Canadians (or those familiar with the Canadian accent), may recognize the weak pun in today’s title: ‘I’m horribly sorry‘ can sound to someone from the UK or elsewhere a bit like ‘I’m hoarably sorey.’ (I’m using ‘hoar’ to be family friendly; if you replace the syllable with the more illicit word that sounds exactly like ‘hoar,’ it will result in a much more disturbing pun).
Joking aside, though, what’s going on here? Well, in many varieties of North American English (including General American), /or/ words of any kind–’horrible,’ ‘porridge,’ ‘sore,’ ‘poor‘–are all pronounced with the same vowel, roughly akin to the ‘aw’ sound in ‘flaw.’ ([ɔ] in the IPA.) There are exceptions to this, in the Eastern United States, but for the most part /or/, /orr/, and /oor/ aren’t much distinguished on this side of the Atlantic.
In many types of British English, by contrast, ‘poor,’ ‘sore’ and ‘horrible’ can be pronounced with three entirely different vowels (although this is more commonly two in contemporary accents). The pun in the title derives from the fact that, for accents that make the distinction, ‘horribly’ and ‘sorry’ are pronounced with the ‘short-o’ in ‘lot’ (i.e. /hɒɹɪbli/ and /sɒɹi/). So to British, Australian, or New York ears, the Canadian syllables might sound uncomfortably close to ‘whore/hoar’ and ‘sore.’
But what about ‘sorry?’ Here is where things get complicated. In many American accents, ‘horrible,’ ‘Florida’ and ‘corridor’ are pronounced with the vowel in ‘flaw.’ But ‘sorry,’ ‘borrow’ and ‘tomorrow’ have the same vowel in ‘lot,’ as in British accents. In Canada, meanwhile, all such /or/ words have the ‘aw’ vowel, including ‘sorry.’ Why is ‘sorry’ an odd word out in America but not for our neighbors to the North?
What makes this even more peculiar is in the case of accents out here in the Western US, where the cot-caught merger is typical. I can’t account for every regional accent, but my impression is that for most, sorry has the ‘short-o’ in ‘lot,’ while horrible has an entirely different ‘aw’ sound ([ɔ] or [o]). Is this the one exception in which Westerners distinguish between the two vowels? Or does /or/ follow an entirely different pattern?
(I’ll acknowledge an objection from the more linguistically advanced: you could make the case that in Western American accents, ‘-orr’ words like ‘horrible’ are merging with the vowel in ‘core,’ which can further be argued to be an allophone of the /o/ in ‘goat.’ Still, that doesn’t quite explain why /orr/ words have joined two different phonemic camps.)
None of this really explains, however, why Canadians went fully in one direction, but Americans didn’t. Unlike other Canadian/American differences, this can’t be explained by vowel shifts or loaned British pronunciations. Any ideas?