Fella, Winder, Tomorrah: ‘-Ow’ Reduction

Back in my musical theatre days, I couldn’t get enough of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic melodrama Carousel. I’m still a fan, but wish somebody would retool the libretto; many of the show’s lyrics and dialogue are penned in a goofy pseudo-New England accent, as evinced by this gem:

Carrie: You been actin’ most peculiar,
Every morning you’re awake ahead of me,
Always settin’ by the winder.

Julie: I like to watch the river meet the sea.

With the orthographic oddity ‘winder,’ Mr. Hammerstein indicates what might be called ‘-ow reduction.’  In various accents, when the vowel in ‘flow‘ occurs at the end of a multi-syllablic word (as in ‘window‘), it is reduced to a schwa (the little ‘uh’ sound in ‘comma,’ represented by ə). Hence ‘window’ becomes ‘winda‘ or ‘winder,’ ‘pillow’ becomes ‘pilla,‘ and ‘fellow’ becomes ‘fella.’

This feature is often attributed to Cockney, Irish, American Southern, and New England English. Like many other ‘pan-dialectical’ features, this one most likely involves ease of articulation. Words like ‘fellow’ and ‘window’ are a tad clunky because they feature a stressed short vowel followed by an unstressed long vowel, possibly creating the urge to render that final /o/ a schwa.

Here’s another literary example, from The Red Badge of Courage, this time with the word ‘tomorrow:’

“We’re goin’ t’ move t’morrah–sure,” he said pompously to a group in the company street. “We’re goin’ ‘way up the river, cut across, an’ come around in behint ‘em.”

What’s odd, though, is that despite this feature’s attestation in so many Englishes, I’ve rarely encountered a spoken example. I see two possible reasons for this. On the one hand, the feature may have simply receded in contemporary speech. On the other, it possibly never spread beyond the broadest vernaculars in the first place.

Either way, it’s something of a puzzle: why did such a ‘useful’ feature never really become a part of ‘mainstream’ English?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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15 Responses to Fella, Winder, Tomorrah: ‘-Ow’ Reduction

  1. Stephen says:

    It seems like its presence in American musical theater is very rooted in its being an East Coast feature. At least, the reduction [oʊ]>[ə]/[ɚ] seems to reflect the broader hyper correction of [ə] to [ɚ] (e.g. pronouncing ‘idea’ as ‘idear’, [aɪ'diɚ]), which I associate with working class New York City and New England accents. It could have become a sort of acceptable tool for the composer of musical theater, a trick that the composer can use to make a difficult rhyme (It brings to mind how different genres of Greek poetry and prose tended to use different dialectal features – chorsuses in Doric, essays in Ionic – irrespective of the actual author’s origin).

    Also, this reminds me of Pittsburghese, where stressed ‘ow’ [aʊ] is realized as [aː], which is a different reduction but a similar monophthongization of a [ʊ] dipthong.

    • As far as I know, these types of pronunciations actually can be pronounced with sandhi /r/. I don’t have my copy of Wells on me at the moment, but I believe he mentioned the possibility that Cockneys can pronounce, say, ‘Is the window open?’ so that it is more or less ‘Is the winder open?’

      • Stephen says:

        I’d never heard/read it called “r sandhi” but that makes sense. In an episode of As Time Goes By, Judi Dench’s character is visiting Paris and looking out the window at the rain outside and has this exchange with her partner’s character:
        -“Il pleut”
        -“What?”
        -“I said, ‘Il pleut’.”
        -“Oh, bon!”
        -“It isn’t bon at all, it’s pleuring!”

        I always wondered where the ‘r’ came from! I figured it was common enough for words in British English ending in vowels to have an etymological ‘r’ that shows up in other forms, so it gets added on by analogy to other words. I guess it’s all part of the same bag.

        • koj says:

          it may also be called an intrusive or epenthetic (sp?) /r/. In many non-rhotic or ‘r’-less dialects, notably standard British English (which is my native dialect) words that end in a schwa especially that are followed by a word beginning with a vowel get a little /r/ attached to the end.

  2. Paul Scott says:

    It’s odd to me that you’ve rarely encountered a spoken example of this feature. I’ve heard many spoken examples of it in my lifetime.

    • I’ve heard it among speakers of Hiberno-English (i.e. Irish English). No doubt it is still a feature of many dialects to this day. What I find interesting, though, is that it never became a feature of’informal register’ Standard English the way a number of other features have (e.g. pronouncing ‘going’ ‘goin,’ or contractions like ‘gonna’ and ‘gotta’).

      • Paul Scott says:

        I see what you mean. It does seem like “gonna”, “gotta” and “goin” are much more common than “winda” and the like.

    • m.m. says:

      Ive heard it too, and not by particularly broad speakers. though they were all older speakers.

  3. Tom says:

    I hear this all the time in the Philly area, especially with “tomorrow”. I even do it myself sometimes at the end of a workday; just feels friendly to say, “See ya damarrah!”

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    ‘Follow’ as ‘Fella’ feels completely natural to me.

    But ‘hollow’ and ‘holler’ (Appalachian valley) AND ‘holler’ and ‘holla’ (loud yell) really confuse my natural feeling when they all get mixed together in my head.

  5. AW says:

    It’s commonplace in England, and not just in Cockney.

    Words like yellow and (wheel)barrow

  6. FMJ says:

    When I was a child living in the Missouri Ozarks, I always heard “window,” “fellow,” and “hollow” pronounced “winder,” “feller,” and “holler.” When I started to school and saw these words in print, I thought they were a separate set of words, and that some objects just had two names. It was the same with “pajamas” and “pajammers.”

  7. Rodger C says:

    To me, “holler” is a noun and “holla / hollow” an adjective. West Virginia, b. 1948, town working-to-middle-class. To me this vowel reduction is part of normal spoken register, but perhaps I haven’t noticed its fading among younger people.

  8. Tom says:

    This was in the New York Times today, referring to Clint Eastwood’s recent convention appearance, particularly his backstage preparation:

    “There was a stool there, and some fella kept asking me if I wanted to sit down,” Mr. Eastwood said.

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