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I've noticed an odd pronunciation habit among some (but not all) fellow Americans, and I'm wondering if there is a name for the phenomenon.

When pronouncing certain long vowel sounds (specifically /eɪ/, /i:/, /u:/), if those sounds are followed by an 'L', the vowel sound changes (to short /e/, /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ respectively).

Examples:

  • 'fail' /feɪl/ becomes 'fell' /fel/, but 'fate' keeps the diphthong /eɪ/

  • 'feel' /fi:l/ becomes 'fill' /fɪl/, but 'feet' keeps the long vowel /i:/

  • 'pool' /pu:l/ becomes 'pull' /pʊl/, but 'poof' keeps the long vowel /u:/

I've tried to establish a pattern of what kinds of people do this vowel transformation, but I haven't had much luck. I've observed it in people with different accents and in different age groups.

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    Wikipedia has an article that covers the fill-feel and fell-fail merger. It appears to be a regional thing: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. There are several of these mergers, the most well-known is probably the "cot-caught" merger, but there is also Mary-merry-marry, etc
    – Greybeard
    Aug 7 '20 at 20:30
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    It's the same pattern that occurs with vowels before /r/ in American speech. Tense and lax vowels neutralize before /r/ in most dialects; exceptions are the much-remarked-on New England triple of Mary /meri/, merry /mɛri/, and marry /mæri/, which are identically pronounced /mɛri/ elsewhere. Then there is pin ~ pen, before nasals. All resonant consonants (R's, L's, and nasals) do funny things to the vowels that precede them. There is R-coloring, L-darkening, nasalization, and lots of other special terms for individual cases, but the fact is that resonants affect vowels. Aug 7 '20 at 20:45
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I don't think there's a specific name for the phenomenon you're describing. However, these changes are often regional and are called mergers

A merger is a phonological change where two (different) phonemes merge and become indistinguishable.

All the cases you've mentioned are mergers.

Your first case is an example of fell-fail merger.

It's a merger of /ɛ/ (as in 'fell') and /eɪ/ (as in 'fail') before /l/.

According to Wikipedia:

It occurs in some varieties of Southern American English making fell and fail homophones. In addition to North Carolina and Texas, these mergers are found sporadically in other Southern states and in the Midwest and West


The second one is an example of fill-feel merger. It's a merger of /ɪ/ (as in 'fill') and /i:/ (as in 'feel') before /l/.

From Wikipedia:

The fill–feel merger is a conditioned merger of the vowels /ɪ/ (as in 'fill') and /iː/ (as in 'feel') before /l/ that occurs in some accents. In Europe, it is commonly found in Estuary English. Otherwise it is typical of certain accents of American English. The heaviest concentration of the merger is found in, but not necessarily confined to Southern American English: in North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana (but not New Orleans), and west-central Texas.


The third one is full-fool merger. It's a merger of /ʊ/ (as in 'full') and /u:/ (as in 'fool') before /l/.

The full–fool merger is a conditioned merger of /ʊ/ (as in 'full') and /uː/ (as in 'fool') before /l/, making pairs like pull/pool and full/fool homophones. The main concentration of the pull–pool merger is in Western Pennsylvania English, centered around Pittsburgh. The merger is less consistently but still noticeably present in some speakers of surrounding Midland American English... (more details at Wikipedia).

There's also salary-celery merger which makes celery and salary homophones.

Head over to Wikipedia for more details.

Also, as John Lawler said in his comment, sonorants/resonants affect preceding vowels. For example, vowels are often nasalised before nasals, and r-coloured before R (AmE)

I might call this particular case pre-L laxing; pre-L means before L and laxing means shortening.

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