The Irish ‘Strut’

Handbook of Irish dancesWhen English phoneticians refer to the ‘strut vowel,’ they mean the ‘u‘ in ‘luck,’ ‘fudge,’ and ‘cut.’  In American English, the sound usually lies somewhere between the ‘a’ in ‘father’ and the ‘a’ in ‘comma.’  Your ‘strut’ vowel may vary.

As described here and elsewhere, the vowel is important in delineating the boundary between Northern and Southern dialects in England: the South has this vowel, while the North lacks it (Northerners rhyme ‘strut’ with ‘foot’).  Yet when one crosses the Irish Sea, the picture gets a whole heck of a lot more cloudy (no pun intended).

Irish accents are remarkably inconsistent in how they pronounce ‘strut’ and words like it. This Trinity College study of the Drogheda dialect indicates a range of pronunciations: the vowel in ‘hugged’ overlaps with the ‘oo’ in ‘foot,’ while the vowel in ‘lungs’ overlaps with the ‘o’ in ‘lot.’ Quite a difference!

So can Ireland be said to have participated in the strut-foot split?

To review in a nutshell: until the 17th-Century or thereabouts, words like ‘foot’ ‘sugar’ and ‘strut’ were pronounced with the same ‘u’ vowel (as they are in much of Northern England to this day). In Southern England and elsewhere, this vowel split into two vowels: one in words like ‘foot’ and ‘would,’ the other for words like ‘strut’ and ‘cut.’

Ireland, though, seems a mixed bag. For at least one accent, working-class or ‘local’ Dublin, ‘foot’ and ‘strut’ sound nearly the same. By contrast, ‘educated’ Dubliners, for the most part, seem to make a fairly strong distinction between the two. Between these two extremes lies the majority of Irish accents, which use a wide range of ‘strut’ vowels.

In the Ireland chapter of Accents of English, J.C. Wells is notably hesitant in this regard:

My impression of Irish accents as a whole is that most speakers have at least a potential /ʌ-ʊ/ opposition (much more so than in, say, Newcastle-upon-Tyne) – but that the lexical incidence of the two vowels differs considerably from that used in standard accents.

That is to say, the two vowels (which correspond to the vowel in ‘strut’ and ‘foot’ respectively) are perhaps distributed differently in some Irish accents. Wells goes on to mention a County Mayo native who makes a distinction between ‘nut’ and ‘cut,’ which are pronounced the same in other dialects!

So where does Ireland stand in terms of this split? And how did its history lead to such diversity in ‘strut’ pronunciations?

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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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18 Responses to The Irish ‘Strut’

  1. Paddy says:

    Duh day dose Dublin 4 blagards are more “educated” is duh day hell freezes over.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s why I put it in quotation marks. The difference between the accents can’t really be captured with words like ‘educated,’ ‘working-class’ or ‘upper-class.’ Raymond Hickey uses the terms ‘local’ and ‘non-local.’ I use ‘educated’ here because you might be able to make an association between level of education and that type of accent, but I’d argue the situation is much more complex than that.

  2. Dw says:

    Foot and strut have never been pronounced with the same vowel. Foot historically haD the same vowel as GOOSE (as its spelling suggests). It was shortened to the current FOOT vowel after the split had been established.

    If you want a historically accurate minimal pair, then call it the “put”-“cut” split.

    • Dw says:

      “have never been pronounced” -> “were not pronounced”.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a good point (making an edit now). ‘Foot-strut split’ is probably a misnomer even in terms of it being a ‘split:’ it doesn’t just refer to ‘put’ and ‘cut’ splitting, but also ‘blood’ and ‘foot’ lowering. Maybe the ‘foot-strut shift’ is more appropriate?

    • Ed says:

      “Foot” and “strut” are pronounced with the same vowel now in the northern half of England. It is not implausible that there was a period when the same was true in the southern half, even if the period between the switch of foot and the switch of strut was short.

      • dw says:

        If that had happened, we would expect “foot” to have (in split accents) the vowel of “blood” and “flood” , words in which this development is actually thought to have occurred.

  3. Gavin says:

    I’m not an expert on this, but I think it’s possible that part of the reason for the diversity of STRUT realizations in Ireland is the influence of the Irish language on Irish English. The diversity may also partially come from the way STRUT was pronounced in England during the 17th century when the plantations of Ireland took place and English began to replace Irish (again). I was looking at the Wikipedia article on Irish phonology and it seems that the closest vowel they have to English /ʌ/ in Irish is the one that’s highlighted yellow here. So it’s possible that many Irish people used that vowel for English /ʌ/ when they started speaking English. It certainly has the sort of “intermediate” quality I’ve heard in STRUT words from many a speaker of Irish English (intermediate between my /ʌ/ and my /ʊ/, that is).

    It’s also possible that the /ʌ/ of the English “planters” hadn’t fully lowered/unrounded to [ʌ] yet at that time. So they may have had realizations of /ʌ/ in their accents which were closer and/or more rounded than those which are now common.

    I’m not sure why “local Dublin English” has no distinction between FOOT and STRUT. Maybe that goes back even earlier to the late 12th century. That was the “first period” of English there according to Raymond Hickey. Or maybe it comes from later planters from some part of England which didn’t have the split yet. I don’t know.

    And lung possibly overlapping with long is something that may also happen in parts of England. See Anne Grethe Mathisen’s study of the accent of Sandwell, West Midlands in Urban Voices: Accent Studies in the British Isles and also Joanna Przedlacka’s now famous 2001 paper on Estuary English. There must be something about the velar nasal that causes the preceding vowel to have a strange quality (also think about drank in American English).

    • trawicks says:

      I’m not entirely sure about the Dublin strut-foot merger, but I do see one possible explanation. Looking at acoustic analyses of East Coast Irish vowels, LOT appears to be some type of mid unrounded vowel (perhaps corresponding to American STRUT or even higher). It seems plausible that this may have pushed STRUT even further upward so it overlaps with the environment of FOOT. That’s only one of a number of possibilities, however. Dublin’s early history of settlement, as you mention, is another, or there may be some other shift relating to the accent’s unusual (by Irish standards) pronunciation of GOAT ([ʌo]). Sadly, there seems precious little research about the dialect!

  4. gaelsano says:

    Dw, thank you for that tidbit. I had always been perplexed by the distibution of GOOSE FOOT and STRUT. This helps to explain the FOOT-GOOSE merger.

    I suppose the original split should be dubbed the BULL-STRUT (or put-putt) split. Based on what you say, the FOOT-GOOSE merger does not exist at all. Rather, it’s that putt, but, dull go into the STRUT set and foot, blood remain in the GOOSE set.

    So, for standard accents (take this with a grain of salt) of North America and England, words like foot and good were arbitrarily thrown into the PUT set and blood and flood were arbitrarily thrown into the STRUT set.

    Sounds like Wells really bungled his lexical set here. It should be the BULL set to avoid confusion. The so-called FOOT-GOOSE merger made me hyper-correct my mental impression of the Scots as saying “pooooot that duh-oon!” (put that down).

  5. Tomasz says:

    It’s no wonder (non-Irish) actors can’t do Irish accents. They’re so bloody complicated! Feel free to delete this comment if it’s too off topic 🙂

    • CaitieCat says:

      It’s my experience, actually, that actors who fail at accents tend to do so because they don’t quite nail the vowels. They often get the stressed vowels, though they overdo it, but the unstressed ones, that’s the hole, usually.

      And that applies for almost any actor doing any accent, IME. I’ve thought that if I go into dialect coaching (I’m involved in theatre) that the unstressed vowels are going to be my focal point. 🙂

    • trawicks says:

      I think actors struggle with Irish accent because there is a lot of misinformation about Hiberno-English generally. I learned a ‘general Irish stage dialect’ in school, and while it may sound authentic or consistent to many ears, it doesn’t correspond to any real manner of speech.

      • gaelsano says:

        Irish accents are difficult for actors also because of the interference of outdated and somewhat inaccurate depictions of the older Irish accent. 6 certain counties have taken on a very Scottish rhythm it seems and Dublin and Belfast seem to take cues from England, especially in the choice of which phonemes to use in new words. I can’t remember any examples right now, but think of ad-ult (UK) with TRAP-COMMA vs a-dult (US) COMMA-STRUT though this particular example is not relevant.

        It’s much like how Cockney has been rendered impossible for most Americans due to the chimney sweeps stereotypes from 20th century films and TV. I still can’t quite grasp it. When Brits complain about Mockney I don’t know what they’re on about and will probably never be able to truly identify it.

        There’s more people in greater NYC than on the Emerald Isle, too, making finding a bona fide Irisher easier said than done.

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  7. Brian says:

    For me, my “strut” vowels varies from ʊ to ɐ. It used to be a lot closer to cardinal ʌ before listening too much BBC back when I was trying to reduce my accent. I’ve been pegged as from anywhere in between Kent and the Midland due to that. However, I use ɐ most commonly.