The Goose Room and the Foot Room


Photo: Tim Collins

Some differences in pronunciation cross traditional dialect boundaries. One such curio is the word ‘room,’ which has two common variants: one with the vowel in ‘goose,’ and the other with the ‘lax’ vowel in ‘foot.’

I use the vowel in ‘goose’ myself, but I’ve heard many New Englanders opt for the vowel in ‘foot.’ Connoisseurs of British Received Pronunciation might note a similar pronunciation in older varieties of RP. Another example of New England’s linguistic connection to old England? Not quite. In the Harvard Dialect Survey from some years back, participants claimed to pronounce ‘room’ with the ‘foot’ vowel in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other American cities.

The HDS survey also inquires about other ‘roo-‘ words: ‘root,’ ‘roof,’ and ‘broom.’ Many respondents claimed to pronounce these with the ‘foot’ vowel as well. It seems safe to say that, once upon a time, ‘roo-‘ words belonged to the same class as ‘foot,’ ‘would,’ ‘could,’ and ‘book.’ Why ‘roo’ words switched vowels where those other words didn’t is something I can’t answer.

Similar questions have been posed on the other side of the Atlantic. A few years back, John Wells noted on his blog that British ‘room’ had been shifting from the ‘foot’ vowel to the ‘room’ vowel for some time:

In the 1956 edition of EPD (and perhaps earlier — I haven’t checked), Daniel Jones, while still prioritizing the FOOT vowel on this word, commented, “Note.—The use of the variant ruːm appears to be much on the increase.” This suggests that previously it had been unusual. I conclude that in the 1920s rʊm would have been the more usual pronunciation in RP.

(Earlier in the post, Wells notes that the rate seems to be 81% of Britons favoring the ‘goose’ vowel as of 1988).

Are there any conclusions we can make about how these two pronunciations might align with particular dialects? As Wells suggests, the ‘foot’ pronunciation of ‘room’ seems older, so one would expect it to correlate with age. As for American English, I have noticed the ‘foot’ pronunciation more frequently in working-class speakers (the two memories that spring to mind most readily are those of a strongly accent Boston priest and Chicago police officer.)

Beyond these tentative connections, however, this seems to be one of those wonderful exceptions in which pronunciation transcends region.


Apropos of the above citation: John C. Wells, a brilliant phonetician and one of linguistics’ most insightful bloggers, is currently recovering from a minor stroke. I wish him the speediest of recoveries.


About Ben

Ben T. 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 Goose Room and the Foot Room

  1. m.m. says:

    like the harvard survey, the ANAE has a section on “roof” with strong regional correlation in north america, and noting it doesnt seem to occur in canada, the mid atlanic and minimally in the south.

    interestingly, the wiki entry for “Shortening of /uː/ to /ʊ/” claims that these -roo- words are a continuation of the shortening process. its interesting to see that it might be the reverse.

    the direct link to well’s post for ease:

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    Wolf as Woof could be a further symptom

    • Ellen K. says:

      I don’t follow. A further symptom of what?

      Wolf as woof is simple L dropping, as far as I know. Which can’t be what you meant, since that’s not something that’s been brought up in this post, nor in the one comment before yours.

    • Pedro Alvarez says:

      It is more of w-coloring. cf. wood, wool, wolf, woman, woolly.

  3. Eugene says:

    I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in North Dakota/Minnesota. Both /rut/ and /rʊt/ were familiar forms of root; both /ruf/and /rʊf/ were acceptable pronunciations of roof. On the other hand, room was always /rum/ and broom was always /brum/.
    Is this really an example of language change – where directionality is the issue – or is it a question of two competing forms that drift according to what is fashionable? In other words, both forms crossed the Atlantic and have been kept alive in different dialect areas.

  4. trawicks says:


    Thanks for pointing out that link snafu. I’ve changed it so it goes right to his site.

    It may be that it was a continuation of the process. If it was indeed the ‘new kid on the blog’ in that respect, it was one of those interesting shifts which reverse quickly.

    @Charles Sullivan,

    I think that’s indicative of l-coloring. I have the foot vowel in ‘wool,’ ‘bull’ and most other ‘ul’ type words. More advanced cases of l-coloring (I’m thinking Western PA) take this further, including words like ‘Julie.’


    It’s probably a bit of both, depending on what dialect you’re talking about. As Wells’ post suggests, it seems that the FOOT vowel was de rigeur in British RP up until a certain point. That sounds like a genuine shift to me, even if fashionability was the precipitating factor. In most American dialects, though, this seems a case of the latter situation.

    • Julie says:

      I’m a native of northern California with fairly heavy L-coloring, and I do pronounce my own name with ʊ. In fact, I think that my pronunciation must be fairly common here, since it really jumps out at me when someone pronounces it with [u:].

  5. Peter S. says:

    If this is a case of an initial consonant affecting the following vowel, there seems to be precedent. The words ‘ward’, ‘warp’, ‘wharf’, ‘warm’, ‘warn’ are all pronounced with /ɔː/, and the words ‘worm’, ‘word’, ‘worse’, ‘world’, ‘work’ with /ɜː/, despite their spelling.

  6. gaelsano says:

    You’ve got the order all mixed up.

    John Wells was also pretty short-sighted in using FOOT over alternatives like PUT. I also disagree with his use of GOOSE and CURE.

    Words like “moon” and “boot” were a unique tense vowel, not a “long u” or anything like that. Let’s call them GOOSE.

    Now let’s separate the “long u” words, like “used” and “refute”. These had already merged with “new.” (Due-dew merger). Let’s call them USE.

    Using GOOSE for both is quite bad because the USE words are not “yod + double O” sounds. They are more like a diphthong. This is coming from an American with no ewe-you merger. To me, those are “long u” and “yod + double O.”

    For some reason some of the GOOSE words (only those with double O) merged with the PUT set. “Flood” acquired the PUT vowel. Then most of the PUT words became a new set, STRUT. “Flood” and “but” got the STRUT vowel.

    Later, many more GOOSE words adopted the PUT vowel. They were to late to catch the connecting train to STRUT. “Book” tried to catch up with his buddy “flood” at PUT, but “flood” had already moved onto STRUT.

    “Room” was like “book” and got only as far as PUT. Vowels like THOUGHT, PUT, and STRUT aren’t as powerful as the other vowels of English, especially given their tendency to merge with other vowels or never be distinguished to begin with.

    The CLOTH set has been moving back to LOT for a long time. In Britain, the return is complete. I have words like “dog” back at LOT-PALM but “off” remains as THOUGHT. Some vocabulary textbooks have THOUGHT and LOT separate, but the CLOTH words are all at LOT.

    The BATH words are also returning to their “natural” home at TRAP in Britain.

    We have BATH, CLOTH, and I’ll add a new set, ROOM. If you compare GenAm, New England, Canada, Ireland, and England you’ll see that many “OO” are different in their distribution.

    The pattern seems to be BATH returning to TRAP, CLOTH to LOT, ROOM to GOOSE. Partly borne out of spelling pronunciation, partly born out of the strength of certain vowels.

    If I wrote the made-up word “stog” and said it was English, most everyone would place it with LOT and not THOUGHT.

    Likewise for “zast” and “proom”.

    • trawicks says:

      I wouldn’t say that PUT makes for a better name for that lexical set than FOOT; I don’t think there’s any ideal word than sums up that set. ‘-ook’ words are bad because they join with GOOSE in Northern England; ‘-ull’ words because there is quite a bit of variation there with regards to the STRUT set, thanks to l-coloring; and ‘put’ is tricky because of the relative lack of ‘u’-spelled words in FOOT.

      I’m a little unclear what you’re arguing about the GOOSE set. That GOOSE and USE should be treated as separate sets?

    • Peter S. says:

      Is it worth it to create a new lexical set for one minimal pair: ewe and you? Are or there more words that I don’t know about affected?

    • Pedro Alvarez says:

      It is good to separate both sets: one with the diphthong /ɪu/; the other with /u/. From wiki, “Some accents of Southern American English preserve the distinction in pairs like loot/lute and do/dew by using a diphthong /ɪu/ in words where RP has /juː/, thus [lut]/[lɪut], [du]/[dɪu], etc.”

    • m.m. says:

      BATH is returning to TRAP in britain?! O_o

  7. Richard says:

    I believe the goose pronunciation is very much the norm in Northwest England. It’s common to feign a Scouse (Liverpudlian) dialect with the phrase “cook book”, both using the goose vowel along with a slightly guttural K’s.

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  10. Alyssa says:

    I lived in southern NH for fourteen years and grew up pronouncing room like rum. I also pronounce broom brum. I just moved to RI and everyone thinks its hilarious. I was half an hour out of Boston. I also say rabbit like rubbit but I think that’s more of a smaller area dialect.