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Sorry has two pronunciations in my dictionary: ˈsärē and ˈsôrē. The first is the one I am interested in because, as someone pointed out to me, the or pattern in English is nearly always pronounced as "oh-r" not "ah-r". At the time, I couldn't think of any other words that pronounced or as "ah-r" but overheard someone say "tomorrow" and realized there are a few others:

  • tomorrow
  • sorrow
  • morrow
  • horror (the first o and only in some places)

The question is this: Is there a commonality between these words that allow for a är (ah-r) pronunciation? Perhaps a similar history? Does the double-r make the difference?

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In General American, I believe tomorrow, sorrow, morrow, borrow, sorry, and sometimes orange is pretty much a complete list of words with /ɒr/ in British English which have become /ɑr/ in American English. The rest have become /ɔr/ (except in New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the Carolinas, as explained in @ESultanik's answer). I don't believe anybody knows why it happened with just these words. –  Peter Shor Sep 14 '11 at 21:53
    
@PeterShor I certainly have /ɔr/ not /ɒr/ in sorrow, morrow, borrow, sorry, and depending on my mood and the phase of the moon, occasionally in tomorrow, too. –  tchrist May 23 '12 at 12:31
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2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The words you list all contain what is called an "intervocalic /r/". As danorton mentioned in his answer, in Received Pronunciation an "o" preceding an intervocalic "r" is pronounced as /ɒ/ (like the "o" in "lot" or "orange"). This pronunciation also occurs in Boston, USA. In Canada, the "o" is pronounced /ɔ/ (as in "cord"). In much of the mid-Atlantic (e.g., New York, Philadelphia, and the Carolinas), the "o" is pronounced /ɑ/ (as in "card"). In the remainder of the US, the pronunciation varies between /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ depending on the word. The words you gave as examples are usually pronounced with /ɑ/, whereas words like "horrible", "origin", and "Florida" are usually pronounced with /ɔ/.

In conclusion, this phenomenon varies by dialect. It is also related to the "horse–hoarse merger," in which the vowels /ɔ/ and /o/ are merged when preceding an /r/, thus making words like horse/hoarse, for/four, war/wore, or/oar, morning/mourning, &c., homophones.

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These two pronunciations are very typical differences in dialect and I suspect that your reference is from an American English dictionary. The first pronunciation is typical of dialects around the U.S. Great Lakes (historically influenced by Irish immigrants — including some of my ancestors) and the second is closer to Standard British (Received Pronunciation).

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