This [ʊ] sound is the vowel sound for words like hook, pull, and good. When I began to learn English a bit more seriously two decades ago, I used a book that taught me to pronounce it shorter and more relaxed than the long sound of [u], the vowel sound in words like pool, food, and cool. It also told me to round my lips too.

My pronunciation is fine (I hope, at least people around me seem to understand me perfectly), however I found a strange tendency in recent years, especially from Americans. (I can watch them on TV and video clips.) Many of them seem to not round their lips when pronouncing this [ʊ] sound.

The first time I noticed this was the time I heard an ESL teacher pronounced it with the [ɯ] sound (she is not a native English speaker, by the way). There is no [ɯ] sound in English, but there is one in Thai language. The [ɯ] sound, though being a close-back vowel, is always unrounded. So it sounds very strange to me at first, since [ʊ] is a near-back-near-close vowel, and I thought it is supposed to be rounded.

Wonder why she pronounced it that way, I started to watch native speakers on TV closely, and found that only some of them pronounce [ʊ] unrounded in normal speech. Most of them seem to round their lips a little (how much the little is little is another matter). But when they exaggerate the word, most of them don't round their lips, e.g., I saw one judge on a vocal-focused reality show exclaimed Good! for maybe three seconds long, and in that entire three seconds there was no lips rounding at all!

I consulted Wikipedia, and found that the matter of this rounding is unclear:

"Its vowel roundedness is generally rounded, which means that the lips are rounded to a greater or lesser degree, but is sometimes rather ambiguous. Because no language is known to contrast rounding with this place of articulation, the IPA has not created separate symbols to show this."

So which pronunciation is standard for the [ʊ] sound? Rounded or unrounded?

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    Great question! I've edited it slightly in order to make the question more objective and not just a poll of pronunciation. – JSBձոգչ Nov 11 '12 at 14:37
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    Though the examples being considered here are English, I wonder if the question of how to pronounce an IPA symbol isn't language independent and shouldn't be migrated to Linguistics.SE. – MetaEd Nov 11 '12 at 16:15
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    @MετάEd: Perhaps I didn't made myself clear enough. I didn't want to know the pronunciation of the IPA symbol [ʊ]. It might be better if I instead asked "How people in various dialects of English really pronounce this [ʊ] vowel sound? Rounded or unrounded? – Damkerng T. Nov 11 '12 at 16:29
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    I'm surprised no one has said anything... I think there is no rounding in this vowel. in fact if you find minimal pairs like cook/kook, look/Luke, pull/pool, the first is unrounded, the second rounded.(at least in AmE). – Mitch Nov 11 '12 at 17:24
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    There's so much going on there that a full answer would be too long - and too hard for a non-linguist to understand. I'll just quote Cruttenden (2008) who reports that "there is an increasing tendency for this vowel to be unrounded; if the lips are rounded at all, a close but loose rounding is involved"; also, "the unrounding is particularly noticeable in the common word good, and also in should, could, and, to a lesser extent, would" (p. 125). You should take a look at Gimson's Pronunciation of English - a very nice place to start with. – Alex B. Nov 11 '12 at 18:52

So which pronunciation is standard for the [ʊ] sound? Rounded or unrounded?

Certainly there is some rounding, but because roundedness is not phonemic in this position, there is also considerable variation in how much of it actually occurs in any given word and speaker.

For example, you will find that it is generally somewhat more rounded in pull and full than it is in put and foot respectively. That’s because having an r or an l right next to it rounds it off a bit — which is why it is a bit more rounded in root and rook than it is foot or cook. Same with rookie versus cookie, where the first version is a bit more rounded than the second. And of course, a w helps: compare how wool is even more rounded than full, and also moreso that wood.

I believe English has no words with [ʊw], as that seems redundant. However, it can occur in phrases, especially in some dialects, where something like I knew it full-well may approach that.

However, it is still perceived as the very same phoneme in all those words and cases I’ve just listed above.

Correction — or not

I said that I thought English had no words with [ʊw] in them. And at the end of the day, I still believe that. However, I have discovered that grepping the OED yields the apparent existence-proof counterexample of Rauwiloid, which means:

A proprietary name for a hypotensive preparation containing a number of alkaloids extracted from Rauvolfia serpentina.

You also have compound words whose first element ends in [aʊ] (rather than [aw], as it is sometimes spelled) connecting to something that begins with [w], and which have in effect a “double w” in them, you expand the list to include such things as:

bow-wow, powwow, skeow-ways, wow-wow

Finally, if you consider the sound in words like no and micro to be an [oʊ] diphthong rather than [ow], then you get all these, most of which were originally compounds of some sort:

froward, frowardly, frowardness, glow-worm, Holloway, hollowwort, Howeitat, Khowar, meadow-wink, microwave, microweld, Moldo-Wallachian, nowise, Oldowan, Parowax, powan, shalloway, slow-worm, swallowwort, werowance, yellow-wood, yeowoman.

For example, yeowoman theoretically yields /ˈjoʊwʊmən/, at least in North America. Still, there is a reasonably convincing argument to be made that that one is better written as simply /ˈjowʊmən/.

Slightly less uncommon is nowise, which is a compound of one word ending in a diphthong connected to another starting with a triphthong, so /ˈnoʊˌwaɪz/.

But I am still highly dubious of the existence of [ʊw], because I think it fuses into the semi-consonantal glide, [w]. After all, nowise and no eyes are homophonic, so I think this idea of [ʊw] is very hard to justify, and so I stand by my initial statement.

Even towel is usually pronounced with just one syllable, /taʊl/, thereby rhyming with cowl /kaʊl/. Even with folks who work very hard to put two syllables into that, with /ˈtaʊ.wəl/, I submit that you could write that /ˈtawːəl/ and avoid the whole controversy of whether a semi-vowel/semi-consonant/off-glide is really /ʊ/ or really /w/. However you write it, it seems like the same sound to me, such that bisyllabic towel just has a geminate [w]: /ˈtaw.wəl/.

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    I suspect you may get more rounding in British English, because you need to distinguish the phonemes in lurk and look. For me, an unrounded /ʊ/ would not be that far from /ə/, but since /ə/ does not occur in accented syllables, this would not cause confusion. But of course, in British English, lurk is long and look is short, giving another way to distinguish them. – Peter Shor Nov 11 '12 at 15:43
  • @tchrist: Thank you for useful information. It sounds like the initial and ending consonants are the main causes that determine the degree of the rounding. If this speculation is true, it is not very surprising that when a native prolonged this [ʊ] sound for at least a few seconds, it is likely that no rounding can be observed. – Damkerng T. Nov 11 '12 at 15:51
  • Just a thought, how would a native pronounce the [ʊ] sound if they are told to pronounce this sound alone? Will the round their lips? – Damkerng T. Nov 11 '12 at 15:54
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    @PeterShor It seems that sometimes where one would normally expect [ʊ] , instead the [ɵ] sound (which is the close-mid central rounded vowel) is getting some traction in certain un-(North)American dialects of English. – tchrist Nov 11 '12 at 15:59
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    @tchrist: There are always exceptions, and phonemic systems do not spontaneously snap into different minimal configurations like topological spaces upon the creation of a counterexample. Basically, you're right that (a) there's a vast amount of individual variation, and (b) contrast is what drives it. For some people, sometimes, there's a long /ʊ:/ that ends with a gesture upwards -- that's enough. For others, there isn't, or there is, but not in there. Etc. – John Lawler Nov 11 '12 at 17:42

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