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What's the pronunciation of the word "waft"?

The audio pronunciations at Google and dictionary.com say it rhymes with "raft", i.e. with a long "a" sound.

Merriam-webster.com and dictionary.cambridge.org instead pronounce it more like the word "soft".

Which pronunciation is correct? Are both pronunciations considered correct?

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    You might want to include the IPA pronunciations from your sources for comparison. – Matsmath Aug 21 '16 at 3:40
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The word has multiple pronunciations, as shown by the multiple transcriptions in the dictionaries that you cite: Merriam Webster lists "\ˈwäft, ˈwaft\" and Cambridge lists "US /wɑft, wæft/" in its dictionary of American English and "UK /wɒft/ US /wɑːft/" in its dictionary of British English.

Using raft and soft as examples is problematic because both of these words have multiple pronunciations. I'll use other words with more stable vowels as references (unfortunately, they don't rhyme). The first pronunciation listed for the US, /wɑft/, has the vowel found in the word lot. The second pronunciation listed for the US, /wæft/, has the vowel found in the word trap.

In general, dictionaries list pronunciations in order of how common they are, so it seems /wɑft/ is more common than /wæft/. I don't know of any general opinions about which pronunciation is more "correct", but if one was widely considered incorrect, the dictionary would probably mark it with an obelus, as in Merriam-Webster's entry for mischievous "\ˈmis-chə-vəs, ˈmish-; ÷mis-ˈchē-vē-əs, mish-\", or a note, as in Merriam-Webster's entry for ask "\ˈask, ˈäsk; dial ˈaks\." I checked Charles Harrington Elster's Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations (an amusing, and sometimes informative work, but definitely not a good reference for impartial evaluation of pronunciation variants) and even Elster accepts either "WAHFT or WAFT." In my experience, he's a good example of the kind of person who thinks dictionaries aren't prescriptive enough, so if there was any common prescription for which one to use I'd expect him to mention it.

An interesting side point: neither of the American pronunciations seems to me like quite what I would expect based on the spelling. I was expecting */wɔft/ (with the vowel of soft, for people who have a different vowel in that word from the vowel in lot) to be a possible pronunciation, but I haven't found any dictionary that lists it. I wonder if there's anyone who uses it anyway. (Currently, it doesn't seem very likely: tchrist left a comment saying "I've never heard /wæft/ nor /wɔft/, only ever /wɑft/" that received one upvote.)

Another thing I learned is that most Americans use the lot vowel /ɑ/ in waffle (although Merriam-Webster lists a second pronunciation with the soft vowel /ɔ/) and either the lot vowel /ɑ/ or the trap vowel /æ/ in quaff (although the American Heritage Dictionary lists a third pronunciation with the soft vowel /ɔ/).

(If you're confused about how lot and soft could be pronounced with different vowels, read this Wikipedia article: "Cot–caught merger". The reason I expected a pronunciation with /ɔ/ to exist is described in the previous section of that article: "Lot–cloth split".)

  • Waft rhymes with neither soft nor raft. It has the FATHER vowel -- not the CLOTH/THOUGHT vowel of soft nor the TRAP vowel of raft. – tchrist Aug 21 '16 at 5:02
  • @tchrist: It's more complicated than that, which is why I avoided using those words as references. Both of the cited dictionaries list pronunciations with the TRAP vowel after the pronunciation with the LOT vowel. So it seems that for some Americans, "waft" does rhyme with "raft." It rhymes with "soft" for many speakers with the cot-caught merger. – sumelic Aug 21 '16 at 5:13
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    I've never heard /wæft/ nor /wɔft/, only ever /wɑft/. I don't have the merger: lot and soft have different vowels for me. – tchrist Aug 21 '16 at 5:17
  • @tchrist: I haven't seen any evidence for /wɔft/ yet. It just struck me as odd that this pronunciation doesn't exist when we compare the word to similarly spelled words like squash, swath, soft, oft, loft. Can you think of any other word that ends in /ɑft/ for you? I guess quaff looks like it shows similar variation between LOT and TRAP, although AHD also lists a variant with CLOTH. So for some people, "waft" might rhyme with "quaffed." – sumelic Aug 21 '16 at 5:23
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    Yes, waft rhymes with quaffed for me. – tchrist Aug 21 '16 at 12:44

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