British Library

conservative RP TRAP, glad, /æ/

TRAP, glad, /a/

audio clippings from the website

This provides good examples of how to sound British /æ/ and /a/. Koreans have historically and almost unanimously been more partial to the American accent; it takes me way too long to recognize that /a/ is a different phoneme from /ɑ/.

Now, the chart stirs up another curious question for me. I read at Wikipedia, in English phonetic history, that /a/—not the /a/ above, an open front unrounded vowel, but the open central unrounded vowel—is the origin of both /æ/ and /ɑ/, and that this /a/ changed progressively into the /a/ above, and next into /æ/. Then why does BL call /æ/ 'conservative' compared with /a/ in RP?

  • 1
    Thanks for the link to the BL website - that's very interesting and useful! I'm going to post a link in our Resources page on Meta. Jun 15 '14 at 14:54
  • 3
    Nothing surprising. The opening of /æ/ has been in progress in BrEn since the 1950s. That's why you won't even find /æ/ in the 8th edition of Gimson's Pronunciation of English (Cruttenden 2014).
    – Alex B.
    Jun 16 '14 at 0:33
  • 1
    The real original English 'a' vowels, in Old English, were /æ/ and /ɑ/. These collapsed into one vowel in Middle English, which then split. What's 'conservative' depends on how far back you go. Jun 17 '14 at 0:57

The BL explain their use of ‘conservative’ this way:

Conservative RP refers to pronunciations associated with older RP speakers and contemporary RP refers to newer, innovative pronunciations common among younger RP speakers, but not yet accepted as ‘the definitive’ RP vowel.

That is, ‘conservative’ and ‘contemporary’are employed with reference to current developments, not those in the fairly distant past. The conservative pronunciation of this phoneme as /æ/ is that now employed by older RP speakers, and the innovative contemporary pronunciation as /a/ is what younger speakers are now adopting. It is merely an historical curiosity that the innovative usage is in fact a ‘reversion’ to an earlier stage of pronunciation. Contemporary pronunciation obviously cannot be influenced by pronunciations so distant in time that they are no longer heard.

However, a question which is not addressed here is whether the innovative pronunciation is influenced by historical survivals—that is, are young speakers adopting the /a/ pronunciation from contemporary dialects which have preserved that historical pronunciation?

  • A Korean website says that “in 60~70s land and lend were pronounced similarly. Yet after years the tongue position has moved quite lower and made some difference as of now.” Maybe this is the turn-off for the returning(?). When I first read, in Wikipedia, /a/ moved even further to /ɛ/ in some dialects, I imagined onto how much up the /a/ would go. It’s returning to her old home?
    – Listenever
    Jun 15 '14 at 22:44
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    @Listenever Well, in my part of the American South, <land> is often /læjən/, which is halfway to /aɪ/ Jun 15 '14 at 22:52
  • Is this what you're saying? wikipedia "In the Southern United States, the pattern most characteristic of Southern American English does not employ æ-tensing at all, but rather what has been called the "Southern drawl": /æ/ becomes in essence a triphthong [æjə]. However, many speakers from the South have the nasal æ-tensing system described above, particularly in Charleston, Atlanta, and Florida; and certain speakers from the New Orleans area have been reported to have a system very similar to the phonemic split of New York
    – Listenever
    Jun 15 '14 at 23:02
  • @Listenever Precisely. I'm sorta dubious though about Wikipedia's characterization; it seems to me that diphthongalizing æ with a tenser, higher,fronter glide is a sort of tensing, too. Jun 15 '14 at 23:08
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    I don't think land and lend were ever pronounced the same. Maybe more similarly than they are today, but they were always distinguishable to native speakers. Jun 16 '14 at 20:26

In conservative RP the gap between the frontal vowel in lend /e/ and land /æ/ was definitely closer than today, /ɛ/ and /a/ respectively, but still distinguishable. Check out any BBC clips from the '50s and you'll see the difference.

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