Father-Bother in New England

New Hampshire and VermontWhen people think of New England accents, they tend to think of the fronted /a/ in words like ‘start’ and ‘car‘ (as in ‘pahk yuh car in Hahvuhd yahd’). This /a/ can sound to outsiders somewhat like the ‘a’ in ‘trap. So if a Bostonian says:

The dog’s bark.

…it might sound to the uninitiated like…

The dog’s back.

This fronted /a/ is also found in ‘broad a’ words like ‘father,’ ‘palm’ and ‘Utah.’ Which brings us to the topic of today’s post.

As I’ve mentioned before, many aspects of New England speech are receding rapidly. (You hear far more r’s among young people in Maine, Boston and Providence than you would have forty years ago.) A new study in American Speech, Farewell to the founders, looks at how the fronted /a/ has changed as well. And the results are slightly surprising.

A noticeable feature of New England accents is the preservation of the ‘Father-Bother’ split. That is to say, in most other American accents, ‘Father’ and ‘bother’ are perfect rhymes, pronounced most commonly with the unrounded ɑ (the same vowel in words like ‘lot’ and ‘cod’). But in traditional New England accents, ‘bother’ tends to be a back vowel (ɒ), while ‘father’ has the aforementioned fronted a.

The American Speech study sampled the speech of a group of natives of the New Hampshire/Vermont border. Being located right on the traditional boundary between Eastern and Western England, it’s a good place for discerning how speech has changed from one generation to the next.

The researchers, unsurprisingly, find that speakers over 60 preserve the FATHER-BOTHER split, while for younger speakers under 23, these two vowels are merged.  What this means, I’m assuming, is that ‘father’ is pronounced with a back vowel like many other American accents.

But here’s where things get interesting: the researchers find that the vowel in words like ‘start,’ ‘car‘ and ‘Harvard’ remains fronted among younger New Englanders. So while this group has shifted the ‘broad a’ in words like ‘father,’ this has not happened for words that end in ‘r.’

Although the article is about Northern New England, I’ve noticed this peculiarity among young middle-class Bostonians as well. ‘Car’ tends to be pronounced with the rather Chicago-like [kaɹ], but you won’t find the fronted vowel in words like ‘Utah,’ where it would stick out like a sore thumb. (Especially in words like ‘Utah,’ which end in /a/: I’m always startled by the traditional New England pronunciation, which sounds almost like ‘you tack’ with the final /k/ removed.)

Why does ‘r change things? Quoth the article:

…even as young speakers are assiduously committed to avoiding salient eastern New England variants, they may “overlook” less stigmatized features. Crucially, this is likely to occur in postvocalic-r words, such as START…we suggest that the young speakers (consciously or unconsciously) have a sense that their rhotic pronunciations will sufficiently “cleanse” such words of traditional eastern variants.

In a nutshell, because these young New Englanders have converted completely* from non-rhotic to rhotic, their rhoticity in a word like ‘start’ might be said to ‘distract’ them from the fronted /a/. Does this seem plausible? Or is there another reason why young New Englander’s might preserve the traditional vowel in ‘start’ (albeit while adding an ‘r’), but not in words like ‘father?’

*The word ‘completely’ is intentional here: the study’s subjects find that, among the younger participants, they are nearly 100% rhotic.

Source: Stanford, J. N., Leddy-Cecere, T. A., & Baclawski, K. P. (2012). Farewell to the founders: Major dialect changes along the east-west New England border. American Speech, 87, 126-169.

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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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27 Responses to Father-Bother in New England

  1. AL says:

    Regarding the “Chicago-like” pronunciation of ‘car’ in Boston, I’ve noticed this too! I’m a transplant to Boston (I grew up in California and Maryland) and I didn’t really become interested in dialects until I moved here. I’ve noticed some people here will speak rhotically but, even as they pronounce the ‘r’ in words with ‘-ar’, the vowel is still not quite the same as how I would say it. In words like car, it sort of sounds like (to my ears) the ‘r’ is tacked on as an afterthought.

    In the study, was it only -ar words that retained the fronted a? And were these rhotic young speakers always rhotic, or could it be something they adopted?

    • trawicks says:

      The study says that all younger speakers had an non-fronted pronunciation of ‘father.’ They also looked at tokens of ‘palm,’ ‘calmer,’ ‘ma,’ and ‘pa.’ They have some more complex statistical data which I don’t have the space to unpackage! (Nor, to be fair, would I probably be able to do so.)

      The study doesn’t mention whether these kids have always beens non-rhotic or it’s a newer phenomenon. The group is pretty young though, born in the late 80’s or early 90’s, so it strikes me as unlikely that they shrugged off once robustly non-rhotic accents given how precipitously r-lessness dropped off after 1970 or so. Although they did find three younger speakers with extremely infrequent non-rhotic pronunciations (no more than 1 token out of fifty).

    • Andrej Bjelaković says:

      Could someone elaborate on the Chicago thing, please? What’s specific about their pronunciation of ‘car’ etc.?

      • trawicks says:

        In marked Chicago accents, the word ‘car’ has a fronted /a/: kaɹ. That means it’s similar to the Boston pronunciation, except with an ‘r’ at the end.

  2. Jerry says:

    I thought that Utah (and Arkansas) were more commonly pronounced with the THOUGHT vowel in their final syllables in America (they are for me), which would mean that they wouldn’t be subject to that fronting process.

    • trawicks says:

      In most American accents, they are pronounced with the vowel in LOT, which for the COT-CAUGHT merged, extends to the vowel in THOUGHT. New England is unusual in this regard.

      • Ellen K. says:

        Hm. Interesting. Because, for me (not COT-CAUGHT merged) Utah and Arkansas have the vowel of THOUGHT, not LOT. That is, rounded, not unrounded.

        Curiously, Wikipedia and Wiktionary differ in how these words are pronounced.

        • Thoughtful Troll says:

          In unmerged NYC (at least for me), the final syllable in Utah is pronounced with LOT, and Arkansas with THOUGHT [the first syllable of Arkansas is LOT though]

        • Luke says:

          And the opposite for me:lot Utah, caught Arkansas.

      • Jerry says:

        I would say most have the THOUGHT vowel in the final syllable

      • dw says:

        In case anyone is interested, British English (well, me at least) has PALM/SPA for “Utah” and “Chicago” and THOUGHT for “Arkansas”.

        My guess is that the first two are spelling pronunciations.

        • gaelsano says:

          I’m from New York (State, not city) and it’s the same for me. But then again, there are very common pronunciations around the USA that sound foreign to me, like CAR-i-BBE-an instead of ca-RIB-be-an or ORE-gon instead of OR-e-GON or Nevada with TRAP instead of PALM. Then of course you have “Florida” as FORCE or LOT. (I’m with FORCE).

          At least it seems that everyone in England can agree on proper nouns. For Worcester, I’ve never heard the FORCE vowel, for example. There are competing pronunciations for many places stateside though.

        • Megan Reardon says:

          That’s funny, because to me Nevada pronounced with the PALM vowel in the second syllable sounds foreign (ditto with plaza).

    • trawicks says:

      I’ll extend my earlier comment a bit, because I fear I may have sounded like an absolutist! In General American English, I think it’s safe to say that LOT and FATHER have the same vowel (at least in run-of-the-mill descriptions of GenAm). But there are many ways in which this generalization becomes cloudy:

      –Most major East Coast cities (at least New York, Boston, & Philly), maintain the distinction between FATHER and BOTHER, but (a.) this is typically only true of some speakers, and (b.) this distinction differs greatly depending on where we’re talking about. Germane to this conversation, FATHER tends to be more retracted than LOT in New York and Philly, but the situation is reversed in Boston. Things also get confusing in NYC, since there is a curious subset of LOT words (such as ‘job’ and ‘god’) which are part of the PALM set for some speakers.

      –For me at least, ‘father’ belongs to the ‘lot’ set, while open syllables like the ‘ah’ in ‘Utah’ tend to lie in the CAUGHT set. But I have a hard time even making this simple generalization about my own accent, since I variably merge COT and CAUGHT.

  3. Daisy says:

    Even though I moved away from Boston 15 years ago and have what’s probably a mostly Midwestern accent now, this completely blew me away. My mind has such a firm notion of those two words sounding very different that I had never even noticed that people here pronounce them as pretty much rhyming. I read that last night and then went and woke my husband up to grill him about how he pronounces them. I can’t believe I never noticed before.

    I can absolutely imagine the accent changing in younger speakers. I grew up speaking with a very working-class sort of Boston accent (of East Dedham/West Roxbury flavor, specifically). When I was about 20 years old, I found myself managing a bookstore way out in the suburbs, and it didn’t take long before I realized that people treated me differently based on whether I spoke with my normal accent or toned it down a bit and tried to pronounce my R’s. There, much more than in the neighborhood where I grew up, there definitely was a perceived class difference. It was hard enough dealing with people’s attitudes when they asked to speak to the manager and found themselves talking to me — I looked maybe all of sixteen — so I started changing the way I spoke.

  4. Ron says:

    Maybe young New Englanders want to sound New England-y, but not too New England-y. Or maybe they just want to sound northern, which would explain the fact that they still use a fronted vowel in the START class, which is shared with other northern accents* (as you said). Or maybe they aren’t near as aware of their accents as I think they are. I’m just thinking out loud here.

    * It’s funny how this is parallel with the situation in England. It seems like there may be other parallels too like the GOAT, FACE and possibly other vowels. But the PRICE vowel of northern England is more like that of the Southern US, but I digress…

  5. Ron says:

    My comment went poof

  6. Peter S. says:

    I (an American) perceive the vowels followed by ‘r’ as a completely different set of vowels than the vowels not followed by ‘r’ (with exceptions for words like tyrant and hero). That is, the vowel in start does not fall into either the LOT or THOUGHT lexical set, but forms a lexical set with other ar words. One way this impacts me is being really irritated at rhymes from non-rhotic accents like lord and fraud (which to me are substantially worse rhymes than, say, cold and road. If the younger rhotic Americans in this study have the same perception, this would explain why the vowel of start is preserved, while that of father is not.

    • gaelsano says:

      I understand your sentiment. I had a hard time adjusting to non-rhotic rhyming in esp British works and the intrusive r was puzzling since I made no connection between the spar is open and the spa is open.

      I supposed my LETTER and COMMA vowels are identical when I thought about them, and my START and PALM as well, but NORTH was different. I realized my NORTH vowel was closer to THOUGHT than to GOAT, and the same vowel phoneme but a very different allophone, slightly higher and fronter and more rounded.

      Naturally, I never thought of the “r” controlled vowels as being linked except for the unstressed LETTER and COMMA. I know that my START is definitely PALM or a very close allophone (plus r), but I don’t think of them as being linked. We think alike here. On the same path, my STRUT and COMMA are usually merged in their position (not in stress, however). Yet I would never consider the “u” in “up” and the “a” in about to be connected at all. Conversely, we probably both think of the l in “light” and in “bell” was being the same even if we use different allophones.

      • Peter S. says:

        Actually, I even think of LETTER and COMMA as different. For example, marine and serene aren’t exact rhymes because the first has COMMA and the second LETTER.

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