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There is a large group of words in which /a/ is pronounced [a] or [æː] in most American and some British dialects, but [ɑː] in most British dialects; this group includes past, can’t, fast, etc. This is the BATH vowel.

But there is a much smaller group of words where the relationship is reversed: (all?) British dialects have [a], while American dialects have [ɑː]. This group includes words like tacos and pasta. This vowel does not seem to be covered in any of the normal lexical sets.

The BrEng and AmEng pronunciations of pasta and taco can be heard on the Cambridge Dictionary website for anyone who is curious.

What is the reason behind this reverse distribution?

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    These are all Spanish/Italian words. I don't think I've ever seen a good answer to this question. One thing to note is that the Italian dialects that Americans and Brits typically hear may not be the same, and not all Italian dialects pronounce their "a"s the same. – Peter Shor Jan 7 '17 at 14:23
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    Interesting that the pronunciations of pasta and pastor are apparently swapped on the different sides of the Atlantic. – Andrew Leach Jan 7 '17 at 14:27
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    Shel Silversteen wrote a story about someone who bought an aunt eater as a pet instead of an ant eater, with desastrous consequences. – gnasher729 Jan 7 '17 at 14:32
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    @PeterShor I don't think that answers it. From the context on that page, it looks like they're saying that /a/ has only one variant in Neapolitan, which always counts among the open vowels (unlike /e/ and /o/, which have both open and closed variants). Compare /i/, which is listed as “always closed”. The IPA symbol used there is /a/, which is the same as in standard Italian (as opposed to the /ɑ/ in father). I don't think it's saying that /a/ is [ɑ] in Neapolitan (though I freely admit I don't know much about Neapolitan, and it may well be that it is actually [ɑ].) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 '17 at 15:00
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    @Janus: you're right ... I deleted my comment when I realized that this didn't really give the answer. Now that you've addressed it, it would be nice if I could restore it. But it would be good if an Italian could tell us whether /a/'s are pronounced slightly differently in Sicilian and/or Neapolitan (which are the dialects of Italian that Italian immigrants most likely spoke. – Peter Shor Jan 7 '17 at 15:07
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This is because of differences between which phonetic allophones BrE and AmE select for the perceived /ɑ/ phoneme, partly because AmE has no phonemic length but BrE does, partly because they have an [a] vowel that we do not and which we may hear as [æ].

The Brits do this even with words whose origins lies well beyond the old Roman Empire.

Last week during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s historic visit to the Pearl Harbor, I was stunned to hear the BBC pronounce that gentleman’s surname [ˈæbeɪ]. This is quite close to how one says the English word abbey [ˈæbiʲ].

This wasn’t just one newscaster alone, either, but several. I think I am not alone in finding this bizarre, as our asker’s question illustrates. And I think I now finally know the answer.

Abe is simply /ɑbe/ in Japanese. To an American, that becomes [ˈɑbeɪ], with the only modification an end-of-word off-glide /j/ for the /e/ vowel. To us, can and Khan are a minimal pair between /kæn/ and /kɑn/.

The common trait of many speakers of Southern British English to hear one thing but pronounce another even though it is different tells me that these must be allophones in the same phonemic bucked to them but not so to us. The most likely culprit here is the trap–bath split* where /æ/ becomes for them /ɑː/.

The linked Wikipedia article also mentions that the so-called “short A” of bath, which we use [æ] for, is often [a ~ a̠] in the North but [ɑː] in the South. Notice how none of those is our own [æ]. Our own ears are like to throw all of [ɑ ~ a ~ ɐ] into /ɑ/ for we have no [a] at all.

So I think what’s happening is that the British are reproducing phonemic /ɑ/ as [a] or [æ] because it has no long marker for them as arbor or father would. We don’t do phonemic vowel length in North America, so we are not conditioned to make that sort of phonetic swap.

Because words like taco have no length marker as a hypothetical tarco would, they choose a short vowel there, and for them that’s if not exactly an [æ], at least something we perceive as such. I’m sure they don’t even realize they are doing this.

I think at all is a good illustration of this, because the unstressed /æ/ in at becomes [ɐ] or [ə]. So these Brits hear something they perceive as [ɐ] and therefore render as [æ] under stress, as in apple.

American speakers never do this, so it is bizarre for us to hear.

  • I don't think this quite holds water as an explanation. There are dialects in BrE where (ignoring length) the TRAP and BATH vowels are both [a], while the FATHER vowel is [ɑ]; and there are dialects where TRAP is [a], BATH/FATHER [ɑ]. Note that bath is [baθ] (short vowel) in the former, but [bɑːθ] (long vowel) in the latter—but even in the latter, pasta has the TRAP vowel, not the BATH vowel, whereas in AmE it has the FATHER vowel. So do we just consider this another lexical set that isn't included in Wells’ list (like the [ɑ ~ eɪ] correspondence in tomato)? And why does the vowel in -> – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 '17 at 15:32
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    In American English, there is at least an attempt in many cases to pronounce "foreign" words "correctly" (as they're pronounced in their country of origin), while the Brits tend to Anglicize foreign words. We had a British substitute teacher whose expertise was Cervantes' Don "KWICKS-et," which made us all snicker. We were rude children but familiar with the story of Don "Kee-HOH-tay." This is a gross generalization, of course, but perhaps this tendency is left over from Britain's empire-building era, imposing British pronunciations on "foreign" words? Brilliant answer and great comments! – Mark Hubbard Jan 7 '17 at 16:50
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    @tchrist BrE [ɑː] tends to be further back than its AmE counterpart, which is slightly more centralised; conversely, BrE [a] is much more centralised than AmE [æ]. The Japanese vowel is usually a very central [ä], so regardless of length (which, after all, is only limitedly phonemic), both BrE and AmE seem to choose the closest equivalent available, the most centralised open vowel in the inventory. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 7 '17 at 17:17
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Spanish has the same centralized [ä] for /a/ so if Japanese does too, that could explain all of Abe, taco, macho. Thing is I feel like BrE speakers choosing the TRAP vowel think they are saying the same thing as AmE speakers are saying with the FATHER vowel but Americans don't see it that way. How come we perceive them not to be saying the same vowel but they do not? – tchrist Jan 7 '17 at 18:01
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    @tchrist Randomly, another example just popped up on telly, this one actually spelled with a geminate: Chewbacca. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 8 '17 at 16:04

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