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I grew up speaking a variety of American English that merges the "short U" sounds before L. The "short U" sounds are the vowels in the words STRUT and FOOT. For me, before an L sound, all words have the vowel from FOOT—that is, for me bull, full, and pull rhyme with dull, gull, and null.

According to Wikipedia, The Atlas of North American English mentions this as one of four mergers before /l/ that may be under way in some accents of North American English, and which require more study. So this merger is known to exist, but it is not well understood the range and extent of the merger.

Regardless, I'd like to have a full grasp of standard American English, so I have set to the task of memorizing which -UL- words have the STRUT vowel (which I always pronounced with the FOOT vowel). Are there a set of rules I can use to predict if a "short U followed by L" word will have the STRUT vowel?

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2  
Where in America does dull rhyme with bull? I've never heard anyone say it that way, and I've been all over the country, incl. Alaska and Hawaii. –  Robusto Oct 26 '12 at 19:09
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Even if you had an extended conversation with someone who has the merger, you probably wouldn't notice it unless you were listening for it expressly. But, fwiw, I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area, though I have met people from Southern California with the merger too. –  nohat Oct 26 '12 at 19:17
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STRUT and FOOT have nothing like the same vowel for me, so I am confused. STRUT like CUT and SHUT has /ʌ/ while FOOT and PUT like ROOT and ROOF have /ʊ/. Which of those two do you have for both STRUT and FOOT, or do you have something else again? Yes, Californians, especially from the south, do have a bunch of odd mergers. –  tchrist Oct 26 '12 at 19:50
    
@tchrist STRUT and FOOT are separate vowels for me, except before L, which case I only have the FOOT vowel. –  nohat Oct 26 '12 at 20:58
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@tchrist- For me ROOF and ROOT have the same vowel as SHOOT, although I know lots of people who rhyme them with PUT. –  Jim Oct 27 '12 at 6:32
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1 Answer

Using the CMU pronouncing dictionary, I gathered all the words that have the STRUT vowel (ARPABET AH1 ) or the FOOT vowel (ARPABET UH1) before an L sound. Then I eliminated all the rare words, most proper names, and the etymologically related words, leaving only roots:

FOOT words

bull      Fulbright  pull
bulldoze  full       pulley
bullet    fulsome    wolf
bulletin  Fulton     wool
bully     Pulitzer

STRUT words

adult       gulf        pulp
bulb        gull        pulse
bulge       gullet      pulverize
bulk        gullible    result
compulsion  gully       revulsion
consult     gulp        scull
convulse    gulped      sculpt
cull        hulk        skulk
culminate   hull        skull
culpa       indulge     stultify
culprit     insult      sulfur
cult        lull        sulk
cultivate   lullaby     sullen
culture     medulla     sultan
culver      mulberry    sultry
culvert     mulch       tulsa
divulge     mull        tumultuous
dulcet      mullah      ulcer
dulcimer    mullen      ultimate
dull        mullet      ultra
emulsion    mulligan    vulcan
engulf      multi       vulgar
exculpate   null        vulnerable
expulsion   occult      vulture
exult       promulgate
gulch       propulsion

Words which, according to at least one dictionary, could be FOOT or STRUT

boulevard
ebullience
fulcrum
fulminate
pulpit

Then I set about to analyze the lists to see if I could find any patterns, and then devise a set of rules I could use to determine when to use the STRUT vowel and when I could use my native FOOT vowel.

We will call a "short U" followed by L a "UL"

  • Default: ordinarily, UL words have the STRUT vowel (e.g. cull, vulgar, gullet, ultra)
  • F-rule: UL words preceded by F have the FOOT vowel (e.g. full, fulsome)
  • B/P-rule: UL words preceded by B or P have FOOT if that is the end of the word, or the next sound is a vowel (e.g. bull, bullet, pull, pulley, but not bulb, pulse, pulverize)
  • exceptions: wolf, wool

Interestingly, only a labial consonant (/b/, /f/, /p/, /w/) followed by UL can have the FOOT vowel, and then, only in some cases.

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Where does inculcate fall? –  Robusto Oct 26 '12 at 19:20
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I do not think of FOOT and WOLF as having exactly the same vowel for me. The first one is a bit higher, but the second is dark-L-colored. But WOOL and WOLF are the same, so I think the t is raising it in FOOT. –  tchrist Oct 26 '12 at 19:52
    
Interestingly, there are no minimal pairs for this distinction before L. So, it should come as no surprise that the distinction is leveled in some dialects. –  nohat Oct 26 '12 at 21:32
    
I pronounce the OL of WOLF at the back of my mouth, drawing my tongue back to partially close and make the OL sound. There is little or no labiodental. Possibly called "dark L". –  MετάEd Oct 27 '12 at 3:25
    
See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L-vocalization –  MετάEd Oct 27 '12 at 3:31
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