I have 2 young daughters who like many their age are currently obsessed by "Frozen". I watched it for the first time last night and actually ended up googling to work out whether Elsa's sister is name Anna, or Arne. It seems the former is correct but there is no way I could pronounce it that way. Is this a general trend in N.Am English or does it only apply in certain cases?

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    Maybe your ears were mumbling :-) – andy256 Apr 7 '14 at 0:27
  • What, front vowels becoming back vowels? – tchrist Apr 7 '14 at 0:47
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    It's Anna, but pronounced the Italian way, not the English way. It's not a general trend; some names in American English have variant pronunciations that they don't have in the U.K. (For Anna, it's possibly because we have a lot of Italian immigrants.) – Peter Shor Apr 7 '14 at 2:05
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    In the movie, though both characters Anna and Elsa speak in General American English, Elsa says here sister's name as /ɑːnə/, or how a Brit might spell it 'ar-nuh'. It is not a common pronunciation in the US, and sounds very European. In GenAmE, 'Anna' is normally pronounced as /ænə/. So, there is no trend here in AmE, it's just that's how the name is supposed to be pronounced for the film. – Mitch Apr 7 '14 at 2:08
  • @PeterShor also in the UK they tend to pronounce Italian long "a" like /æ/ as in pasta. – phoog Jun 16 '16 at 0:52

As other people have mentioned in the comments, this does not in any way reflect a general process of vowel-backing in American English.

In fact, almost the reverse is true: the phoneme /æ/ has actually been moving further back in many forms of British English (some transcriptions use the IPA symbol [a] to represent the British pronunciation of this vowel) and there are regional varieties of North American English where /æ/ is fronted to something like [ɛə] or [eə] (this is a feature of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift that keshlam mentions). While /æ/ may be backed to some degree in other regional varieties of North American English (a more back realization of /æ/ is supposed to be common for speakers of Californian English, for example), it is quite unlikely that a British English speaker would hear any North American English speaker's /æ/ phoneme as the British English /ɑː/ phoneme.

So the difference here is not just a detail of pronunciation; it's a difference in the actual phonemic identity of the vowel (whether it belongs to the set of words with the "PALM/SPA" vowel, or the set of words with the "TRAP" vowel).

In most cases, I would not say this is due to a sound change; it's due to different strategies for adapting loanwords to English phonology. Many loanwords show this kind of variation between the TRAP phoneme (/æ/) and the PALM phoneme (/ɑː/). In some cases, the choice between the two variant forms basically occurs at the individual level. For example, as far as I know, both British and North American speakers may pronounce the vowel in the second syllable of "Iraq" as either /æ/ or /ɑː/.

In other cases, the choice is basically constrained by the regional variety of English that the individual speaks. Most British English speakers can only have /æ/ in "pasta," while most American English speakers can only have /ɑː/ in this same word.

In loanwords from European languages such as Italian , it seems that British speakers are more likely to adopt "a" as /æ/, while North American speakers are more likely to adopt "a" as /ɑː/. (In part, this may be due to the generally backer realization of /æ/ in British English that I mentioned earlier: the stereotypical realization of the /a/ phoneme in European languages is a neutral IPA [ä], and British English /æ/ may be closer to this than American English /æ/).

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    Some people have the THOUGHT vowel in palm and calm. – tchrist Jun 16 '16 at 11:56
  • @tchrist: I didn't come up with the name of these lexical sets. PALM has its problems as an example word, but it's more or less standard. However, I did mention "spa" the first time I mentioned PALM to clarify which vowel it means. – herisson Jun 16 '16 at 12:25

For that specific example, I'd check what the source culture is for the name. It probably isn't of North American origin, which would make it orthogonal to the rest of your question.

However, I'm going to cite http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Cities_Vowel_Shift... there is an apparent vowel shift in progress in some parts of the US. I know a few linguists who are absolutely delighted by the opportunity to actually be able to watch a vowel shift occur.

  • Disney animated movies would never have a character who spoke with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift; people wouldn't be able to understand her. – Peter Shor Apr 7 '14 at 2:07
  • No harder to understand than a mock-Scots accent... – keshlam Apr 7 '14 at 2:09
  • You're right … a toned-down mock Scots accent and a toned-down mock Northern Cities accent could both be quite comprehensible, while the most extreme examples of the real thing aren't. – Peter Shor Apr 7 '14 at 2:16
  • I find most accents can be understood given a bit of time for the ear to adjust, especially when visual cues are available to supplement them. (I grant that when all you have is voice over a lousy teleconference line and you haven't spoken with that individual for any significant amount of time, it's more difficult.) – keshlam Apr 7 '14 at 5:03

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