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No modern dialect makes the <o> and <oe> distinction, but when reading Medhurst's Hokkien dictionary of 1832 i came across (page 34) koe ko

Furthermore, <o> seems to be a monophthong and <oe> a diphthong (page 37): vowels

From this description, it would appear that <o> = /o/ and <oe> = /əu/ or /ou/. But the Hokkien characters are pronounced with /o/ and /ɔ/, which later transcriptions attest to.

EDIT: Medhurst was born and studied in London but grew up in Gloucestershire, so i have edited the title.

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    Given his vague descriptions "16 ae something like i" and his upbringing in Gloucestershire (strong accent) at the turn of the 18th century, I wonder if Medhurst were not using his own speech patterns as a control/baseline.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 11:00
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    I'd guess that "co in co-equal" might have a shorter vowel than in "toe", because the stress is in the first syllable of equal. So it could be partly about that.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 12:17
  • By "Hokkien", are you referring to a Chinese dialect?
    – Lawrence
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 14:36
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    It's interesting that in Japanese, the sound lengths for those characters are reversed: 沽 is ko (コ, one syllable) and 高 is kou (コウ, two syllables). These would be the on (Chinese) readings.
    – Robusto
    Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 19:11
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    "No modern dialect makes the <o> and <oe> distinction — there are some dialects of American English that would use [o] in flooring and [ou] in toe ring. Commented Sep 21, 2023 at 19:20

2 Answers 2

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The description does seem to pretty clearly describe a diphthong along the lines of /ou/ for Hokkien 沽 (while less clearly saying that English toe and hoe have something similar, but apparently pronounced with a less "full mouth"), but not 高.

As Stuart F said, it seems possible that the contrast between toe/hoe and co- might refer to a difference in vowel length caused by stress. Co-equal certainly has the primary stress on the second rather than the first syllable. It's hard to say without context, but go would be relatively unstressed in the context of phrases like "go out" or "go along with", although it would take fuller stress in a sentence like "He ought to go."

Per the Oxford English Dictionary, the word hoe did originally have a more diphthongized vowel than go. However, at the time it was pronounced that way, it wasn't normally spelled hoe. Hoe derives from French houe and had spellings like howe, howwe, houe in Middle English:

The spelling hoe (due to the falling together of -ōw, -oe, in pronunciation, as in flow, floe) appeared in 18th cent., and became the ordinary form c1755. How, hough, are still dialectal; the Scots is howe /hʌu/, /hou/, rhyming with Scots pronunciation of grow, knowe, etc.

This means the difference in spelling between "o" in "go" and "oe" in "hoe" doesn't actually mark the original phonemic contrast between these words: it's just one of the many inconsistencies of modern English spelling.

Despite their apparently contrasting use in the guide, it seems unlikely to me that Walter Henry Medhurst would have made a phonemic distinction in his usual pronunciation between the vowels of go and hoe.

The fact that Medhurst cites the word toe as a rhyme for hoe strongly implies that he did not maintain the original distinction between a diphthong and long vowel in this case, because toe did not originally come from an u-final diphthong: it comes from Old English tā, and so has the same original vowel as go (from Old English gān). Conceivably, Medhurst could have had an accent where the distinction was confused but not yet entirely lost.

Medhurst seems to have been born in London in 1796. His father was initially an innkeeper in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire (where I assume Medhurst resided until the age of 11, although I haven't found confirmation of this); the family later moved to Gloucestershire. Walter attended St Paul's School in London from July 1807 (aged 11) to 1810, after which he moved to live with his parents in Gloucestershire, and then departed for China in 1816.

I don't know what characterized the English spoken in Herefordshire/Gloucestershire/the West Midlands in Medhurst's time.

Wikipedia says of the Toe–tow merger that

In 19th century England, the distinction was still very widespread; the main areas with the merger were in the northern Home Counties and parts of the Midlands.

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  • The Hokkien vowel for 沽 is definitely /ɔ/ though, although not as rounded and more central than the English one. It's sometimes written as "aw" in names like Haw Par 虎豹 and Khaw 許. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 11:47
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    As Greybeard has said, Medhurst grew up in Gloucestershire. I don't have access to data on its vowels, but en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welsh_English uses /o:/ for "no" and /ou/ for "low". Listening to the Bristol recording from bl.uk/collection-items/bristol-dialect-pat-childhood i hear "alone" (0:31) with /ɔ:/ and "go" (0:55) with /o/. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 16:50
  • @iamanigeeit No, that's not alone that she's saying there at 0:33; it's on the lawn, which of course has /ɔ/ as one would expect in that last word. That being said, she does have interesting /o/ vowels.
    – tchrist
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 2:44
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    @ChrisH: Yes, I assume Herefordshire vs. Gloucestershire does't make a huge difference; I was just trying to write out the facts to clarify to myself the timeline of when Medhurst lived where.
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 8:48
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    @iamanigeeit but Somerset is really quite a different accent to Gloucestershire
    – Chris H
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 11:59
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Turns out that Medhurst might have recorded the speech of different regions and combined them.

In Teochew and other Minnan-speaking regions near the Fujian-Canton border, 高 is /ko/ (phonetically [kɔ] ~ [kʌ]) and 沽 is /kou/. I find it strange that any language, let alone Sinitic language would differentiate [o] and [ou].

References:

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    Some accents of English differentiate [o] and [ou]. In many American dialects, pouring is /porɪŋ/, while toe ring is /tourɪŋ/. They're not perfect rhymes. Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 11:32
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    I'm looking for minimal pairs -- i think herrison's link to the toe-tow merger describes it quite well. Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 17:20

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