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When did the British and the Americans start to pronounce "o" (as in "God") differently?

Was it due to changes in America or England?

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    First, as others will point out, letters attempt to represent pronunciations, not the other way around. Second, I don't perceive any greater difference in the pronunciation of God between Americans and Britons than among them. Can you provide an example of what you're asking about? – choster Mar 16 '17 at 21:20
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    @choster - this UK ​ /ɡɒd/ US ​ /ɡɑːd/ - dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/god – user66974 Mar 16 '17 at 21:25
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    @choster Out of curiosity, what's your language background? The difference is extremely obvious to me (every other word), and I'm not a huge expert. I'm just surprised that it isn't to others. – MaxB Mar 16 '17 at 22:17
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    An American friend on a train in the UK was startled to here an announcement beginning this is your God speaking, not knowing that what Americans call conductors are called guards here. – davidlol Mar 16 '17 at 22:26
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    @MaxB Oh, I've no doubt there are differences, I'm merely saying that this doesn't stand out to me. Is the difference in this o between Birmingham and Birmingham more significant than with those of Hilo, Grand Forks, or the Bronx? I'm a native AmE speaker, raised in Southern California, but educated and currently residing on the East Coast. – choster Mar 16 '17 at 23:36
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+100

The change in the vowel phoneme used in "God" certainly occured in American, not British, accents. One piece of evidence indicating this is that in a usual American English accent, the vowel of "God" has merged with the vowel of "father," while this is not so for a usual British English accent. The spelling provides a clue that the distinction in British English is due to retention of an original distinction rather than due to an innovative split.

Wikipedia, which is not such a reliable source but which is the best I have right now, says the change happened "from the 18th century on."

The general development of the "short o" sound goes like this:

  • something like [o] in Old English, contrasting with long [oː]
  • in Middle English, it's either [o] or maybe [ɔ] later on, contrasting with both long [oː] (from Old English [oː]) and long [ɔː] (from Old English [ɑː])
  • in Early Modern English, it's [ɒ], or perhaps [ɔ] early on, contrasting with both long [ɔː] or [ɒː] (from monophthongization of the Middle-English diphthong [au]) and long [aː] or [ɑː] (from lengthening of Middle-English [a] in certain environments)
  • in modern English, it is variously [ɒ], [ɔ], [ɑ] or [a] depending on accent, and may or may not be merged with one or both of the descendants of Early Modern English [ɔː] and [ɑː].

Specifically:

  • In a usual accent from the south of England, the vowel in "God" currently tends to be somewhere around [ɔ], although often transcribed /ɒ/ due to tradition. It contrasts with both [ɑː], in "father," and [oː], in "laud."

  • In a usual Scottish English accent (not the same thing as Scots or Scottish Gaelic), the vowel in "God" is traditionally transcribed as /ɔ/, and it is merged with the vowel of "laud" but not with the /ɑ/ of "father."

  • In a usual "general" American English accent, the vowel in "God" is [ɑ], merged with the "father" vowel; in American English affected by the "Northern Cities Vowel Shift" it has been fronted to more or less [a]. In accents with the caught-cot merger "laud" has this same vowel; in accents without the merger "laud" has a distinct vowel usually transcribed /ɔ/, but often phonetically closer to something like [ɒ].

American English is not really so much more conservative than British English. Other innnovative phonological/phonetic elements that are more common in North American English than in British English are:

  • neutralization of tenseness distinctions for vowels before /r/: the merger of "merry", "marry" and "Mary", the merger of "forest" with either "fore-est" or "far-est," the merger of "serious" and "Sirius," the merger of "hurry" and "furry"
  • yod-dropping (pronouncing "news" as "nooze" instead of "nyooze")
  • t-lenition (voicing /t/ when it comes between vowels and the second vowel is unstressed, as in "water," or dropping /t/ when it comes after /n/ and before an unstressed vowel, as in "winter")

These are not universally present in American English accents, and yod-dropping and t-lenition exist in some British English accents as well, but these innovations are certainly more common in North American English than in British English.

  • t-lenition - isn't that dialectal (maybe Southern or AA)? – MaxB Mar 26 '17 at 6:16
  • @MaxB: What I meant was the pronunciation of "t" between vowels as a voiced sound, often merged or nearly merged with "d," as in "latter" = "ladder." This is very common in North American English, and less extensive in British English. – sumelic Mar 26 '17 at 18:16
  • The example was "winter" / "winner" confusion, which I don't think is normal (Perhaps it sounds this way to the British) – MaxB Mar 26 '17 at 19:04
  • @MaxB: That's another type. Lenition after /n/ is not as widespread, but it's still fairly common across North America. – sumelic Mar 26 '17 at 19:09
  • Not all Americans say gawd. I think this word, all things being equal (excluding regionalisms on both sides of the Altantic) is pronounced the same way. Not everyone breathalizes the o in god into the a of father. – Lambie Jan 25 at 21:48
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In Britain, the "o" vowel, [ɒ], in words like dog, hod, pot, is pronounced with rounded lips and the tongue back in the mouth. Americans do not have this vowel, instead pronouncing the same words using the "ah" vowel, [ɑ], with the lips unrounded and the tongue back but more relaxed. This is the same vowel in card or bard. In some cases in the US the "o" is pronounced using the "or" vowel in words like long (Central East Coast) and horrid (especially in the western US).

The "plummy" quality of some RP speakers is probably due to an exaggeration of this "o" vowel, and other vowels, by pushing the tongue as far back as possible, accomplished by speaking whilst imagining a mouth full of plums.

Vowel Shifts

Long vowels in Middle English were pronounced as they were in Latin but, during the 15th and 16th centuries, they changed to what we have in general today. This change is called the Great Vowel Shift. In major cities around the Great Lakes area, linguists have noted since the 1970s what they call the Northern Cities Chain Shift. On the West Coast you hear many vowel shifts, notably in younger people, and sometimes words are spelled to match (sense → since, pen → pin). My daughter growing up pronounced it MickDonalds.

  • hot (haht) → hat

From American and British Pronunciation Differences

After American–British split, up to the 20th century: (This period is estimated to be c. AD 1725–1900.)

  • The father–bother merger: /ɒ/ as in lot, bother merges with /ɑ/ as in father, so that most North American dialects only have the vowel /ɑ/.

  • Exceptions are accents in Eastern New England, such as the Boston accent, and New York City.

From Phonological history of English

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    clear and to the point. – Centaurus Mar 16 '17 at 22:02
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    @MaxB - dog - UK ​ /dɒɡ/ US ​ /dɑːɡ/ - dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/dog ?... same as god. – user66974 Mar 16 '17 at 22:25
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    da:g is possible, but I think it's less common. MW lists both, dȯg first. – MaxB Mar 16 '17 at 22:59
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    Not sure it is less common: oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/dog_1 – user66974 Mar 16 '17 at 23:09
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    @Josh: I am pretty sure that among people without the cot/caught merger, /dɔg/ is more common, at least on the East Coast. I don't think it used to be. People used to spell it dawg to indicate regional accents. But now that's the most common pronunciation, so they don't do that as often. See Ngram. – Peter Shor Mar 17 '17 at 0:16
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The difference between the majority of accents is due to vowel rotation. Meaning that in point of fact a typical British accent (and there are of course many) will sound all five vowels differently to an American accent. This is true for all accents.

If you want to hear this in action, do you best English accent and your best American and say a sentence like 'Harry is in Paris.' Then say 'Henry is in Hendon.' And so on for all vowels. If you have an ear for accents you will find all of the vowels sounds are different. This is chiefly what distinguishes accents.

With regard to when the changes occurred, surely it would have been gradual, as the English language speakers became separated by distance and immigrants poured into America. Each arriving group would have brought their own influence to bear on pronunciation. To my ears many American words, including 'God' and 'arse/ass' for that matter, have an Irish sound and they turned up in large numbers after the Irish famine of the 1840s.

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    Interesting, but not answering 'When changes occurred', 'Where changes occurred', or 'Why changes occurred'. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 17 '17 at 0:14
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    There aren't five vowels in English. There are at least 10, depending on your accent. – Peter Shor Mar 17 '17 at 0:22
  • This is not true. Take the sound of a, in bank. There is no difference. – Lambie Jan 25 at 21:44

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