I have a South African colleague who pronounces "poor" as pooeur and I find it fairly humorous given I never hear it pronounced that way. Of course, pooeur, at some stage, would have been the general pronunciation of poor. This colleague also recently pronounced "boor" as booeur. Again, this stood out for its difference to what I would normally hear.

For curiosity's sake, I decided to check a range of online British English dictionaries (since they are the de facto standard for Australian English) to compare the pronunciation of "poor" and "boor" and what I found was quite surprising.

Despite por being listed as the general pronunciation of "poor" in (most of) the dictionaries, booeur was preferred over bor for "boor" (and usually also the only listed British pronunciation).

Pronunciation of "poor", according to the dictionaries

  • Cambridge Dictionaries Online: /pɔːr/
  • Collins: /pʊə/, /pɔː/
  • Macmillan: /pɔː(r)/, /pʊə(r)/
  • Oxford Dictionaries and the OED: /pɔː/, /pʊə/
  • Macquarie (Aus): /pɔ/

Pronunciation of "boor"

  • Cambridge Dictionaries Online: /bʊər/
  • Collins: /bʊə/
  • Macmillan: /bʊə(r)/
  • Oxford Dictionaries and OED: /bɔː/, /bʊə/
  • Macquarie (Aus): /bɔ/, /bʊə/


This, then, makes me wonder:

  • Why has the pronunciation of "poor" changed more than that of "boor"? Does it come down to word frequency?
  • Do these pronunciations accurately reflect how the word is generally pronounced by the general population, British or otherwise?
  • ... or maybe the pronunciation of both words is currently changing, and the dictionaries just update more frequently used words more often. Anyway, reports are that the vowel in poor, boor, cure, pure, sure, moor is quickly dying in England. See this blog entry. I believe it's still thriving in California. – Peter Shor Aug 10 '17 at 0:02
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    And to build on what @PeterShor says, it may be a difference in rate of change based on usage: poor is used much more often than boor and might be expected thereby to undergo change more rapidly. – Robusto Aug 10 '17 at 0:14
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    I don't understand the queation: those two are perfect rhymes for me. – tchrist Aug 10 '17 at 0:48
  • As a Californian I have to ask, how the heck does cure rhyme with poor? – The Photon Aug 10 '17 at 1:30
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    @The Photon: The vowels in pure, poor, tour, lure, sure all used to be the same (probably partway between the two vowels you use). But now, for many Americans, these words are split into two or three different vowels (those in more, fur, skewer). This is the pure-poor split. Many people still use the original vowel in these words, and you can hear what it sounded like in dictionary pronunciations—although some of the dictionary pronouncers have the pure-poor split, not all of them do. – Peter Shor Aug 10 '17 at 9:31

It might be due to frequency. I don't think this is very easily explainable, but maybe someone will find a study on it that will prove me wrong. I would say it is just an irregular split that some people have (other people pronounce both words so that they rhyme).

In general, rhotic vowels in English often develop inconsistently in some words. Some examples: most American English speakers pronounce "squirrel" and "mirror" with different vowels; many British English speakers pronounce "clerk" and "jerk" with different vowels, and nearly all speakers pronounce "spear" and "bear" with different vowels.

Words that in older stages of the language had /oːr/ or /uːr/ have often developed to have /ɔ(ː)(r)/ in modern English accents. (In some accents, like mine, this vowel has shifted to /ɜr/ rather than /ɔr/ in some contexts, mainly in situations where it was originally preceded by /j/; e.g. the word "surely" may be pronounced the same as "Shirley" or "shorely" depending on the accent, or kept distinct from both.) Other examples are floor, door (universally pronounced with the NORTH/FORCE vowel, as far as I know), whore (only pronounced with /ʊə(r)/ dialectally), and moor, tour (generally /ʊə(r)/ in accents that have this sound, but may be NORTH/FORCE in other accents, such as mine, that don't have /ʊə(r)/ at all).

My impression is that for some words, such as door, it's unclear whether the current pronunciation is the result of lowering or of a lack of Great-Vowel-Shift raising.

Some accents have disyllabic /u(ː).ɚ/ as a possibility in some of these words.

I'm not at all sure about what I say in the following paragraph, but I would guess that another factor influencing the pronunciatiom of "boor" might be a desire to keep it aurally distinct from the word "bore". It's true that "poor" also has homophones, but I think it is much easier to confuse things like "What a bore!"/"What a boor!" than it is to confuse things like "Poor me!"/"Pour me!"/"Pore me!"

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  • So what vowel do you use in lure? Neither /ɔr/ nor /ɜr/ sounds right to me in that word, and I've been wondering for quite a while which vowel people who don't have /ʊr/ use for it. – Peter Shor Aug 11 '17 at 12:36
  • @PeterShor: The vowel I naturally use in "lure" is /ɜr/. I do currently have /uɚ/ as a possible variant in this word and some others, but that's the result of a conscious adjustment. – herisson Aug 11 '17 at 17:07

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