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A pattern I've noticed in Northern England is that people of my age (born in the '90s) pronounce words like “master” and “plaster” with a short A (/a/), whereas anyone of my parents' generation (born in the '60s) or older will use a long A (/ɑː/). The distinction is similar to the trap-bath split, though all speakers mentioned in this question would pronounce both “trap” and “bath” with the same vowel (/a/). Furthermore, all would pronounce “faster” with the short A. I've noticed this pattern mostly around South and West Yorkshire, but also in people from Tyneside.

Have any of these features been documented or remarked on before? What other words share this feature? What is the geographical extent, and is my perception of a generation-based shift accurate and widespread? How did the long A pronunciation come about, and is the move towards short A part of a more general shift?

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  • Don't you mean the so-called “short a” of /æ/ like in black cat? It’s partway between the “long a” of /ɑ/ from father, khan, taco and the /ɛ/ from red dress. See this colorized trapezoid chart and the clickable sounds it shows. – tchrist Feb 9 at 0:28
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    Maybe the younger generation is influenced by American movies & television. – GEdgar Feb 9 at 0:30
  • @GEdgar I think it's more likely that James's parents and their social circle were influenced by "BBC English" like Hyacinth Bucket/Bouquet from the TV comedy Keeping Up Appearances and that the younger people weren't and have, therefore, reverted to proper regional accents. I'm older than James's parents, grew up in North Derbyshire and use the 'short a'. I always associate the 'long a' with posh people, southerners and northerners who have had elocution lessons. – BoldBen Feb 9 at 5:24
  • @tchrist Yes, but that vowel is lower in Northern England than in a lot of other dialects, hence /a/ rather than /æ/. (And in all of Britain, I think, “taco” is in the CAT class.) – James Wood Feb 9 at 10:24
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    This discussion is silly. The TRAP and PALM vowels are each very different in North America and modern England. As such, each dialect makes the correct approximation of the Spanish/Italian /a/. Moreover, each sounds wrong to the other because the listener imposes their own phonology on what they hear (particularly true here, where we're not even listening, but rather reading lexical sets and IPA approximations). – James Wood Feb 9 at 22:41
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Northern English dialects typically use a short vowel /æ/ for "a" before an "s" or "th" where southern English dialects would use a longer, further back vowel /ɑ/. However there seem to be exceptions, of which "master" and "plaster" stand out for often having a southern English pronunciation. "master" is explicable as a word associated with education and authority, which therefore is sometimes pronounced in a sort of imitation of Received Pronunciation or other higher-status dialects, but "plaster" seems a bit of a mystery.

The British Library has a page on dialects which notes this. It says the pronunciation of "master" and "plaster" varies in the North of England, unlike in other words ("past", "blast", "cast", "castor", etc) which have a short vowel.

[ah is used in "plaster" and "caster" by] speakers in the north – notably on Tyneside and in Yorkshire and Lancashire – although these speakers favour 'a’ in all other instances. This gives rise to the intriguing combination of vowel sounds in words such as plastercast (‘plahstercast’) and elastoplast (‘elastoplahst’) and the Stevie Wonder song 'Master Blaster' becomes ‘mahsterblaster'. ‘Mahster’ and ‘plahster’ do not seem to occur on Merseyside, in Manchester nor in the flat-BATH areas of the Midlands, where pronunciation of the TRAP~BATH sets is consistently ‘a’.

The BBC Voices project, which records dialects across the UK, notes:

There are, however, two words that many northerners pronounce with a 'southern' long vowel: master and plaster. It's possible that the former has undergone change as a result of its association with school, education and notions of 'prestige' pronunciation, although the latter is harder to explain.

Sources don't discuss specific reasons for a generational change in "master" in the north of England. But pronunciations are constantly shifting, and you would expect a regularisation of pronunciations so "master" would tend to be pronounced like "castor", and all the other words with "-ast", which is what the OP describes. (Annoyingly the recorded voices on the BBC website don't work for me.)

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  • Good resources. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 9 at 12:29
  • @EdwinAshworth I wonder whether this “precedes s or th” shift mightn’t also explain why raspberry, normally [ˈɹæzbɛɹi], poshes up to [ˈɹɑːzbɹi] or even soupa-pawshes up to [ˈɹɒːːzbɹɨ] or a full-bore [ˈɹɔːzbɹɨ] much as though it began with raw. Think also of which vowel occurs in the common word rather and the less common raster, all depending on where you are in Britain or Ireland. – tchrist Feb 9 at 12:54
  • @tchrist I'm not sure how lockdown will restrict / encourage the diversification of the language. A greater %ge of exposure to US films, series, and to the computer-savvy will surely have an effect in the UK+I. – Edwin Ashworth Feb 9 at 15:15
  • I grew up the 1950s in East Yorkshire, where pronunciation differs considerably from the Yorkshire speech usually heard on TV and radio, and I've always been aware that 'master' and 'plaster' were oddities: I've always said [mɑːstə(r)] and [plɑːstə(r)] although I use short [a] elsewhere as you'd expect from a Northerner. For what it's worth, I remember that some people who were old then (so possibly born in the 19th C) pronounced 'master' as [mɛːəstə(ɹ)] - a development of 'magister'? So I'm wondering: was my [mɑːstə(r)] a later version of their [mɛːəstə(ɹ)]? – David Garner Feb 11 at 19:48
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I'm from the Midlands, but have lived in the North West and have now re-located to North Yorkshire and I would always pronounce plaster and master with a short a. However I have noticed and questioned the long a in plaster that my Father in Law uses. I would not say that it is the same as the southern English way.

I don't think the short / long version is an age thing, but maybe more class/trade related. Most tradesfolk in my area would say "plaaaster" regardless of their age. I doubt the long pronunciation has anything to do with education as more highly educated people around here are more likely to say "plaster", with a short a. In fact suggesting that using a long southern "a" indicates a better education would be seen as insulting.

Southern: Plarster (long a)

Midlands/North West: Plaster (short a)

Yorkshire/North East: Plaaaster (more like a stretched short a than the southern variant).

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  • A Father in Law sounds much spookier than a father-in-law. – Lambie Feb 18 at 14:04

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