The Vowel in ‘Yeah’

Of English’s many alternatives to ‘yes,’ the word yeah is perhaps the most common.  I’d go so far as to say there is some type of ‘yeah’ or yeah-like word in nearly every native dialect of English.  Yet despite its ubiquity, there is something exceptional about ‘yeah,’ namely its curious vowel sound.

Just what is the vowel in ‘yeah?’  In my own accent, I pronounce ‘yeah’ with something like a lengthened, twangy version of the ‘a’ in ‘cat’ (for the IPA-literate, something along the lines of [æə]).  So (and forgive the repetition) should we categorize the vowel in ‘yeah’ as the same vowel in ‘cat?’

Probably not. This would break an important rule of American English whereby the short-a in ‘cat,’ ‘trap’ and ‘hat’ cannot occur at the end of word*. And yet if it’s not the ‘short-a,’ then what vowel can we call this?

It might help to look at how ‘yeah’ is pronounced in accents other than my own. In many non-rhotic (i.e. r-less) accents, ‘yeah’ is arguably the same vowel as words like ‘there,’ ‘bear,’ and ‘fair.’ Evidence for this? Some non-rhotic speakers insert a linking-r after ‘yeah’ if it comes before another vowel. I encountered this a mere two days ago, in fact, when an older Rhode Island native said ‘Yeah r it was very nice.’  Ergo, she followed the same set of rules with this sentence as if she were saying ‘There it was very nice.’

Furthermore, in Australian English (and probably several British accents as well), the word seems to undergo a similar shift as ‘fair,’ namely that it becomes a monophthong (a single vowel as opposed to two).  Just as an Australian might pronounce ‘square’ as if it were lengthened version of ‘sqweh’ (i.e. [skwe:]), he might also say ‘yeah’ as if it were a lengthened version of ‘yeh’ (i.e. [je:]).  So should we treat the ‘yeah’ vowel as the same as the ‘square’ vowel?

There’s a problem here.  The vowel I’ve described above (the vowel in ‘square‘) doesn’t really exist in my accent.  I pronounce the r in ‘fair,’ so there isn’t any obvious connection to the vowel in ‘yeah.’  Back to square one.

Perhaps ‘yeah’ is simply an anomaly.  After all, ‘yes’ variants can be elusive in regards to pronunciation.  For example, I answer in the affirmative with several words of the type ‘y___p,’ saying ‘yep,’ ‘yup’ or something in between.  Is it pointless to assign ‘yeah’ to a specific type of vowel?

*That is, cannot occur in an open syllable.

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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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24 Responses to The Vowel in ‘Yeah’

  1. dw says:

    I’m surprised you identify the vowel of “yeah” with the TRAP vowel. To me, it’s identical to the vowel of the word “yes” (i.e. the DRESS vowel), at least in quality.

    My typical pronounciation is [jɛh] or [jɛː].

    [jɛː] is used either as a time-filler like “ummmm”, or when I’m listening to someone else and trying to sound sympathetic. [jɛh] for all other uses.

    I’ve always presumed that [jɛh] was the original form, derived directly from “yes” [jɛs] by debuccalization.

    • dw says:

      Furthermore, in Australian English (and probably several British accents as well), the word seems to undergo a similar shift as ‘fair,’ namely that it becomes a monophthong (a single vowel as opposed to two).

      My guess is that this is backwards. In other words, I would suggest:

      * “yeah” followed the historical path [jɛs] -> [jɛh] -> [jɛː]

      but

      * “fair” followed the historical path [fɛər] -> [fɛə] -> [fɛː]

      So “yeah” and “fair” may have ended up rhyming in some non-rhotic accents, but this is because of a historical accident, not because they both underwent “the same shift”.

    • j says:

      For what it’s worth, I’m an an American English speaker and I would unequivocally characterize my “yeah” with the TRAP vowel. It’s usually either [jæə] or [jæ] depending on emphasis. The former would be more common as an affirmative answer to something, usually accompanied with a falling intonation. The latter I’d use more as my filler word, with level intonation.

    • trawicks says:

      I hadn’t thought about the possibility of debuccalization, but that makes sense. I wonder when that would have happened. If it was at least a few hundred years ago, that might suggest that ‘yeah’ was initially part of the ‘face’ set post-debuccalization. Although as I said, it’s perhaps too much to presume ‘yeah’ can be accurately phonemicized.

  2. Brad says:

    For me (American), both yeah and the sound sheep make have TRAP. I don’t see what’s so wrong with using TRAP at the end of a word. I find it very easy to do.

    I also have a question (for anyone who knows): I know the o in nose is in a closed syllable, but what about the ow in knows? Is that considered to be in a closed syllable too?

    • Andrew ACG says:

      I think the problem is not that it’s physically impossible to use the TRAP vowel in an open syllable with the end of a word, but it violates rules of English phonotactics. There are a number of checked vowels in American English (TRAP, SIT, LET, CUT, PUT) that can’t occur in open syllables like this. It’s not physically impossible to make by any means, but aside from marginal words (yeah, eh, nah) there are very few English well-formed words that end with open syllables in this vowel.

      • Peter S. says:

        There are at least two other words which, in my pronunciation, at least, have checked vowels in open syllables. These are real /rɪəl/ and buoyant /bʊjənt/. I don’t know how common my pronunciation of buoyant is (it’s not in the dictionaries), but I do know some other people pronounce real like me. I also don’t know how these pronunciations survive, given the rules of English phonotactics.

  3. IVV says:

    Is “yeah” a singular anomaly?

    Nah.

  4. Ed says:

    “Yeah” is related to “yes”, so it makes sense to me for it to have a similar vowel. For me it is [ɛ]. I associate it more with DRESS than with SQUARE, but it is very rare for a word to end in the DRESS vowel so I can see why it is more convenient to group it with SQUARE.

  5. Cclinton says:

    I think what it is is that “yeah” is such a high-frequency word that in a way it can have it’s own set of rules, because high usage correlates with sound change. It is certainly not the only word that seems to do the same. There is also “meh,” which for me is pronounced [me], [meh], or [mex], all in violation of the basic rules that govern other words in English.

    • gaelsano says:

      You’re onto something here. I think we can say that the factors that create words like yeah and meh include being monosyllabic (prevents vowel weakening and phonotactics) and being common.

      I might add, further, that these words carry a distinct and abstract emotion. “Ew!” is definitely /ɪu/ for me, which comes out as [ɪ(:)jʉ(:)] with elongation and American fronting of GOOSE (not like Californians, but still more central than back).

  6. ella says:

    For me ‘yeah’ is definitely [jɛə]

  7. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    This is what a user named mallamb wrote on John Wells’s blog concerning ‘whoa’ (or rather a specific Australian variant of it):

    “The sound in question cannot be “a specific allophone of GOAT” […], because any such allophone would have to be determined linguistically, and this variance is determined extra-linguistically, in that qua interjection, the sequence does not partake of the double articulation (into pleremes in grammar, and phonemes in phonology), which makes such sequences logically unanalyzable and therefore extra-systematic, or paralinguistically, in that qua word (the word ‘whoa’ in conventional orthography, as a lexical item which may be more susceptible of grammatical and phonological categorization) it is distorted by extremes of phonation or intonation which are extraneous to language proper.”

    I think the same holds true for ‘yeah’. It’s an interjection, and thus extralinguistic to a certain extent. Sure, phonetically it may be exactly the same as the usual realization of one of the phonemes. But it makes no sense to ask about its phonemic makeup.

    • Ellen K. says:

      But it’s not always an interjection. It can be. But it can also be used conversationally, in place of “yes”.

  8. AL says:

    For me, it is hard to understand pronouncing “y-” without also pronouncing the “ee” (as in see), at least a little bit. So my yeah might be yee-a (a as in trap).

    I know yeah is already a casual word, but to me, yeh is even more casual (if that makes sense). It’s like how some people drop the ‘g’ in -ing.

  9. gaelsano says:

    An unchecked TRAP or DRESS vowel is not impossible. We have the word tattoo which ends the first syllable in a TRAP. People say ta-ttoo, not tatt-oo. “Tat” is an abbreviation which drops the whole “oo” part. (credit to J C Wells here, though he’s got an inflated superego, as well as having the fortune of being saracastic, hypocritical and condescending).

    In fact, people from Boston and from outside North America can end syllables in unchecked vowels just fine. Credit goes to a poster from antimoon.com called Lazar and perhaps too Merriam-Webster.

    The marry-merry merger happens because GenAm speakers cannot say ma-rry with a TRAP vowel. They say “mare-ee” and “meir-ee” with a SQUARE vowel in each. Likewise, sorry becomes “sar-ee” and torrent becomes “tor-ent.”

    The tense-lax rules have become very strong in Modern English. However, unusual syllabification has allowed “There he is” to no longer rhyme with “Merry is…” The odd syllabification is what allows non-rhotic speakers to say TRAP in marry without vowel coloration. Most Americans have the START vowel whenever TRAP touches an “R,” but recognize that saying Mar-ee would sound bizarre and so end up using SQUARE as the r-colored vowel with nearest approximation of /æ/, with SQUARE being [ɛ~ɛə~e~eə].

    Americans of all stripes and Canadians retain these unchecked lax vowels in tattoo, uh, duh, and yeah. They are outliers and nothing more. I can guarantee that everyone says “yeah” with TRAP or DRESS. The posters who use diphthongs probably diphthongize their lax, checked counterparts at times.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Most Americans have the START vowel whenever TRAP touches an “R,” but recognize that saying Mar-ee would sound bizarre and so end up using SQUARE as the r-colored vowel with nearest approximation of /æ/, with SQUARE being [ɛ~ɛə~e~eə].

      I find that a very odd claim. Do you have evidence for that as a active process? Does it happen across morpheme boundaries? Because, see, in a word like “marry”, no, we aren’t transforming the TRAP vowel into the START vowel. We simply don’t have the TRAP vowel there. There was some past process of transformation, but now we simply have the START vowel there.

      I’m pretty sure I never change a TRAP vowel to a START vowel because of a R following it. In fact, your own post suggests there are so few morphemes that end in TRAP that it’s highly unlikely we’d have occasion to do so.

      • dw says:

        Historically, what was the TRAP vowel before nonprevocalic /r/ has become START in the standard accents (both English and North American). For an example, look no further than the word “start” itself). The original relationship is still preserved in much Irish and Scottish speech, and also perhaps in some Carribbean accents.

        What’s happened with a word like “marry” in merged North American accents is a further development, whereby the original TRAP vowel has been resyllabified to capture the following /r/ and then been reassigned to the SQUARE vowel.

        Schematically, you could represent it like this (dates very approximate)

        MARRY MARK

        15th C mar(r)i mark

        17th C ——- ma:rk -> mɑːrk

        17th C mæri

        20th C mɛri

        • Jordan says:

          I thought that Irish accents (excluding those from Ulster) had [aː] in START (and PALM), i.e., that they had undergone the first 17th century development. Isn’t that when the major plantations took place? There’s probably a lot of variation though, so we both could be right.

          I’d like to find a book that discusses regional variation in Hiberno-English in great detail, preferably with sound clips, that’s written by someone besides Raymond Hickey or John Wells. I’d just like to see something new and different. Sorry if this is getting too off topic Ben.

  10. gaelsano says:

    dw is articulating better what I was trying to say.I never said that “marry” became START. I was saying that Americans must resyllabify marry as m?r-y. Since Mar would sound like START, they choose SQUARE (or mare-y) which sounds more accurate to the source.

    • Ellen K. says:

      No, we don’t choose vowels that way. We say them like the people around us said them when we were learning to speak. Period. If you think there’s some active process beyond that going on, give some evidence. We don’t choose a vowel. We don’t resyllablize. We say the words how we learned them. Nothing more complex than that. Analyze how those pronunciations came to be all you won’t, but don’t project those processes onto current speakers.

  11. gaelsano says:

    I’d like to elucidate my earlier comments. I am not suggesting that anyone who pronounces PALM and TRAP differently pronounces marry with the START vowel. I am saying that words like mart and star and part originally were TRAP + R.

    car = /k/ + TRAP + /r/
    carry = /k/ + TRAP + /r/ + /i/

    Eventually, when you had coda r as in car and cart, the TRAP vowel centered or backed to /ɑ:/. Today we call this the PALM vowel. However, carry had an intervocalic r and avoided this phenomenon.

    car = /k/ + PALM + coda-r
    carry = /k/ + TRAP + intervocalic-r + vowel

    Americans do not allow unchecked, lax vowels, excepting ta-tto, yeah, duh, uh. Americans never have an intervocalic r. Americans had to find a way to re-syllabify carry into carr-y instead of ca-rry.

    The prestige pronunciation was /kæ.ri/ or /k/ + TRAP + intervocalic-r + vowel. Saying /kɑ:r.i/ was unacceptable. Based on the sound, the closest approximation was /k/ + SQUARE + coda-r + vowel, or /kɛər.i/

    Americans do not think of marry, merry, and Mary as lax-a, lax-e, tense-r-controlled-a. They think of them as SQUARE, SQUARE, SQUARE.

    In fact, the most common spelling errors come from Americans applying a SQUARE or -air spelling. No one misspells “marry me” as “merry me.” The prevailing notion of marry -> merry is completely unfounded. It’s marry -> Mary and merry -> Mary with an optional schwa before the r. Hence we get “vary good,” “grizzly bare” “John Carey.”

    Americans can say a lax-o that is unchecked…kind of. “Sorry” can be seen as preserving /s/ + LOT + /r/ + /i/ or seen as /s/ + START + /i/. The most difficult by far is the unchecked STRUT vowel. It occurs in duh, but we must note that the hurry -> furry merger was the first merger of its kind. There is a strong tendency to use a type of schwa sound, especially if the word is di- or polysyllabic. If I phonetically re-wrote the Korean word “전라” as jull-luh, many tend towards /dʒʌl.ə/ and then /dʒʌl.lə/ with /dʒʌl.ʌ/ being the most difficult.

    We can actually see the merger of the a in start, calm, with the o in lot and the merger of the u in nurse, but, century, and sanctum as a tendency to prefer free vowels. Vowels that can be pronounced before a checked, unchecked, or before a coda-r.

    The unchecked TRAP vowel in Yeah is the last survivor of the dying breed of unchecked lax vowels. In fact, it is the only one I hear in New York City speech. Like Boston it was stalwart against many mergers. marryMary is the most common distinction, followed by merryMary, with the hurryfurry distinction becoming increasingly rare.

    If it had been for Boston, NYC, and the English English, the Americans could have very well merged the lax-a of carry with the lax-r-controlled-a or broad-a of car. The existence of [kæ.ri] prevented this though. If Americans had merged carry with car instead of square, the Scots would hardly have taken note. Just as the assignment of moral -> mort would go unnoticed by people who merge TRAP with PALM and LOT with THOUGHT.

    It has been the desire to be intelligible or follow prestige that has made sure that the American “Carry” became the American “Care-y.”

    I argue that any tensification or diphthongization of the vowel in “yeah” comes from the Northern Cities tensification of TRAP or from elongating /jæ/ to [jɪæ:]. Since “yeah” has no prestige form is not uncommon to “yeah” as “yah” (strong /jɑ:/ weak /jə/). While Nordic influence “ja!” in Minnesota and vowel lowering in California /æ/ -> [a] play into it, I believe the ease of saying the broad-a in /jɑ:/ makes it stay. In fact, I hear /jɑ:/ for “yeah” in areas that have a-raising. Among younger American girls in the eastern parts of the Northern Cities Shift–those with a raised /ɛə/ in “cat”–I hear /jɑ:/ as a variant. English Language changes, for whatever reason, have always been pioneered and/or spread by women.

  12. gaelsano says:

    If it hadn’t***** been for Boston, NYC, and the English English

  13. m.m. says:

    my formal “yeah” is typically [ɛə]
    my reduced form is something akin to [æ]/[æ:]/[ə]
    my informal form is [jä]

    [jɑ] sounds… affected, speaking as a californian.