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I have a friend who pronounces the vowel in plague, vague, and bagel as [æ] instead of the standard [eɪ] (so plague rhymes with flag, for instance). Interestingly, he apparently can't tell the difference between the vowel sounds (i.e. even when I say [veɪɡ] and [væg] back-to-back, he can't tell me which pronunciation is the one he uses and which is the one I use).

I had at first assumed it was a regional pronunciation, but his wife is from the same relatively small (35k) town in western Michigan, and she uses the standard pronunciation.

Is this shift common in his region (or any other region, for that matter)? Is it otherwise explainable? Any insight would be appreciated.

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I've heard this referred to as the EGG-VAGUE merger, but from what I can tell it seems to be a feature found in quite a few geographically dispersed dialects. (Coincidentally, I am from a relatively small town in western Michigan also, and I don't have that merger either.) –  Mark Beadles Jan 25 '12 at 3:36
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@Mark: I think this is not the EGG-VAGUE merger but something that maybe should be called the BAG-VAGUE merger. Both exist in the U.S. I rhyme egg with vague, but pronounce bag differently from either one (so I have the EGG-VAGUE merger). The BAG-VAGUE merger, although not under that name, has been discussed on the Dialect Blog. I am not aware of any record of a three-way EGG-BAG-VAGUE merger. –  Peter Shor Jan 25 '12 at 4:02
    
@PeterShor - Agreed, he rhymes bag with vague but neither with egg. However, interestingly, the dialect blog discusses raising the /a/ in bag to the same one used in face to get bag to rhyme with vague, however he does the reverse, changing the pronunciation of vague so that it's lowered to that of bag –  Dusty Jan 25 '12 at 16:13
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So, in googling around some, I've found that "Does bag rhyme with vague" is one of the questions on the "What kind of American accent do you have?" quiz: economicpolicyjournal.com/2011/11/… It seems that the BAG-VAGUE merger is a feature of Inland North. I was able to find postings from several people from Michigan who'd taken the test and been found to have Inland North accents who indicated that they did rhyme, and that they went down to "vag" and not up to "bayg". –  Dusty Jan 25 '12 at 18:48
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@Mark: Through Google, I found a few posts from people who claim they do indeed have a three-way EGG-BAG-VAGUE merger. But I suspect both two-way mergers are more common. –  Peter Shor Jan 29 '12 at 15:53

4 Answers 4

This sounds similar to the problems that Chinese speakers have with /e/ and /æ/ (see for example here). Essentially because the sound is not used in their mother tongue, it is confused with a similar vowel sound, in both listening and speaking. It could be that their dialect is so ingrained that they have this problem themselves.

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I come from Toronto, Canada, and a bunch of younger people around here do this. Some speakers only do bag and vague, but I've heard some speakers pronounce bag, vague, and egg all with the same vowel, a sort of (really jarring) intermediate sound between bag and beg.

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Check out the pronunciation of vague used on this site for language learners:

http://pronuncian.com/Sounds/Default.aspx?sound=33+6

As a Brit, this completely threw me, and was the reason for me coming here and reading all your posts.

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That's an excellent example of the merger with vague having the bag vowel, rather than the more usual merger where bag has the vague vowel. I live in the Northeast, and this sounds weird to me, too. –  Peter Shor May 19 at 9:41

I don't see any merger there. All mergers occur between nearby vowels--near by in terms of tongue height, tongue place, and roundness/spread. Even the pre-velar tensing changes the low vowel to a step above--from /æ/ to /ɛ/. Maybe, he is using a spelling pronunciation of sorts: treating plague, vague as plag and vag respectively, with ue becoming silent. Sorry, I can't post this as a comment due to my low score here.

The last part of the podcast discusses this:

http://www.yorku.ca/earmstro/glossonomia/Glossonomia/Glossonomia_Podcast/Entries/2011/10/23_Episode_27__face.html

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This isn't true. From dialect blog, " To Southwesterners, Northwesterners, Western Canadians, and just plain westerners in general, ‘bag’ can rhyme perfectly with ‘vague.’" Dialect blog indeed seems stumped as to how this could have happened (precisely because they're not adjacent vowels), but somehow it did. –  Peter Shor Jan 25 '12 at 12:18
    
The velar certainly does seem to have a strong coloring effect on the vowel. Cf. the effect of the velar nasal in "bang", "ping" vs "ban", "pin". –  Mark Beadles Jan 25 '12 at 16:33

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