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What American dialects merge "pail" (General American /peɪ̯l/) and "pal" (GA /pæl/) into one pronunciation /pæl/?

(And likewise "mail", "male", "Mal" as /mæl/, "sale", "sail", "Sal" as /sæl/, etc.)

Recording of this dialect here

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 29 '16 at 20:05
  • Thank you for your answers. I am now more convinced that this is an idiolectical feature, not belonging to any dialect. – Joshua Fox Sep 1 '16 at 19:57
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The merger you describe is plausible, but I have not been able to find any references about this neutralization in the context of American dialects. Perhaps it is understudied or has only begun to develop relatively recently.

I don't merge these, but I do use a noticeably different allophone of /eɪ/ before /l/: it's something like [eə̯], similar to the vowel I use in "Mary~marry~merry" (all merged) or the raised allophone of /æ/ I use before any nasal consonant (minus the nasalization). I also use something like [oə̯] for /oʊ/ before /l/. I don't remember seeing much discussion of this allophony, but I think it's common in other people that I hear in California and in the midwest. (To be more precise, these allophones are only used in a syllable that ends with /l/. They aren't used when there's a syllable division between the vowel and the /l/, so I have a contrast between the vowels in "scaly" /skeɪl.i/ [skeə̯li] and "grayly" /greɪ.li/ [greɪli], and "holy" /hoʊl.i/ [hoə̯li] and "slowly" /sloʊ.li/ [sloʊli].)

Wikipedia has information on two similar mergers:

  • the “fell–fail merger" (Wells's DRESS and FACE sets), which it describes as being observed in some varieties of Southern American English. The merged pronunciation is described as [ɛjᵊl], which seems most similar to /eɪl/.
  • the “salary-celery merger" (Wells's DRESS and TRAP sets) which it describes as being observed in some varieties of New Zealand and Australian English. The merged pronunciation is described as being most similar to /æl/.

While the first is geographically closer to the region you're interested in, the second seems more phonetically similar in my opinion to the change that you describe.

The only information about a merger of the TRAP and FACE sets before /l/ that I've found so far pertains to Cockney dialects with l-vocalization (Accents of English 2, by John C. Wells) and the result of the merger is transcribed as [æɤ]. The MOUTH vowel is also merged into this.

  • I hope this is of some use for context, even though it doesn't answer the question at all. I will be trying to research this more in the next few days. – sumelic Aug 28 '16 at 1:54
  • You syllabify daily as /deɪl.i/? That's… rather unusual, isn't it? I would definitely have the same vowel in daily and greyly, (just barely) distinct from the differently syllabified one in, say, scaly. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 28 '16 at 8:45
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Perhaps so. I don't really know; I'd say I've heard it from others, but I don't think I really listen carefully enough to be sure. My pronunciation may have been influenced or reinforced by the spelling. I can also use /deɪ.li/ if I want to emphasize the morphological division, but [deə̯li] is definitely my usual pronunciation. "Scaly" is probably a better example on that side. – sumelic Aug 28 '16 at 8:50
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    It may well not be a merger. The Northern Cities Shift moves /æ/ to /eʲə/ or /iʲə/. A speaker who has shifted, when saying pal, will sound like they're saying pail (or even peel) to a speaker who hasn't shifted. My son's name is Ian /'iʲən/, but every once in a while when I say it, somebody who's shifted hears it as Ann, a girl's name, and asks about it. Pronunciation changes don't happen overnight, or over an entire district, like daylight savings time, you know. They take generations, and they confuse the folks who don't notice their vowels changing. – John Lawler Aug 28 '16 at 15:11
  • Thanks, I added a recording. Does this help? I'm pretty sure that "pail" and "pal" have fully merged. – Joshua Fox Aug 28 '16 at 16:13
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In an earlier comment, John Lawler posted:

Vowels — all vowels in any dialect of English — have different allophones (pronunciation micro-variants) before resonants like /r/ and /l/. There are a lot of neutralizations, especially between tense and lax vowels.

For instance, very few speakers distinguish /u/ as in boot from /ʊ/ as in foot before /r/. Poor, tour, Coors, lurid, sure, cure, dour, during all have the same stressed vowel for most Americans; before /l/, however, there is a distinction between, say, wool and fool.

It’s likely to be unstable, though, unless there’s a common contrast.

In another earlier comment, John Lawler posted:

It may well not be a merger. The Northern Cities Shift moves /æ/ to /eʲə/ or /iʲə/. A speaker who has shifted, when saying pal, will sound like they’re saying pail (or even peel) to a speaker who hasn't shifted. My son’s name is Ian /'iʲən/, but every once in a while when I say it, somebody who’s shifted hears it as Ann, a girl’s name, and asks about it.

Pronunciation changes don’t happen overnight, or over an entire district, like daylight saving time, you know. They take generations, and they confuse the folks who don't notice their vowels changing.

  • Thanks, I added a recording. I'm pretty sure that "pail" and "pal" have fully merged. – Joshua Fox Aug 28 '16 at 16:12
  • Yes, this is before /l/ (no non-standard phonetics pre-/r/). – Joshua Fox Aug 29 '16 at 12:41
  • Canadian English does (mostly) distinguish some of the those forms, thus boot*/*foot are nowhere near each other [but let's not get into the Canadian pronunciation---as perceived by Americans---of about; no, it's not aw-boot], and dour (often) rhymes with sour. – David Handelman Sep 2 '16 at 0:42

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