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I grew up speaking a variety of American English that merges the "short U" sounds before L. The "short U" sounds are the vowels in the words STRUT and FOOT. For me, before an L sound, all words have the vowel from FOOT—that is, for me bull, full, and pull rhyme with dull, gull, and null.

According to Wikipedia, The Atlas of North American English mentions this as one of four mergers before /l/ that may be under way in some accents of North American English, and which require more study. So this merger is known to exist, but it is not well understood the range and extent of the merger.

Regardless, I'd like to have a full grasp of standard American English, so I have set to the task of memorizing which -UL- words have the STRUT vowel (which I always pronounced with the FOOT vowel). Are there a set of rules I can use to predict if a "short U followed by L" word will have the STRUT vowel?

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    Where in America does dull rhyme with bull? I've never heard anyone say it that way, and I've been all over the country, incl. Alaska and Hawaii.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:09
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    Even if you had an extended conversation with someone who has the merger, you probably wouldn't notice it unless you were listening for it expressly. But, fwiw, I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area, though I have met people from Southern California with the merger too.
    – nohat
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:17
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    STRUT and FOOT have nothing like the same vowel for me, so I am confused. STRUT like CUT and SHUT has /ʌ/ while FOOT and PUT like ROOT and ROOF have /ʊ/. Which of those two do you have for both STRUT and FOOT, or do you have something else again? Yes, Californians, especially from the south, do have a bunch of odd mergers.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:50
  • @tchrist STRUT and FOOT are separate vowels for me, except before L, which case I only have the FOOT vowel.
    – nohat
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 20:58
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    @tchrist- For me ROOF and ROOT have the same vowel as SHOOT, although I know lots of people who rhyme them with PUT.
    – Jim
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 6:32

2 Answers 2

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Using the CMU pronouncing dictionary, I gathered all the words that have the STRUT vowel (ARPABET AH1 ) or the FOOT vowel (ARPABET UH1) before an L sound. Then I eliminated all the rare words, most proper names, and the etymologically related words, leaving only roots:

FOOT words

bull      Fulbright  pull
bulldoze  full       pulley
bullet    fulsome    wolf
bulletin  Fulton     wool
bully     Pulitzer

STRUT words

adult       gulf        pulp
bulb        gull        pulse
bulge       gullet      pulverize
bulk        gullible    result
compulsion  gully       revulsion
consult     gulp        scull
convulse    gulped      sculpt
cull        hulk        skulk
culminate   hull        skull
culpa       indulge     stultify
culprit     insult      sulfur
cult        lull        sulk
cultivate   lullaby     sullen
culture     medulla     sultan
culver      mulberry    sultry
culvert     mulch       tulsa
divulge     mull        tumultuous
dulcet      mullah      ulcer
dulcimer    mullen      ultimate
dull        mullet      ultra
emulsion    mulligan    vulcan
engulf      multi       vulgar
exculpate   null        vulnerable
expulsion   occult      vulture
exult       promulgate
gulch       propulsion

Words which, according to at least one dictionary, could be FOOT or STRUT

boulevard
ebullience
fulcrum
fulminate
pulpit

Then I set about to analyze the lists to see if I could find any patterns, and then devise a set of rules I could use to determine when to use the STRUT vowel and when I could use my native FOOT vowel.

We will call a "short U" followed by L a "UL"

  • Default: ordinarily, UL words have the STRUT vowel (e.g. cull, vulgar, gullet, ultra)
  • F-rule: UL words preceded by F have the FOOT vowel (e.g. full, fulsome)
  • B/P-rule: UL words preceded by B or P have FOOT if that is the end of the word, or the next sound is a vowel (e.g. bull, bullet, pull, pulley, but not bulb, pulse, pulverize)
  • exceptions: wolf, wool

Interestingly, only a labial consonant (/b/, /f/, /p/, /w/) followed by UL can have the FOOT vowel, and then, only in some cases.

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    Where does inculcate fall?
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:20
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    I do not think of FOOT and WOLF as having exactly the same vowel for me. The first one is a bit higher, but the second is dark-L-colored. But WOOL and WOLF are the same, so I think the t is raising it in FOOT.
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 19:52
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    Interestingly, there are no minimal pairs for this distinction before L. So, it should come as no surprise that the distinction is leveled in some dialects.
    – nohat
    Commented Oct 26, 2012 at 21:32
  • I pronounce the OL of WOLF at the back of my mouth, drawing my tongue back to partially close and make the OL sound. There is little or no labiodental. Possibly called "dark L".
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 3:25
  • See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L-vocalization
    – MetaEd
    Commented Oct 27, 2012 at 3:31
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This would have been a comment, but I can't comment yet so it'll have to be an answer instead. Hopefully it has enough detail to stand on its own.

I too am from the SF Bay Area1, and also have all of these words merged into one lexical set, but interestingly they all have the STRUT2 vowel for me: indeed, the FOOT vowel cannot appear before /l/. The only exceptions in the lists given in @nohat's answer are Fulbright and Pulitzer, which have something like the POOL vowel, although its phonetic realization may be closer to /ʊ/ than /u/. I've searched in vain for any mention of this merger before; this is the first real discussion of it that I've found.

For me this merged set is close to merging with the GOAL set (making near-homophones of pairs like bull-bowl, gull-goal, cult-colt, etc.) but they remain distinct.

Notes:

  1. From the less-integrated North Bay, so it's possible that I don't quite speak Bay Area English but instead Northern California English, or a transitional dialect between the two.
  2. Not too sure about this classification – if anything, it's more like a syllabic dark l /ɫ̩/ than a vowel – but for simplicity I'm grouping it with the STRUT vowels.

Further edit: I somehow missed some of the words in nohat's list; I seem to have an idiosyncratic split in this class of words, because wool, wolf have the POOL vowel as well. Hence my answer does not really clarify or reinforce anything, and perhaps should be deleted.

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  • When two vowels get merged into one lexical set, often you can find speakers who pronounce the merged vowel like either one of the two original vowels, and also speakers who pronounce it in-between. This may be because speakers don't hear the difference between the original vowels, so can't distinguish between the two possibilities. I expect that this is why you hear a few Americans pronouncing do like dew — [dju]. Commented Jul 17, 2023 at 21:42

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