Hond Begs: Belfast /a/ Allophony

Belfast Mural

Titanic Mural, Belfast

Inner-city Belfast is one of the trickiest accents for the average American to understand. Confusing factors include the unique intonation (everything sounds like a question to my ears) and diphthongs (‘bite‘ sounds like American ‘bait‘).

Yet the Belfast ‘short-a‘ is one of the most serious comprehension barriers. Whereas Americans pronounce words like ‘trap‘ and ‘cat‘ with one or two vowel allophones*, such words have a whopping five variations in Belfast.

And not just minor variations, either! The title of this post references the broad Belfast pronunciation of ‘hand bags,’ with ‘hand’ pronounced close to the American vowel in ‘lawn,’ and ‘bag’ close to American ‘beg’ (hɔnd bɛgz).** Other /a/-variants in Belfast include the æ typical of American ‘cat,’ the a typical of Northern English ‘cat,’ and the ɑ as in British RP ‘can’t.’

Are there rules for which /a/ word is assigned to which vowel? James Milroy, who studies Belfast sociolinguistics, notes some generalizations***. Words that end in /g/, /ng/, /sh/ and sometimes /k/ have a front or even raised realization (hence ‘bag’ = ‘beg’). Certain words ending in /n/ are back and sometimes rounded (hence ‘hand’ = ‘hond’ and ‘man’ = ‘mon’). Other /a/ words have the centralized vowel typical of much of Ireland and Northern England. But there is tremendous variation, with numerous exceptions and quirky little rules.

So what’s with all the different /a/’s? One might expect it has something to do with vowel lengthening rules. As in Scotland, Northern Irish English has a pattern of long vs. short vowels depending on their phonological environment. But these rules don’t offer us much help here: as per John Wells, the Northern Irish /a/ in words like ‘trap’ is long unless it comes before /p/, /t/, /k/ or /ʧ/. This obviously doesn’t explain the Belfast pattern.

Other dialects offer interesting parallels, however. The fronted or raised /a/ before /g/ (as in the ‘bag’=’beg’ thing) suggests a phenomenon called ‘velar pinching.’ One finds something similar in Western North American accents, where ‘bag’ and ‘bang’ are pronounced with an /ɛ/ or an /eɪ/. Why this ‘pinching’ pops up in such different parts of the English-speaking world is a mystery.

Meanwhile, the pronunciation of words like ‘hand’ with a back and/or rounded vowel is attested in Glasgow****. I’m not sure what the connection is, but as Northern Ireland and Scotland have historical and linguistic ties, this is not surprising.

So perhaps Belfast /a/ is so inconstant because of its many influences: Scottish English, Ulster Scots, various types of Hiberno-English and perhaps some English regional dialects as well. Urban English in general exhibits a lot of variation in the ‘trap’ vowel (note also New York and London). Belfast is especially extreme, but not unprecedentedly so.

*An allophone is, roughly speaking, an alternate way of pronouncing the same basic sound.

**Since ‘hand bag’ is arguably a compound, I’m not entirely sure about this. I’m just using it as a theoretical example.

***Milroy, P. (1991). The interpretation of social constraints on variation in Belfast English. In J. Cheshire (Ed.), English around the world: Sociolinguistic perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

****Stuart-Smith, J. (2004). Scottish English: Phonology. In B. Kortmann & E. W. Schneider (Eds.), A handbook of the varieties of English. Berlin: Mouten De Gruyter.


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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11 Responses to Hond Begs: Belfast /a/ Allophony

  1. m.m. says:

    “One finds something similar in Western North American accents, where ‘bag’ and ‘bang’ are pronounced with an /ɛ/ or an /eɪ/.”

    the raising in “bang” could be generalized to the entire western north american area, but the same cant be said of “bag” whos area is limited from the pacific northwest to the north central area in the states and basically stays above the 41st parallel

    • I don’t mean to suggest that’s true of all Western North American accents. Raising of ‘a’ in ‘bang’ strikes me as fairly common throughout the US these days. With /g/-raising the isogloss is a bit more idiosyncratic with regards to the international boundary. I’ve heard it among young Torontonians, but my impression is the line is further West south of the border.

      • Kelly W. says:

        The New York City area (and maybe other nearby regions) is one area that doesn’t seem to have raising of the “a” in “bang”

    • Peter S. says:

      ‘the raising in “bang” could be generalized to the entire western north american area, but the same cant be said of “bag” whos area is limited from the pacific northwest to the north central area in the states and basically stays above the 41st parallel’

      Not historically. My mother did it; she comes from central Illinois, and her parents from central Indiana and Missouri, all well below the 41st parallel.

  2. George J. says:

    An important thing to note here is that Belfast English (and Ulster English in general) has a totally different vowel system from American English. There is no distinction between “palm” and “Pam” there. So “map”, “pass”, “palm”, etc. are all in the same class (it’s up for debate whether “knack” is also in this class if it is homophonous with “neck”).

    Here is a very detailed description of Belfast Vernacular English from the book Language in the British Isles (Trudgill 1984). It says that the short, front allophones of /a/ (the merged TRAP-PALM vowel) come from South Ulster English and the long, back allophones come from Scots. It also says there is sociolinguistic variation, as you can see. Later in the book, there is a table that compares the /a/ allophony of an inner city, working class Belfast speaker to that of a suburban, middle class speaker. The inner city speaker had many allophones of this vowel, whereas the outer city speaker had the same allophone ([a]) in all the words they looked at.

    • George J. says:

      Here’s the link. My apologies.

    • Nice link! I had a similar suspicion that those back allophones might be related to Ulster Scots, since /ɑ/ is quite common in such words in Scottish Scots (although I know very little about Ulster Scots).

      Milroy says very much the same thing about class: this allophony is found very little among ‘outer-city’ suburbanites. I’d hazard to guess it’s something of a covert-prestige marker in the inner-city.

      • George J. says:

        Milroy said it had something to do with “strong ties” in the inner city vs. “weak ties” in the outer city in the book I linked to (and probably in the one you cited too). I didn’t read all of it. Google books won’t let you anyway.

  3. Mark Colbert says:

    I’ve heard some Belfast accents where it doesn’t sound (to my ear anyway) like there is any difference between the arr of marry and the ar of tar.

  4. Sooryan FM says:

    Northern Irish accent is not that difficult to understand:

    • Dennis says:

      She doesn’t speak “Belfast vernacular”, which is what we’re talking about here. She’s from Derry, as they say in the video.