The pronunuciation of the words dual and duel is generally given in dictionaries as /ˈd(j)uːəl/.

Thus the two words are homophones.

However, saying these words to myself, I think I detect a slight difference. For me (a native speaker from the northeastern US), duel is more like /du:l/. That is, it would rhyme with fool or stool, instead of with fuel.

Two questions:

  1. Does anyone else make this distinction? Is it a dialectal pronunciation?

  2. Does anyone know of English minimal pairs that contrast /-u:əl/ and /-u:l/?

  • I kind of make the opposite distinction: I pronounce them dual /du:l/ and duel: /dju:əl/. But I think it's the yod I stick in duel that leads me to add the schwa; for me, duel rhymes with fuel and mule. – Peter Shor May 20 '16 at 17:32

They're different for me as well. The pronunciation of duel, cruel, gruel, fuel, jewel etc. with /u(ː)l/ is a simplification of historical /-u(ː).əl/. This is not a feature of all accents, but I believe it's reasonably common. Wikipedia describes it under the broader category of "vile-vial merger," but I'm not sure if this is really a unified phenomenon. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article doesn't seem to cite any scholarly articles that might give more insight into how prevalent this change is, or which words are most commonly affected.

What I've found is that I don't do this for words ending in -ual. So for me, dual and manual still have /-u(ː).əl/. I suspect this difference in my pronunciation is influenced by the difference in spelling: there are many other words where ue represents /uː/, such as glue, but I can't think of any words where ua represents /uː/. It can't be entirely due to some particular status for the suffix -al, since I pronounce real and ideal with /i(ː)l/; that said, I do use /i(ː).əl/ for some other adjectives ending in "eal" that are less common, such as periotoneal /perɪtəˈni.əl/ (from peritoneum perɪtəˈni.əm/).

There certainly are minimal pairs for people with either kind of accent. For people with an accent like yours, duel /d(j)u(ː)l/and dual /d(j)u(ː).əl/ are a minimal pair. For people with accents that always retain traditional /-uː.əl/, jewel /dʒuː.əl/ and joule /dʒuːl/ are a minimal pair. There may be other accents that merge all such words to /u(ː)l/ or /u(ː).əl/ without exception.

  • Does anybody pronounce manual /mænju:l/? I would think that if it gets reduced to two syllables, it would be /mænjəl/. – Peter Shor May 20 '16 at 16:18
  • @PeterShor: I don't know. The only pronunciations I use are /mænju:əl/ and /mænjəl/, but before you commented, I didn't know anyone consistently pronounced "dual" as /du:l/ and "duel" as /duəl/. – sumelic May 20 '16 at 16:28
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    It's surely accent/dialect and that's it... in my home part of the UK (Wales), we tend to use every letter as written, so dual and duel are very different. Contrast that to a south Londoner, though, for whom the pronunciation would converge on a single noise for both these and jewel (the dʒu:l form). – Prof Yaffle May 20 '16 at 16:30
  • @ProfYaffle: It's definitely a matter of accent, but meaningful things can still be said about it. I'm currently trying to find a paper that would describe which accents tend to use which pronunciation. Thanks for your descriptions of the UK accents you are familiar with, that is useful information. There are no accents of English where every letter is pronounced as written... that's not even possible, since letters are digital by nature but speech is analog. – sumelic May 20 '16 at 16:33
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    @sumelic Indeed, it's not literally every letter - but the stereotypical Welsh accent is much more particular and emphatic with each syllable, there are few lazy letters, dropped consonants and the like (so it's lit-er-all-y with equal emphasis, and not li'rally with first-syllable emphasis, or the US lider-ally or anything similar). I think we veer off the OP's topic a little here, though, as this is a treatise in itself. – Prof Yaffle May 20 '16 at 16:47

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