5

Right. What is the actual reason?

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  • Because of the "r" (and "l") (and possibly the "w" has some effect too).
    – Stuart F
    Apr 13 at 11:11
  • 3
    Why would you expect them to be pronounced the same way? Think of all the ways "ough" gets pronounced.
    – user888379
    Apr 13 at 12:18
  • 1
    This question was closed as a duplicate of the wrong question. For a better answer, see the Wikipedia article on r-colored vowels. Apr 13 at 14:08
  • @PeterShor I've reopened it so you guys can pick the duplicates you think better apply. I've also linked to many related questions in the sidebar. The OED explains that this is because of the w- more than the -r, but this varies by speaker. So war, warrior, warn, warm, warship, dwarf, wharf, wart have [ɔ] or for those with tense–lax neutralization before /r/, also [o], while many speakers have [ɔ] in want, water and some have [ɔ~o] in Lawrence, lawyer. Plus some speakers split homophones warn, worn etc.
    – tchrist
    Apr 13 at 14:25
  • @tchrist: I think the question is asking why the vowels of talk and war, which are the same in British English, are different in American English, not why the vowels of ward and bard are different. Let me see if I can find a duplicate. Apr 13 at 14:27

3 Answers 3

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In American English, 'r' can change the vowel before it. For many speakers, beard does not have quite the same vowel as either bid or bead, father does not have quite the same vowel as farther, and cord does not have quite the same vowel as cawed.

Depending on the speaker's dialect, the vowel of cord and war can be either /o/, /ɔ/, or somewhere in between. Further, it can have r-coloration, which means that the vowel is modified so that it sounds like the vowel and the consonant /r/ are being pronounced simultaneously; see this Wikipedia article on r-colored vowels. Thus, while some Americans have exactly the same vowel in war and talk, most don't.

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Pronunciation

It’s because in America, unlike in Britain, the homophone-pair war, wore usually have the tense-o vowel /o/ of woe instead of the lax-o vowel /ɔ/ of talk. So wore and war sound like woe with an R tacked on the end here.

The same thing happens with words like lore and the homophone-triple pour, pore, poor: those all have the same tense /o/ vowel as low and Poe instead of the lax /ɔ/ vowel of law and paw. So lore is low plus an R not law plus an R, and pour, pore, poor is Poe plus an R not paw plus an R.

Warning: US /ɔ/ ≠ UK /ɔ/

Keep in mind that just like how the American /o/ phoneme is different phonetically from the British /o/ phoneme, the America /ɔ/ phoneme is also not the same phonetically as the British phoneme /ɔ/.

Our /ɔ/ is (usually) lower in the mouth than theirs is, so closer to phonetic [ɒ] than to phonetic [ɔ].

Spelling

But if you’re asking merely about spelling, not pronunciation, that’s completely different.

As I earlier mentioned in comments, the OED explains that this is because of the w‑ more than the ‑r, but this varies by speaker.

So war, warden, warren, warranty, warrior, ward, reward, warble, warn, warm, swarm, warship, dwarf, wharf, wart, thwart have tense /o/ for the majority of us who have neutralized the tense–lax contrast before /r/ and so simply always use the tense one (also called the "close" one, or sometimes the "long" one). In the UK, and in a very few remaining places in the US, the lax one is also possible there, but not for most of us.

In contrast, many speakers have lax /ɔ/ in want, water. A few have lax /ɔ/ in Lawrence, lawyer but most have tense /o/ in those two words. Plus some speakers even split homophone-pair warn, worn.

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  • I wouldn't quite say that "wore and war sound like woe with an R tacked on the end here." The glide at the end of woe doesn't exist in war; your claim is only true if you pronounce the vowel in woe as a monophthong.
    – alphabet
    Apr 13 at 19:09
  • It's also worth noting that most accents of British English also have the horse-hoarse merger; i.e. they also don't contrast /ɔ/ and /oʊ/ before /ɹ/; Geoff Lindsey's CUBE transcribes both horse and hoarse as /h óː s/.
    – alphabet
    Apr 13 at 19:25
  • @alphabet The terminal offglide in the phonetic diphthong is routinely deleted before many consonant codas but not all. So woe /wow/ +R becomes wore /wor/ just like May Day /mej dej/ +T becomes Mate Date /met det/. This glide deletion does not happen before L or nasals, but sometimes causes breaking: Main Dane is /mejn dejn/ and Male Dale is /mejl dejl/, with a schwa inserted after the glide in dialects that do that. Most of us have /ske.rij/ not /skej.rij/ for scary, /sto.rij/ not /stow.rij/ for story, /ti.rij/ not /tij.rij/ for teary, /bu.tij/ not /buw.tij/ for booty.
    – tchrist
    Apr 13 at 20:08
  • 1
    This answer strikes me as amounting mostly to “it is because it is.” Apr 13 at 23:32
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There definitely are a few American accents in which the A in words like "warm" are pronounced similarly (or even the same) as the A in a word like "talk", or " car". These are some of the non-rhotic American varieties, and the St Louis accent. As for the other American accents, which do pronounce certain 'ar' words with an 'or' sound, the r-coloration probably doesn't have much to do with it as the A retains a similar pronunciation as in the word "talk" for "harm" and a few others. What must be at play here, probably is the fact that in English, the same vowel or vowel combination can have multiple different sounds even when followed by the same consonant sound.

1
  • Wait a minute — warm doesn't rhyme with harm. Apr 16 at 21:17

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