GOOSE backing

In SSB, the vowels of GOOSE and GOAT begin with a central quality, but before /l/ in a syllable coda many speakers produce them as back vowels. To illustrate, here from the online Collins dictionary are food and fool, followed by their initial portions:

And here from the online Cambridge dictionary are code and coal, followed by their initial portions:

This backing of GOOSE and GOAT can be seen as the spreading of the coda-/l/’s darkness into the preceding vowel. The phenomenon is of phonological interest because many speakers maintain the backing even when suffixation makes the /l/ pre-vocalic. This means there’s a potential contrast between backed wholly (whole + ly) and non-backed holy, and between backed ruler (‘one who rules’, rule + er) and non-backed ruler (‘measuring stick’; the historic boundary in this word seems to be no longer transparent). To the extent that conditioning factors are lost, a split is considered to have occurred.

For some speakers, GOOSE and/or GOAT are actually replaced before coda-/l/ by the back vowels THOUGHT and LOT respectively. So for some speakers fool is identical with fall; likewise dole can be identical with doll. The audio for coal in the online Oxford Advanced Dictionary, for example, sounds to me very like a rhyme with doll:

Many speakers have not gone this far, and it’s a theoretical question whether these ‘intermediate’ speakers have extra vowels in their systems.

Transcription fans may be wondering how these sounds might be written down. Using the default transcription system of the CUBE dictionary, it’s fairly straightforward:

conservative (eg my own speech):
code kəwd, coal kəwl
food fʉwd, fool fʉwl

code kəwd, coal kɔl (rhymes with doll)
food fʉwd, fool foːl (= fall)

code kəwd, coal kɔwl
food fʉwd, fool fʊwl

It’s much harder to write these facts within the entrenched RP transcription system. The GOAT facts can be written using əʊ in code and ɒʊ for the backed variant in coal. But the backing of fool is impossible to indicate if, for the unbacked vowel of food, you cling to the IPA back vowel symbol . Actually pronouncing words like goose and food with fully back has not been mainstream for years: this was already being described by John Wells three decades ago as a feature of ‘Upper Crust’ (ie posh, old-fashioned) RP.

The GOOSE-backing facts themselves are widely known; John’s sorely missed blog featured this very nice post about them. But GOAT has tended to dominate discussion of backing. I suspect one of the reasons that GOOSE backing has been less discussed is that it forces you to grapple with the inaccurate and misleading nature of the established transcription. The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, for example, indicates a vowel difference in code and coal but not in food and fool. The traditional symbols tend to push part of the phenomenon out of the picture.

7 replies
  1. Ed
    Ed says:

    Wells said that the pronunciations of the GOAT set are extremely varied. In any given area of England, there are several competing forms. I imagine that this is linked to the fact that the GOAT words historically had different phonemes.

    The examples that you give for GOOSE-allophony in “food” and “fool” seem very Cockney to me. Doubtless they have spread beyond London but not very far. I have read others say that L-vocalisation will come into RP (or whatever you’d like to call it) soon, but I don’t really understand this. T-glotalling and TH-fronting are now so widespread that they are considered non-regional, but L-vocalisation is still considered to indicate a London-based accent.

  2. Popeye
    Popeye says:

    I know this is a blog post from several few years ago, but I’m writing a comment on the hope that you’ll get some sort of notification “ping” so you’ll be able to see it.

    I just wanted to comment that I think I probably fall somewhere into your intermediate category, and think I probably do have extra vowels in my system, phonemically. I think this because I found this post specifically when wondering why there are some vowels missing! Your updated transcriptions for SSB chime much better with my intuitive understanding of my own vowel and seem to match my own pronunciation for the greater part. But where’s the vowel in “ball”? Or the one in “pull”? So whether they’re really allophones of something else or not, it’s confusing enough to me to at least register intuitively that there’s something missing in the set of symbols!

    A confusing factor is that I have l-vocalisation, at least in normal speech, so it doesn’t seem obvious to me how much is down to that. It’s not as pronounced as say a traditional Cockney, but placed with terminal ‘l’ definitely have a sound more of a /w/ than a /l/, even is it’s a kind of half-swallowed /w/.

    But on the other hand, I have a minimal pair in “doll” and “dole” as standalone words in that “dole” is “doll” with a /l/ on the end.

    So if my “intermediate” vowel is best transcribed /ɔw/ as a closing diphthong (as you have it in your article), then where “doll” is /dɔw/, “dole” is /dɔwl/. Now “doll” can also be /dɔl/ to me with a LOT vowel if I use my “posh” register, but it feels a bit forced, and while “doll” is naturally /dɔw/, “dolly” is /dɔlij/. Which might mean you’d think it’s just something funny that a terminal ‘l’ is doing to a vowel something that is inherently another phoneme. But in “dole”, that vowel very much feels like a distinct vowel, a closing diphthong. There aren’t phonemically two ‘l’s in a row in that word to me, one lost in modifying the realisation of some other vowel and then one afterwards realised as a /l/.

    I think I have three vowels like this, whatever you want to categorise them as.

    There’s the one in “dole”, let’s call it /ɔw/, and also in “olden” /ɔwdn/, “alterior” /ɔwtɪ:rijə/, “coal bunker” /kɔwbʌŋkə/.
    There’s one in “fall”, let’s call it /ow/, and also in “awl” /owl/, “alright” /owrijt/, “caldera” /kowdɛ:rə/, “Alton Towers” /owtəntawəz/.
    There’s the one in “pull”, let’s call it /ʊw/, and “full” /fʊw/ and “owl” /awʊw/ so on.
    (I’m not hugely confident in choosing symbols, so don’t fixate on them, but they’re my best guesses for something in the ballpark!)

    Now, first off, these are not GOOSE vowels. I have “ghoul” with that /ow/ vowel, but “goolies” with a GOOSE vowel. Secondly, all these vowels seem to occur with the letter ‘l’. This seems very suspicious! It certainly seems like they might not really separate vowels at all, but rather an affect of vocalised ‘l’s, doesn’t it. But in a lot of these words, the /l/ sound gets inserted as a “linking l” in connected speech. If we go back to “ghoul” then while I might say /gow/ as a standalone word, I’ll put an /l/ in in a sentence. I said I have GOOSE in “goolies”, but this is something that’s actually changed over my lifetime. The word has moved between lexical sets for me. I used to have “goolies” with that same “GHOUL” vowel when I was a kid, but I have replaced it somewhere along the line with what to me is the more “Northern” tendency to put that word that in the GOOSE lexical set. When I was a kid “ghoul ease” and “goolies” would have been homophones. Now I have /gowlijz/ and /gʉwlijz/ respectively.

    So, why might this possibly be something other than just an effect of ‘l’? Well, I suppose as with everything phonemic it ultimately comes down to what things feel like, how you perceive them. These “vowels” feel to me like diphthongs. Where my vowel inventory instinctively breaks into short vowel, monophthongs and diphthongs, these feel like the latter to me. Is there a difference between these three? Yes, actually. In words like “doll” and “ball” and “pull” they do feel different to the other diphthongs, and my perception is that it’s something to do with glottal reinforcement. Maybe a better way to transcribe “doll” might be /dɔwʔ/ rather than /dɔw/. And an awful lot of places these vowels pop up is with these terminal ‘l’s. So maybe it’s just that the glottallisation is just an allophone of /l/, altering the vowel as it does so, and there’s not really a distinct vowel? But the same glottallisation isn’t present when the same vowel occurs at the start of “Alton Towers”, say. And it definitely *does* occur with other diphthongs that no-one questions being discrete phonemes. I naturally have a disyllabic “owl” /awʊw/ (MOUTH vowel, “PULL” vowel), which you might write as /awʊwʔ/ to indicate the glottallisation at the end. But if I produce a monosyllabic “owl” (which isn’t unnatural as such, just not the norm for me) it’d be /awʔ/ in the same way. “Ow” (the cry of pain) and a monosyllabic rendition of “owl” are a minimal pair distinguished by that glottallisation. So there’s nothing special, it seems to me, about “DOLE”, “GHOUL” and “PULL” vowels to prevent them being proper diphthongs. The same happens with the MOUTH vowel (unless one also wants to also say that is really not a distinct phoneme but an allophone of something else!).

    So yeah, bit of a ramble sorry! Hope something in there is interesting. Long story short: in terms of vowels sets even, before you even get to individual vowels, my DOLE/GHOUL/PULL sounds/vowels/whatever feel like closing diphthongs to me. So they won’t ever register as sequences of phonemes involving any kind of short vowels or monophthongs, whatever those specific sequences are. And they’re distinct from all the other closing diphthongs in my vowel inventory!

  3. Attila
    Attila says:

    Dear Geoff,

    I was wondering about jʉwɫ is also backed to juwɫ because of dark l, similarly to what ia found in fool (where there is no yod) and pull. I don’t seem to be able to find the answer in your book After RP.

    Much appreciated,


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] The linguist Geoff Lindsey has made some blog posts mentioning the existence of central or front realizations of /uː/ in “Standard Southern British“, and the tendency to use a more back realization before “dark l”. […]

  2. […] The linguist Geoff Lindsey has made some blog posts mentioning the existence of this front realization of /uː/ in “Standard Southern British“, and the tendency to use a more back realization before “dark l”. […]

  3. […] Geoff Lindsey that talks about the existence of this kind of allophony in British English: “GOOSE backing“). To a lesser extent, my /ʊ/ is also backer before [ɫ] than in other contexts. Likewise, […]

  4. […] Speech Services, GOOSE backing, December 24, […]

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