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I've always heard it pronounced /bɒld/ (rhymes with scald, for those of you who don't know IPA), however the dictionary and some of my friends say /bɔ:ld/ (rhymes with mauled). I'm British, by the way. Any insights? Please say where you're from with your answer.

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    mauled, bald, scald all have the same vowel (as in mauled) where I come from (US Upper Midwest by way of US East Coast). If I'm interpreting the IPA correctly, you're saying "bald" rhymes with "dolled" in your neck of the woods.
    – Hellion
    Jan 28, 2016 at 21:16
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    There are British speakers who don't rhyme bald and skald? I regularly learn something new from this site. (Of course, Brits will probably be equally surprised that there are Americans who don't rhyme cog and log.) Jan 28, 2016 at 21:19
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    @PeterShor Which parts of the US? Which one do they pronounce "weird" (i.e. not rhyming with hog, slog, bog, dog, etc).
    – Dan Bron
    Jan 28, 2016 at 21:25
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    With an 'o' as in dog: halt, vault, false, golf, doll, dolled. With 'or' as in torn: walk, sort
    – Renoized
    Jan 28, 2016 at 22:37
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    @sumelic: no. rolled has the same sound as bold. Short 'o' sound. As in cold, fold etc. Bowled has the longer vowel.
    – Charl E
    Jan 29, 2016 at 0:18

1 Answer 1

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The pronunciation of "bald" as /bɔ:ld/ is older. What seems to have happened historically for some speakers of British English is phonemic shortening of the sound /ɔ:/ to /ɒ/ in some cases when it comes before a consonant cluster /lC/ (where C stands for any consonant). This change, and the resulting variation in pronunciation, is described in the following post on John Wells's phonetic blog: scolding water. Here is the relevant paragraph:

It is well known that words like salt can have either ɔː or ɒ. Although I have continued to prioritize ɔː in LPD I have to confess that the most recent poll I did on salt showed a sharp trend of change over time in the direction of ɒ. The youngest age group voted 71% for the LOT vowel. Only 34% of my own age group voted that way, which accounts for my bias in favour of THOUGHT in this and similar words (i.e. words in which the vowel is followed by l and a voiceless consonant — alter, false, fault, waltz etc.). Where the consonant after the lateral is voiced I believe there is less variation. Nevertheless I recall that my mother pronounced scald as skɒld, which was odd because she had the expected ɔː in bald, alder etc. (Why, even as a child, did I think her pronunciation of scald was odd?)

I also found this Livejournal post about it: scolding slurry, which suggests that it is connected to the loss of the LOT-CLOTH split in most modern forms of standard British English. Apparently, another environment where shortening occured was in words like austere (listed as having the CLOTH vowel /ɒ/ by the British Library). This shortening is further discussed in this article by Piotr Gąsiorowski: The History of [ɔː]: Is There Regular Orthographically Conditioned Sound Change?; Gąsiorowski mentions a few more words with exceptional /ɒ/ such as sausage, laurel and cauliflower. I'm not sure if any American dialects that maintain a distinction between the vowels of COT and CAUGHT show the effects of such shortening in salt and related words; it seems to be mainly a British phenomenon.

It appears that your dialect shows shortening of /ɔ:l/ before voiced consonants as well, such as /d/. But this does not apply before the secondary cluster /ld/ formed when verbs that end in /ɔ:l/ are followed by the past suffix /d/. (There are attested sound changes with conditions like this in some other dialects of English, such as the Scottish vowel length rule or the distinction between words like freeze/frees and bruise/brews in Geordie.)

So for you not only halt, vault, false, alternative /hɒlt/ /vɒlt/ /fɒls/ /ɒlt.../, but also bald, scald /bɒld/ /scɒld/ have the same vowel as golf, doll, dolled /gɒlf/ /dɒl/ /dɒld/. But walk, maul, mauled /wɔ:k/ /mɔ:l/ /mɔ:ld/ have the same /ɔ:/ as torn, sort: they were not shortened because the first one lacks a pronounced /l/, the second one lacks a consonant after the /l/, and the third one has a consonant cluster only across morpheme boundaries.

The Oxford English dictionary (OED) lists alternative pronunciations with /ɒl/ instead of /ɔ:l/ for halt, vault, false, fault; but not for bald and scald. This fits with what Wells says about most speakers only having shortening before clusters of l + a voiceless consonant. However, there also seems to be some word-by-word variation, as in the case of Wells's mother.

Unfortunately, there's not a huge amount of evidence for the outcome of words with /ɔ:l/ followed by a voiced consonant, because I can't find any other common words that end with auld/ald. But here are some test words with this sound in the middle of a word; I'd be interested in knowing how you (or any other British English speakers) pronounce them:

  • cauldron (OED only lists /ɔ:l/)
  • alder/alderman/alderwoman (OED lists /ɔ:l/ and /ɒl/)
  • baldric (OED only lists /ɔ:l/)
  • thraldom (OED only lists /ɔ:l/; I'd assume the morpheme juncture means no one uses /ɒl/)

This analysis is just based on your described pronunciations. I have no personal experience with this; I'm American with the COT-CAUGHT merger, so I have /ɑ/ in all of these words.

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    I'm a Brit, SSBE speaker. I have /ɒ/ in [ halt, vault, false, alternative] as well as [doll] and [dolled], but I have /ɔ:/ in [bald] as well as [scald]. However, many dictionaries give /ɔ:/ for [false]. It wouldn't surprise me if there were a substantial number of people who say /ɒ/ in [bald]. I'll look it up in LPD tomorrow. Just off the top of my head, I can't think of any words which - I think - I or my SSBE peers here in London would pronounce /ɒld/ at the end, unless the /d/ was a suffix. Jan 29, 2016 at 0:21
  • The problem with /ɒ/ in bald and scald is that it causes ambiguity in meaning because of the existence of bold and scold. "He was a /bɒld/ man" - it really could be either if you don't know that the speaker favours /bɔ:ld/.
    – Tim Down
    Sep 6, 2017 at 10:32
  • @TimDown: Well, that's only true for speakers that merge /oʊl/ into /ɒl/ in that context.
    – herisson
    Sep 6, 2017 at 11:57

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