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My native language is Danish, with its gigantic number of vowel sounds, and this undoubtedly affects how I hear English vowels. However, one phenomenon in English has bothered me for many years, especially in Received Pronunciation, and I have so far been unable to locate any descriptions of it.

No matter how many times I listen to the English /u:/ sound, like in “do” /du:/, what I really hear on the phonetic level is not a pure, single-vowel [du:], but something like [dyu:] or even [dyu̯:]. And by this [y], I really mean the vowel sound which in IPA is written [y], that is, the sound of “u” in French and “ü” in German. So what I hear (and, I admit, also say) is a diphthong, starting with a short [y] and ending in a semivowel version of [u]. If I say simply [du:], it sounds in my ears completely different from how I hear most native (RP) speakers say it, and more like something you might hear from people with a strong Italian accent.

Is it just me hearing things, or is this an actual phenomenon?

EDIT: This question is similar to Pronunciation of ‘few’ as [ˈfjyu̯], but not identical, and importantly, the answers to that question do not directly concern the pronunciation phenomenon I am talking about. This is the case, however, for the answers to the present question.

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    Just a note to other readers who might go barking up the wrong tree. Even though all close/tense/unchecked English vowels do become phonetic (not phonemic) falling diphthongs, like say as [sej] and so as [sow] and saw as [sɔw] and see as [sij] and do as [duw], that’s not what this question is asking about. It’s also not, so far as I can tell, talking about how cue and queue become [kjuw]. Don't mistake IPA [y] with IPA [j], Americans. :) – tchrist Apr 12 '18 at 15:53
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    There is a large overlap of sounds among English speakers and Danish speakers.. Those sounds are not very well defined (yet) among a lot of English speakers. That /u:/ that worries you is purer among some Scots, and much more a diphthong with some other speakers. this is not your imagination. – J. Taylor Apr 12 '18 at 15:54
  • @tchrist Thanks for clarifying the difference between [y] and [j]. It really hurts my European feelings when people choose to regard “y” as a consonant. ;-) – Gaussler Apr 12 '18 at 16:01
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    Indeed. In practice, we actually only have one consonant. It is called mumbling. ;-) – Gaussler Apr 12 '18 at 16:05
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    @Gaussler What “European” feelings? The letter J represents a consonant sound not only in English but also in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Catalan, and many many others. I'm quite certain that those folks are European, and that their feelings would be hurt to say that they weren't. So I assume what you mean here is actually languages divorced from Mother Latin. :) – tchrist Apr 12 '18 at 18:13
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You aren't just hearing things. For many English speakers, the phoneme /uː/ is realized as a fairly front vowel in most contexts, and since the four English "tense" vowels (the vowels in fleece, goose, face and goat) tend to be realized with a bit of a high offglide at the end, this could reasonably be transcribed as [yu̯]. The frontness of a vowel can be measured acoustically in terms of the value of its "second formant" or "F2": higher values of F2 are associated with fronter vowels.

The Atlas of North American English gives the following maps showing the areas in the United States where a front or central realization of /u/ is common. Apparently, a front realization is particularly likely after a coronal consonant (this definitely includes /n, t, d, tʃ, dʒ, s, z, ʃ, ʒ/; I'm not sure if it includes l). The captions use "Tuw" to represent a coronal consonant followed by /u/ and "Kuw" to represent a non-coronal consonant followed by /u/.

To summarize, /u/ has a somewhat fronted or centralized realization (mean F2 greater than 1200 Hz) in general for most North American speakers, but there is a band stretching across the north of the United States where more back realizations are still common. The use of a fairly front realization (mean F2 greater than 1550) after coronal consonants is even more widespread, with the backer realizations mostly occurring in certain spots in Minnesota/Wisconsin, New England and New Jersey.

map of Tuw

map of Kuw

The linguist Geoff Lindsey has made some blog posts mentioning the existence of central or front realizations of /uː/ in "Standard Southern British", and the tendency to use a more back realization before "dark l".

I (American English speaker) recently measured the position of my vowels in Praat, and found that I pronounce the word "mood" using a vowel with an F1 around 300~350 and F2 around 1800, the word "pool" using a vowel with an F1 around 300~350 and F2 around 800~900, and the word "heed" using a vowel with an F1 around 250~350 and F2 around 2200.

Wikipedia suggests that front-of-center realizations of /u/ (when it's not before /l/) may be particularly common in "California English". It cites a web page "Northern California Vowels" from Penny Eckert's website that says

Below is a vowel plot showing the shifting of /uw/ (new, food). This vowel is represented as black circles with arrows. When /uw/ is followed by /l/ as in school, it does not shift, but remains where we expect it to be. This plot shows that other occurrences of /uw/, however, overlap with the vowel in mister (empty circles) and approach the vowel in me (empty circles with arrows).

scatter plot of F1 vs. F2 for vowels in four words. "New" has F2 between 2000 and 2600, "school" has F2 between 1200 and 14000, "mister" has F2 between 2000 and 2400, and "me" has F2 between 2620 and 3200

  • Every time I look at these maps that draw a dark blue line around my own personal speech community and calls us “the most conservative”, I need to remember that they aren't talking about politics. :–) – tchrist Apr 13 '18 at 2:09
  • I'm sorry, but as a native Texan who lived in Philadelphia, have often visited friends in Michigan, and is bilingual in German, I am familiar with the sounds and accents you describe. No one would "reasonably" transcribe this phenomenon with a /y/. But at least now I know what you're talking about. – KarlG Apr 13 '18 at 10:10
  • @tchrist: Tell me about it! Remind me to tell you about my odd encounter with the whine-wine merger when I moved to Philadelphia from Houston. – KarlG Apr 13 '18 at 10:31
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The only way you could be hearing an actual /y/ vowel would be time travel. Early Middle English preserved the rounded vowel in words of Anglo-Norman origin such as duke. These were also the days when new /iu/, few /eu/, and dew /ɛu/ each had distinct diphthongs and thus did not rhyme. By Late Middle English, /y/, /eu/, and /iu/ had all merged to /ɪu/, joined by /ɛu/ in Early Modern.

The story stops here for some Welsh, northern English, and older Southern American accents, while the rest shifted the falling diphthong /ɪu/ to a rising one: /juː/. This change is documented for London by the end of the 17th century. How by yod-coalescence or yod-dropping depending on consonantal environment and accent /juː/ becomes /uː/ is another story entirely.

Now a /y/, long or short, is really just an /ɪ/ or /i/ with lip rounding, so I can imagine the slim possibility of someone speaking in an accent that preserved the /ɪu/ rounding the lips a split second before moving to the /u/ producing a transient /y/, but RP did not retain that particular diphthong.

Without hearing an audio example in which you are discovering this “hidden” /y/, I can’t be sure what you’re hearing, but chances it’s really a /y/ seem remote.

  • Many English speakers actually realize /u:/ as a fairly front vowel; see my answer to the question that I left a link to in the comments. This is unrelated to the fact that some words with /(j)u:/ come from French /y/; even words like goose and moon tend to be pronounced with a vowel that is more front than French /u/ or German /u:/. – sumelic Apr 12 '18 at 23:50
  • @sumelic: How is this relevant? /y/ is rounded. Gut is one thing, Güte quite another. – KarlG Apr 13 '18 at 0:08
  • Both /y/ and /u/ are defined as rounded vowels (although the exact type of rounding may be different). – sumelic Apr 13 '18 at 0:09
  • @sumelic: OK, let's try it this way. /y/ is, as I explained, /i/ with lip rounding. An /u:/ without rounding is something like a schwa. But /yu:/, if I can produce it at all, sounds nothing like English anywhere. – KarlG Apr 13 '18 at 0:22
  • Adding lip rounding to /i/ alters the acoustic realization of the vowel in ways that make /y/ sound more like a back vowel than /i/ does. See the following blog post from Geoff Lindsey's blog: "The vowel space" and let me know if you use a vowel in the word "do" that sounds like the artificially synthesized /u/ on that page (you can hear it if you click the "u" on the chart at the bottom). – sumelic Apr 13 '18 at 0:39

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