So-So,” I think it’s impossible to switch to “Ant So-So.” The term “aunt” combined with your aunt’s first name becomes embedded in you. It would be like changing your aunt’s name. That’s my “wicked cool” 2 cents.

  18. Bea says:

    I’m so glad I now know that my guy friend from Florida is not wrong! It was driving me crazy every time he said aunt! I’m from CT and we pronounce it as ont and so does everyone I know..now to think of it, my friend must be going crazy about the way I prounce aunt also! 🙂 I’m going to have to discuss this with him!

  19. Meade says:

    Old Time New Englanders, perhaps, but in general “AWNT” is Southern, where as “ANT’ is Northern. I am from Virginia and everyone I know who says “ANT” is from up North or some place outside the South. I know people from South Carolina and they say “Awnt” as well. Its definitely Southern.