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I was under the impression that all Americans pronounced aunt like the insect, ant (/ænt/), or relatively similar sounding variants such as the southern aint (/eɪnt/). According to both Webster and ODO, some Americans pronounce it as ah-nt (/änt/, /ɑnt/, or /ɔnt/) which is pretty close to the British ah-nt (/ɑ(:)nt/). Webster offers a similar alternative for the contraction, can't.

Who are these Americans who favour the British pronunciation?

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The IPA transcriptions are US /ænt/ and UK /ant/. One can use a macro /ā/ or colon /a:/ for the UK one, depending on transcription habits, but vowel length isn't phonemic in any dialect of English, so a simple /a/ will do. I do think that questions and answers about pronunciation in a written medium should try to use standard English phonemic symbols. Otherwise, how do we avoid confusion? –  John Lawler Jan 2 '13 at 19:16
You mean, which of us pronounce it the right way? –  KitFox Jan 2 '13 at 20:08
I can't tell what pronunciation you're asking about: the one that sounds identical to the insect, or the one that doesn't? –  Marthaª Jan 2 '13 at 20:36
I must second @JohnLawler’s plea: please please please use standard notation. IPA is not that hard, at least for English phonemic purposes. I believe the five American pronunciations of the word aunt are /eɪnt/, /ænt/, /ant/, /ɒnt/, and /ɔnt/. See, those aren’t that hard, are they? And now we all know what everyone is talking about. –  tchrist Jan 2 '13 at 23:14
@tchrist, actually, I still don't know what everyone is talking about. Which of those bits of gibberish represents the pronunciation that is identical to the insect, and which represents the pronunciation that rhymes with "gaunt"? –  Marthaª Jan 3 '13 at 0:43
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4 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The Northeast.

This US dialect splatter chart shows that just over 75% of Americans pronounce aunt and ant (the bug) the same. It’s broken down further, but the ~ohnt pronunciation is primarily from the Northeast.

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More specifically, New England (including Boston). If you look at the breakdown by state in the survey you cite, around 82% of the people pronounce "ant" and "aunt" the same in New York and New Jersey, while only 14% do in Massachusetts. –  Peter Shor Jan 2 '13 at 19:54
I'm from Massachusetts. I say Ahnt. It's your parent's sister, not an insect. :) –  user45567 Jun 6 '13 at 14:30
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This may not be the answer; however, I just wanted to add this.

I have always thought why the digraph <au> in aunt has a TRAP vowel variant, whereas the same digraph receives LOT/THOUGHT vowels in other set of words. After reading Christopher Upward's The History of English Spelling, I have found an answer.

Spelling change and pronunciation change

<aun> > <an>

aunswar > answer
haunde > hand
daunce > dance
braunche > branch
avauntage > advantage

<an> > <aun>

hanch > haunch
vant > vaunt

No spelling change, but variant pronunciations


Variant spellings

gauntlet vs gantlet
staunch vs stanch
gauntry vs gantry
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Going by etymonline, aunt comes "from Anglo-French aunte, Old French ante (Modern French tante, from a 13c. variant)". Weren't/aren't all these French words pronounced like /ɑ(:)n/ ...? –  coleopterist Jan 3 '13 at 4:37
Most of them are of Fr Origin. From Christpher Upward's book: "AU before N was common in both Norman Fr and Central Fr, hence widely used in words of Fr origin (so much so that words of OE origin like answer, hand were ocassionaly written aunswar, haunde, etc., in ME)." I dont have the exact page number since I have a kindle ebook. –  RainDoctor Jan 3 '13 at 6:41
Thank you. That is slightly at contretemps with etymonline's line of reasoning. Any idea what the OED says? –  coleopterist Jan 3 '13 at 14:32
Forms of aunt: ME–15 aunte, ME awnt, ME– aunt; ME–16 ( mi, thi) naunt(e, 18 dial. noant. OED lists aunsware, ME–15 aunswer(e, for answer, and haunde for hand as well. Well, pure etymology does not settle the issue; we need to look at the spelling history of various words to come with a hypothesis that unifies many disparate facts; that's what Upward's 'explanation' does. Sure, one can present a better explanation that Upward's. –  RainDoctor Jan 3 '13 at 17:47
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I've found two groups of people who pronounce aunt that way. First, many New Englanders (people from the Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) do so. Also, many African-Americans from the East Coast also pronounce aunt that way, whether or not they are from New England.

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Um... which way? one rhymes with 'grant' the other with 'lawn' (with an extra 't'). –  Mitch Jan 2 '13 at 20:14
@Mitch There are at least five, although you can think of them as four if you would like. See above. –  tchrist Jan 2 '13 at 23:20
@Mitch: grant and font, please. Dawn and Don do not have the same vowel for many of us. –  Peter Shor Jun 6 '13 at 17:35
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It's a matter how you treat diphthongs in your vernacular. I'm from Virginia and on average we say the AU not the AN for pronouncing our uncles wife. The same can be said for daughter, which is Dawter, not Dwater or Dotter.

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Welcome to ELY, Danny! You mention a diphthong, but I bet you don’t use one. There are five different pronunciations of the word aunt in North America, yet the only one with a diphthong is the rarest of the 5. It’s the one that sounds just like ain’t, like when Andy Griffith (from North Carolina) on his eponymous TV show would refer to his Aunt Bea as if it were spelled “Ain’t Bee”. Also, to talk about pronunciations here, you really need IPA notation. The 5 ways to say aunt in IPA are ① /eɪnt/, ② /ænt/, ③ /ant/, ④ /ɒnt/, and ⑤ /ɔnt/ — with a diphthong in #1 alone. –  tchrist Dec 21 '13 at 2:17
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