I’m Hoarably Sorey

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?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

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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39 Responses to I’m Hoarably Sorey

  1. AL says:

    I’m American and I split those words into two groups like you say:

    (1) horrible, horror, porridge, sore, for, four [for me, poor does not sound the same — rather, it rhymes with lure, tour, contour]

    (2) sorry, tomorrow, borrow, sorrow

    However, I don’t think group (1) sounds like flaw, at least not the way I pronounce flaw. It is difficult for me to divorce the (1) sound from its ‘r’. If anything, for me the vowel in flaw sounds more like the ‘o’ in group (2).

    Also, I don’t understand how group (1) is “merging” with core. Isn’t core in group (1)? Or do sore and core not have the same vowel for everyone?

    • Ellen K. says:

      AL, for me, lure, tour, contour and poor all rhyme as well, but do have the same sound as horrible, etc. So it’s nothing about that specific word.

      I agree, though, with your observation that the flaw vowel seems to come closer to the group 2 vowel than the group one vowel. Though it doesn’t match either of them.

    • trawicks says:

      No, it definitely doesn’t match ‘flaw’ as it is in most American accents. However, it’s fairly close to the ‘l-colored’ vowel in ‘ball’ for at least some American speakers, which is why if it weren’t for ‘sorry,’ ‘borrow,’ etc, I would just assume it to be an allophone (of either the ‘thought’ or ‘lot’ vowels).

      • IVV says:

        For me, “aw” is [ɑ] and the “ball” vowel is the same as the “flaw” vowel. I’ve got the Californian utter lack of [ɔ], replaced by [ɑ] or [o].

        The question for me is whether we use the “ar” sound (which is interchangeably [ɑɻ] or [äɻ]) or the “or” sound [oɻ].

        “or”: horrible, course, coarse, horse, porridge, sore, for…
        “ar”: borrow, sorry, tomorrow, sorrow

        There also “oor”, [uɻ], used for lure, tour, moor, spoor, and poor.
        (Note that lots of others in my area have poor as an “or” word).

        • adam cohen says:

          Any data in regional variation within California on the pronunciation of horror? My father pronounces it with the sore sound (he’s from Southern California), while my mother, siblings and I all pronounce it with the sorrow sound (we’re all Bay Area products).

        • m.m. says:

          If I had to guess, I would link the “horror” with “sorror” pronunciation in the bay area as a by-product of the different migration patters, where socal was more of a midlands/south midlands point, I know san francisco had a substantial amount of influx from families from the northeast, where “horror” can have the “sorrow” vowel.

        • IVV says:

          m.m. has it right. The native California sound is with horror as an “or” word. What a number of people call the Bay Area accent as sounding like the Northeast is the result of the huge influx of people from the Northeast to the area, especially San Francisco. At this point, I would call it a new native difference, but 30 years ago, it was definitely more of an “or” place, too.

        • AL says:

          In my accent (grew up in NorCal and Maryland) horror is with the “or” sound, i.e. what I called group (1). Same with the word orange and Florida.

          I’ve only heard Northeasterners pronounce horror and orange with (what is to me) the “ar” sound. So to me it sounds like hah-rer, ahrange, Flahrida.

        • Julie says:

          That “eastern” sound associated with San Francisco is very old. The best example I’ve heard was about 20 years ago, from a woman who was then in her 80’s. It may have been localized within the City, though.

          “Sorry” seems to be modeled on “sorrow,” which fits in a neat little mini-set with borrow, tomorrow, etc, all of which use the START vowel. So how do Canadians pronounce the sorrow-borrow set?

          In my idiolect, [ɔ] is definitely an allophone of /o/. It occurs only under specific conditions: /0/ followed by r, the /ɔi/ diphthong, and (I think) when /0/ is followed by l. Being a fully-merged Californian, I don’t have a separate “aw” vowel, and use ɑ for all the words that might be ɔ or ɒ in another accent.

  2. Ellen K. says:

    I think the r vowels are their own thing and have their own sets of mergings, quite separate from the other vowels.

    Also, seems worth noting, sorry and other such words have the same vowel (I assume in most of the U.S.; certainly for me) as some -ar words, like car, par, bar.

    And if I had to equate the vowel of horrible with a non-r vowel, I’d definitely associate it with vowel of goat.

    • Peter S. says:

      I agree; the r vowels are different from the non-r vowels. For me, car/sorry isn’t either the vowel of pot/father or the vowel of caught, but somewhere in between. Similarly, court is halfway in between coat and caught. And curt and cater have the same vowel, but that’s not the same as a schwa.

    • trawicks says:

      It’s true, pre-r vowels are their own thing in American English, as are pre-l vowels. What’s interesting is that in this case, /or/ words have split in a way that isn’t entirely predictable. Although it’s not as odd, IMO, as words in Wells’ CURE set, which in General American can have the vowel in NORTH, NURSE or FEWER.

      • Peter S. says:

        On thing that I’m surprised by in Ellen’s comment is that for her, lure doesn’t rhyme with pure but with poor. I know sure and your can land on either side, but I thought lure always went with pure in the pure/poor split.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say the “lure” is not part of my active vocabulary so I don’t truly have a pronunciation for it. That’s one possible pronunciation. Wiktionary does list that. It lists both /lʊər/ and /lɔr/, neither of which rhyme with “pure” for me. I’d add a “pure” rhyme (though without the y sound) as a 3rd possible pronunciation. I’d call it a burr/purr rhyme. So, purr, or poor (when different from pore) or pore. Or, better yet: her, who’re, hoar.

        • Peter S. says:

          I suspect that pronouncing lure as /lɔr/ is common in England, where the poor/pour merger is prevalent. But I’m not sure I trust Wiktionary on the pure/poor split after noticing that they give /ˈlɔrɪd/ rather than /ˈlɜrɪd/ as an alternate pronunciation for lurid. This seems utterly wrong to me; it’s definitely not the pure/poor split that I grew up speaking.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Peter, my point was that in my mind, there’s multiple correct pronunciations for “lure”.

  3. dw says:

    A nice near-minimal triple is safari-sorry-story.

    For me (native near-RP), “safari” has the vowel of FAther (or START), “sorry” has the vowel of LOT and “story” has the vowel of FORCE. And “fury” has the vowel of CURE.

  4. m.m. says:

    So for ‘general’ western speech, we can take it to be cot-caught merged and horse-hoarse merged. ‘Sorry’ would fall into the cot-caught and ‘Horrible’ into horse-hoarse, so it would seem that, unlike canadians, they do distinguish between the two.

    I think the only way ‘horrible’ could be an allophone of ‘goat’ is in accents where ‘goat’ is still a back rounded near monophthong, which isn’t the default in western speech, esp. where its beginning to unround & front.

    Point of interest: in american accents where they are horse-hoarse merged and cot-caught is generally realized as more [ɔ] like [ie. western pennsylvania accents], how do they deal with sorry-horrible? I’ve read that accents like this keep [ɑ] before /r/, but I find it hard to digest, esp. when my ‘sorry’ can be either [ɑ] or [ɒ] (I also don’t see [ɔ] as an allophone of ‘horrible’, which Ive always associate as [o]) Perhaps my lect is just really messed up? xD

  5. ella says:

    It should be noted that there is more than one type of Canadian English. The differences are perhaps less dramatic than those between BrE dialects or even AmE dialects, but they do exist, and it’s not just Newfoundlanders & TheRestofUs. That being said, I don’t know enough about NIrish English to make any definitive statements, but my mum frequently said that the accent in the part of Southern Ontario where we lived seemed to be strongly influenced by Northern Irish English. Perhaps there might be a connection?

  6. Mary says:

    Until age 30, I lived in 4 midwestern U.S. states: Illinois (till age 1), Ohio, Kansas, Missouri, and have lived in the eastern U.S. in central Pennsylvania for 20 years. In my dialect, horrible, porridge, and sore–and Oh!–have the diphthong vowel /ou/, poor is pronounced /’pu ɚ/, and sorry has the vowel /ɑ/–the same one, I think, that I use in father and merged cot and caught.

    • Ellen K. says:

      What do you mean by your dialect? You mentioned 3 or 4 different areas of the country (depending on where in Missouri, Illinois, and Kansas), so at least 3 different dialects. Do you mean in your individual speech? If so, that would be your accent or your idiolect, not your dialect.

      • Mary says:

        S/ɑ/rry about that; I stand corrected–my idiolect. I will point out, however, that on most linguistic maps of the U.S. I have seen, I have not observed widely divergent phonemic differences among (1962 central–Peoria not Lake Michigan) Illinois, Kansas, and (Kansas City) Missouri.

  7. ella says:

    *sub ‘accent’ for ‘dialect in there if you prefer.

  8. Sooryan FM says:

    Some Californians use the ”or” vowel in -sorry, tomorrow-. But I guess it’s a minority.
    I’ve heard some Canadians use the ”are” vowel in -tomorrow- (but never in -sorry-). [Speaking of rounding, most Canadians have a rounded vowel in DOLLAR except from males from Toronto or people in St. John’s NF, but Valley Girls, people from Pittsburgh and Boston round the DOLLAR vowel as well].

    Lucy Punch did a convincing American accent in ”Bad teacher”…I thought she was American until she pronounced -sorry- with a rounded vowel (”or)” which was enough for me to go to Wikipedia and see where she was from.

    • m.m. says:

      Re: males from toronto lacking rounded DOLLAR – sources? D:

      I’ve always been under the impression that DOLLAR was a pro-rounding environment, especially in non atlantic canadian accents. Feels a bit disappoing, like when I met a 20yo native torontonian with no signs of the canadian shift or canadian raising, birthing his nickname ‘fauxrontian’. He makes up with it by speaking french though xD [come to think of it, I didn’t bother to ask how he pronounces “sorry” or check for ‘bag/egg’ raising. next time!]

    • darren says:

      i bet she didnt actually change her natural accent, its just those give away words like ‘sorry’ that ID’d her as a Canadian

  9. Sooryan FM says:

    According to the Harvard Dialect Survey:
    the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (4.95%)
    b. as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (11.37%)
    c. as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (7.09%)
    d. as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (73.38%)
    e. other (3.20%)

    Some states where General American is spoken:

    Colorado:
    11. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (11.59%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (1.62%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (1.89%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (83.56%)
    e. other (1.35%)

    Arizona:
    11. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (7.25%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (1.55%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (3.11%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (86.53%)
    e. other (1.55%)

    Utah:
    11. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (10.98%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (0.58%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (2.31%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (84.39%)
    e. other (1.73%)

    Nevada:
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (11.94%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (1.49%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (80.60%)
    e. other (5.97%)

    Idaho:
    11. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (7.35%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (1.47%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (1.47%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (86.76%)
    e. other (2.94%)

    Vermont:
    11.the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (7.59%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (1.27%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (1.27%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (89.87%)

    California:
    11. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (7.25%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (2.54%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (1.97%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (87.57%)
    e. other (0.67%)

    New Mexico:
    1. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (10.92%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (6.72%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (1.68%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (79.83%)
    e. other (0.84%)

    compare with New Jersey (the land of ”Flahrida, ahrange, hahrrible):

    11. the first vowel in “Florida”
    a. [o:] as in “flow” (“flow-ri-da”) (2.67%)
    b. [] as in “ah” (“flah-ri-da”) (33.41%)
    c. [] as in “saw” (“flaw-ri-da”) (18.10%)
    d. [] as in “sore” (“flore-i-da”) (43.01%)
    e. other (2.79%)

    source: http://dialect.redlog.net/staticmaps/q_11.html

    • Tom says:

      I grew up in southern New Jersey and now live in eastern PA. For me, it’s:

      Flawrida, awrange, hawrrible

      But we also have had a condo in Florida for a few years that we visit about once a month, so maybe my pronunciation of “Florida” has evolved slightly.

      Someone mentioned the various pronunciations of “dollar”, but in my area it often comes out as “dah-wer” (the Philly accent).

  10. Randy E says:

    Trawicks wrote: “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.’”

    Either I’m an atypical Canadian or the the vowel in “flaw” is pronounced differently in the US than it is in Canada. The vowel that I use in “flaw” does not sound to me like the vowel I use in “sorry”, “borrow” and “tomorrow”. If I were to use the vowel that I use in “flaw” in “sorry”, “borrow”, and “tomorrow”, I feel like the pronunciation would sound more American than Canadian.

    I’m far from an expert on these matters, but I feel like the “o” sound in “sorry” only exists before “r” in typical Canadian speech.

    • darren says:

      Yeah I wonder if that is a typo, because the premise is that the word sorry would be pronounced as sore-y and that it is typical of Canadians to pronounce it that way, as oppose to the American pronounciation “Saw-ri”

  11. gaelsano says:

    Very good points all around, but I think the truth is FAR FAR simpler than most of you are realizing. Cot-caught mergers have no place in the discussion. Conditioned mergers, et al are irrelevant.

    Look at the merry-Mary-marry merger. The most logical (in my auto-didactic opinion) is re-syllabification. /mE.ri/ /mE@r.i/ /m{.ri/ become /mE@r.i/

    Merry and marry re-syllabifiy and become SQUARE. **TENSE**

    Mirror and nearer become NEAR. **TENSE**

    “Sorry” becomes “sahr-y” or START. **LAX**

    Because of the father-bother merger, you have a starry-sorry merger. /stA:r.i/ and /stQ.ri/ become /stA:r.i/ and /stA:.ri/ which are both realized as [stAr.i ]

    “Courier” becomes “cur-i-er” or NURSE. **LAX**

    “Hurry” becomes “hur-y” or NURSE. **LAX**

    So, for Americans (non-NYC/Boston), what happens with “horrible” and “orange”? Is it “NORTH-i-ble” and “FORCE-ange”? I posit that Americans have a FORCE-NORTH merger and Brits have a NORTH-FORCE merger. Horrible and orange both become FORCE, just as trawicks post in the title. (Congrats!)

    This is why Americans pronounce “sort” (NORTH) differently from “sought” (THOUGHT). Americans who are cot-caught un-merged do NOT use the same vowel for “sort” and “sought.” Some Americans may use [O:r] like a rhotic Brit in “sort” but it’s an underlying /o@r/. There is no way to test this, though, since no one in the world has a PALM-LOT-THOUGHT-NORTH-FORCE separation.

    Except some Irish speakers, but they have NORTH as LOT + R and not as THOUGHT + R. Celtic-area speakers are not good samples because they exhibit very little R-breaking or coloring or smoothing. (Scottish English has identical vowels +/- R in TRAP-START LOT-NORTH KIT-DIRT DRESS-FERN STRUT-NURSE FACE-SQUARE GOAT-FORCE PRICE-wire MOUTH-sour cute-CURE)

    So why does “sorry” sound more like “sahr + y” and why does horrible/orange sound more like “hoar + i +ble/oar ++ ange”????

    SIMPLE! Tomorrow and sorry are everyday words. “Sahr-y” sounds closer to prestige accents than “Sorey.” There is no correlation between Americans choosing to re-syllabify with a tense or lax r-controlled vowel. It’s a red herring; Americans simply chose the r-controlled vowel that sounded closest to the prestige accent!

    • gaelsano says:

      I should mention that Cambridge pronunciation dictionary SORT OF agrees with me on the LOT-THOUGHT-NORTH business.

      It shows that people who do have THOUGHT in the USA use /Q:/ a unique phone. I agree.

      But then it shows NORTH as [O:] to match British NO(R)TH and THOUGHT.

      That I disagree with wholeheartedly. It makes the cot-caught merged/unmerged baffling to a Brit, especially a non-rhotic one. I’ve heard a fake American accent say “I went to cot (court).” I think Americans can use [O:] or [o:] but to prevent confusion, use /o:r/ for the phoneme which is closer to the original /o@r/ of FORCE. Before the onslaught of public school vocab lessons which taught me many new words in a FORCE-NORTH merged accent, I pronounced the two as [fo@rs] and [norT]. I’m half cot-caught merged but my true THOUGHT words like “call” and “straw” were [kQ:l] and [strQ:]

  12. Sooryan FM says:

    I guess re-syllabification is the way to go.
    In the American West you get LAW with [ɑ] but LAWYER with [ɔ],
    LAWYER has suffered ressyllabification from law-yer to lawy-er,
    so LAWYER is pronounced as if it were spelled LOYER, it rhymes with TOYER: ”One who toys; one who is full of trifling tricks; a trifler”

    • gaelsano says:

      Exactly! Without resyllabification, the cot-caught mergers would say LAH-yer. Since LAW-yer is impossible, they re-syllabify to LOY-er since it mirrors the prestige accent. If you have newscasters all over the world saying LAW-ye(r), you can’t switch to saying LAH-yer.

      Is English unique in this? Brits re-syllabify EYE-dee-a to EYE-dee(r) and Yanks and Canucks change hurry and marry and merry and horrible and orange. It seems widespread.

      I think this regrouping phenomenon can only happen in languages with diphthongs or triphthongs.

      My Mandarin is very weak, but it seems that there are two competing pronunciations for consonant+iong (in Hanyu Pinyin).

      Yong could be seen as kind of like ee-OO-uhng. One way of smoothing seems to be saying it as ee-UNG (with the sound of “put”). The Hanyu Pinyin writing seems to endorse this. Another way seems to be EW-uhng (with the French [y] as in “deja vu”). This way is endorsed by the semi-syllabary Zhuyin Fuhao.

      Hanyu Pinyin says it is i+ong. Zhuyin Fuhao says it should be u*+eng. The underlying phonology is initial+medial+final or i+u+eng. You have other instances of smoothing like u+eng is “weng,” but du+eng is “dong” (with the sound of “put”). No phonemic mergers, however.

      The question is, is one rendering favored by speakers who have a hard time with the /U/ or /y/ phone respectively?

      • dw says:

        Without resyllabification, the cot-caught mergers would say LAH-yer. Since LAW-yer is impossible, they re-syllabify to LOY-er since it mirrors the prestige accent.

        “Lawyer” has the CHOICE vowel (LOY-er) in most British English varieties , even ones with distinct COT-CAUGHT. I’ve only heard “lawyer” with the THOUGHT vowel (i.e. LAW-yer) in the US, and not often even there, even though that must logically have been the original pronunciation.

  13. Anders says:

    Nice site!

    Slightly off-topic, but have you tried anywhere to contrast two accents (eg British RP and General American) by showing two IPO vowel charts with, in each case, the ‘live’ vowels circled?

    I think this would be a nice way of making the contrast (at least in vowel term) clear.

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  15. arien says:

    Dialect or not, the correct pronunciation of horror is “whore-er” as all dictionaries have it.