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Since quite some time I get the impression, that especially in US-American, spoken english the pronunciation of 'e' (as in 'best' — /ɛ/) seems to shift towards 'a' (as in 'flat' — /æ/). Some recent examples:

  • 'election' tends to be pronounced 'elaction' or even 'alaction'
  • 'best friends' tends to be pronounced 'bast frands'

Is it just my impression or is this a trend? Or is it simply me being more often exposed to mostly US-American accents that have been pronouncing it that way ever since?

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Preliminaries

In simple words, when [ɛ] is lowered, it becomes [æ]. It's what's happening in the examples the OP has given. There are a few factors that are responsible for this shift. Two of them are:

Northern Cities Vowel Shift

[ɛ] is an open-mid vowel while [æ] is a near-low vowel. One of the reason that accounts for the lowering of [ɛ] to [æ] is the 'Northern Cities Shift' from the Inland North dialect of the United States (as Legatrix pointed out in their answer). It's a chain shift of vowels through which some vowels have changed their positions in Inland North dialect region.

California Vowel Shift

Another factor is the 'California Vowel Shift' through which some vowels have been shifted in Californian and other Western American accents. So you're hearing them correctly.

From Wikipedia:

California Vowel Shift: [...] /ɛ/ is pulled towards [æ] (wreck and kettle are sounding more like rack and cattle), /æ/ is pulled towards [ɑ], and /ɑ/ towards [ɒ] (cot and stock are sounding more like caught and stalk).

Here's the vowel chart of California vowel shift (CVS) where [ɛ] is indeed lowered to [æ]:

Cali vowel shift


This paper has summarised CVS as follows [modified]:

  • /ɪ/ fronting before nasals (pin-pen merger)
  • /ɛ/ backing and lowering
  • /æ/ raising to /eɪ/ before nasals and lowering and backing elsewhere
  • /ʌ ʊ u o/ fronting
  • /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ are completely merged (cot-caught merger)

There are also other mergers such as the pin-pen merger, which is a merger of /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ before nasals ([m, n, ŋ]). The resulting vowel is usually raised. Homophones include pin-pen, meant-mint, tent-tint etc. It's found in Southern and Western US.


I'm not very well-versed in American accents, but from what I've read, these shifts occur in many American accents. Read the following papers for more details:

And this brilliant ELU answer by tchrist

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  • I see that this shift is well attested in the literature, but as a life-long West Coast American, I cannot recall ever hearing such a thing. Do you, or does anyone have a recording of someone speaking this way?
    – Juhasz
    Dec 9 '20 at 17:52
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    @Juhasz You can hear the cot = caught all over the western U.S. and in central Canada as well. I will attest it exists in the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Saskatchewan, leading me to believe its actual range of usage is even larger. Ask someone who was raised on one of those states to say the word Hockey. They will invariably say Hawky.
    – EllieK
    Dec 9 '20 at 18:21
  • @EllieK I should have been more specific: I was looking for examples of [ɛ] being lowered to [æ]. I speak Western American English, and my accent definitely displays the cot-caught merger, /æ/ becomes [e] before [ŋ], and though I don't say /eɪg/ for egg, I hear it often enough. However, the [ɛ] to [æ] shift seems much rarer to me.
    – Juhasz
    Dec 9 '20 at 23:51
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Here is the relevant paragraph from Donka Minkova's A Historical Phonology of English (2013).

(Note that the vowel you are talking about is /ε/, also referred to as the DRESS vowel.)

As with /i/, the historical ‘stability’ of the short mid front vowel becomes suspect if one looks into the PDE realisations of /ε/. A backing to [ʌ] or lowering towards [a] occurs as part of the Northern Cities Shift; it is also reported for the San Francisco Bay Area and Canadian English. Younger RP speakers are also producing more open allophones of [ε] (Hawkins and Midgley 2005). A strong tendency for raising of [ε], especially in the younger generation, characterises NZE (Trudgill et al. 1998), illustrated by the confusability of, for example, check-in-counter ~ chicken counter. Raising is also common in the Southern US dialects and in north-eastern Newfoundland (Thomas 2001: 18–19). Another allophone involves the insertion of a diphthongal glide, especially in stressed monosyllables before a voiced coda, so that in popular London bed, leg can have [-ei -], and in the American South it can be a fully diphthongal vowel, so that dead is pronounced [dej əd] (Thomas: 2001: 18–19).

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