1

If the letter o in a word is pronounced as a monophthong, it will fall into two types:

  1. pronounced as /ʌ/ as in color ("/kʌlə/")
  2. pronounced as /ɒ/ as in lock ("/lɒk/")

What I would like to ask is that is there a rule to determine which word will fall into which type?

  • 2
    I don't know enough to attempt a proper answer, but my sneaking suspicion is "yes, there are a lot of rules, with a lot of exceptions, which in turn create further rules and exceptions, to the point that it would be less complex to simply look up and memorize the pronunciation of each word; individually, in a dictionary as you encounter them or find a need for them". But it's certainly possible that I'm wrong and few simple rules really do cover a large proportion of cases. – Dan Bron Feb 20 '17 at 16:43
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    There's /ɪ/ as in "women". There's /ō/ as in "broken". There have been major changes in the ways some words are pronounced. There have been many borrowings from other languages. I'm afraid you are looking at a situation with more exceptions than rules. – MetaEd Feb 20 '17 at 16:49
  • There's also "aw" (sorry, don't have the IPA) as in "off". Only likely rule I can think of is that if it's a one-syllable word, it's probably /ɒ/ (unless it's followed by 2 f's). – Hellion Feb 20 '17 at 17:04
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    Where is @GhotiAndChips when you need em? – Spencer Feb 20 '17 at 17:29
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    @Janus: It's the lot-cloth split, the round low vowel equivalent of the trap-bath split. "Off" has the "thought" vowel for most Americans. – sumelic Feb 20 '17 at 17:30
2

I don't know of any useful rule for when O is pronounced as /ʌ/.

There aren't that many words where O in a stressed syllable is pronounced as /ʌ/, so I think it's most practical to just memorize the pronunciation of each word with this spelling pattern using some method like flashcards. Masha Bell's "Improving English spelling" blog gives the following list of words:

The main alternative spelling for short u is o

Among, brother, comfort, company, compass, front, Monday, mongrel, monk, month, mother, nothing, other, smother, son, sponge, ton, won, wonder, worry

Sometimes o accompanied by redundant letters

Above, come, does, done, dove, glove, love, monkey, none, shove, some, tongue, blood, flood

In 21 words, the irregular spelling of the short /u/ sound is
not followed by a doubled consonant (as in funny, runny)

Colour, covenant, cover, covet, covey, dozen, govern, honey, money, onion, oven, shovel, slovenly, stomach, thorough. Couple, courage, cousin, double, nourish, trouble.

Sometimes the letter o is redundant (country, southern, touch, young)
or is accompanied by further irregularities (enough, hiccough, rough, slough, tough, one, once).

There may be some words not on this list, but I would guess that the total number of words where O = /ʌ/, excluding inflected and derived forms like sponging and brotherhood, would be under a hundred.

There are a few sub-patterns—e.g. -other and -ove—but there are words with these spellings that have other pronunciations (like bother and grove) so they can't be used to reliably indicate which words are pronounced with /ʌ/.

The sub-patterns might be used as "warning signs" to indicate which words might plausibly be pronounced with /ʌ/: e.g. if the O doesn't occur in one of the following contexts (oth, on, om, mo, wo, ov, ough, the digraph ou) it's quite unlikely that it is pronounced as /ʌ/, although not completely impossible (as far as I can tell, the words color and dozen don't follow any identifiable sub-patterns for the use of O as a spelling of /ʌ/).

Another piece of evidence that there is no obvious rule: even native speakers show variation or change over time for certain words. For example, conduit and conjure were once commonly pronounced with /ʌ/, but now usually have /ɒ/. The words hover, hovel and grovel currently show variation between /ʌ/ and /ɒ/ (I don't know the relative frequencies, or how they differ between dialects). The uncommon word wont can be pronounced with various vowels, among them /ʌ/. The exact etymology of donkey is unclear, but some scholars think that it comes from the word dun, and that the currently standard pronunciation with /ɒ/ is a spelling pronunciation.

  • Don’t forget cousin, cuz. :) Why? Just because. I’m not really pleased with calling O “redundant” in that source. They are presenting matters as though English spelling has something to do with its current pronunciation, which is nonsense. – tchrist Sep 5 '18 at 2:08
  • @tchrist: I don't agree with all of Masha Bell's opinions about English spelling, but I find her blog a valuable resource for lists of words like this with particular sound-spelling correspondences. (There are other sources that have lists like this, but the blog is free and online.) – sumelic Sep 5 '18 at 2:13

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