In the sociolinguistics of the English language, /æ/ raising or short-a raising is a phenomenon in most American and many Canadian English accents, by which the “short a” vowel // (listen), the North American TRAP/BATH vowel (found in such words as ash, bath, man, lamp, pal, rag, sack, trap, etc.), is pronounced with a raising of the tongue. Many forms of /æ/ raising are specifically /æ/ tensing: occurring only in certain words or environments, with a combination of greater raising, lengthening, and gliding than in other environments. The realization of this “tense” (as opposed to “lax”) /æ/ varies from [æ̝ˑ] to [ɛə] to [eə] to [ɪə], and is greatly dependent on the speaker’s particular dialect. A common realization is [eə] (listen), a transcription that will be used throughout this article to represent the tensed vowel. The most common context for tensing /æ/ throughout North American English, regardless of dialect, is when this vowel appears before a nasal consonant (thus, for example, commonly in fan, but rarely in fat).
For the purposes of the chart below, [eə] represents a very tense vowel, [ɛə] a somewhat tense (or intermediate) vowel, and [æ] a non-tense (or lax) vowel, and the symbol “~” represents a continuous system in which the vowel may variably waver between two pronunciations.
|// raising in North American English|
|Consonant after /æ/||Syllable type||Example words||New York City & New Orleans||Baltimore & Philadelphia||Eastern New England||General American, Midland U.S., & Western U.S.||Canadian, Northwestern U.S., & Upper Midwestern U.S.||Southern U.S. & African American Vernacular||Great Lakes|
|/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/||Closed||[eə]||[æ~ɛə]||[æ]|
|/f/, /s/, /θ/||Closed||[eə]|
|All other consonants||[æ]|
- 1 Distinction between phonemic and non-phonemic /æ/ raising
- 2 Phonemic /æ/ raising systems
- 3 Non-phonemic /æ/ raising systems
- 4 References
Distinction between phonemic and non-phonemic /æ/ raising
Short-a (or /æ/) tensing has two possible forms: either non-phonemic (“continuous”) or phonemic (“split”). In General American, for example, the word man can be pronounced on a continuum from the lax-vowel [mæn] to the tense-vowel [meən], though the latter pronunciation is much more common. However, both vowel qualities are considered possible variations (allophones) of the single “short a” phoneme in man. Therefore, General American uses a continuous system in which a tensed allophone does not demonstrate that a new phoneme has splintered off from the original.
In some American English dialects, though, including the New York City and Philadelphia ones, the “short a” sound can actually split into two entirely distinct phonemes, so that using a tense vowel rather than a lax vowel can potentially change the meanings of words or phrases. For instance, in traditional Philadelphia English, the surname Manning can only be pronounced with a lax vowel as [ˈmænɪŋ]. If it is pronounced tensely as [ˈmeənɪŋ], it may be perceived by a Philadelphian as an entirely different word: the verb manning (as in “He was manning the vehicle”). Therefore, such dialects have a phonemic split of the “short a” vowel, sometimes called a “short-a split system”. This relationship between two words (like Manning and manning) that differ in only a single differentiating sound is known as a minimal pair. Here are further examples of minimal pairs of the short a, using the Philadelphia and General American accents for reference as, respectively, phonemic and non-phonemic accents:
|Example words||Philadelphia||General U.S.|
e.g. The calf was born today.
e.g. Students must eat in the caf.
|both, typically: [kæf]|
e.g. A knife can halve the bread in two.
e.g. She might have fun.
|both, typically: [hæv]|
e.g. He was manning the control panel.
e.g. We met the Manning family.
|both, typically: [ˈmeənɪŋ]|
e.g. He’s madder than a rabid dog.
e.g. Discuss this matter further.
|both, typically: [ˈmæɾɚ]|
e.g. I grabbed a mass of clay.
e.g. She works at Mass General.
|both, typically: [mæs]|
e.g. We’ll plan it after breakfast.
e.g. The planet orbits the Sun.
|both, typically: [‘pɫeənɪt]|
Phonemic /æ/ raising systems
In a North American short-a phonemic split system (or, simply, a short-a split), the terms “raising” and “tensing” can be used interchangeably. Phonemic tensing occurs in the dialects of New York City and the Mid-Atlantic States (centering on the cities of Philadelphia and Baltimore). It is similar, in its word patterns but not in its resulting pronunciation, to the trap-bath split of certain British English, notably the London and standard British dialects, which creates a new “broad a” phoneme from words that elsewhere retain a “short a” sound. The environment of “broad a” overlaps with that of /æ/ tensing, in that it occurs before voiceless fricatives in the same syllable and before nasals in certain environments; and both phenomena involve replacement of the short lax vowel /æ/ with a longer and tenser vowel. However, the “broad a” is lower and backer than [æ], while the result of /æ/ tensing is higher and fronter.
It is also related to the bad–lad split of some Southern British and Australian dialects, in which a short flat /æ/ is lengthened to [æː] in some conditions. The most significant differences from the Philadelphian system described here are that bad–lad splitting dialects have the “broad a“ phenomenon, so the split can’t occur there; that ‘sad’ is long; and that lengthening can occur before /ɡ/ and /l/.
New York City
In the traditional New York accent, the tense /eə/ is traditionally an entirely separate phoneme from /æ/ as a result of a phonemic split. Nevertheless, the distribution between /æ/ and /eə/ is largely predictable. Labov et al. related this to the distinction between /ɒ/ and /ɔː/. It was reported that /sæd/ and /seəd/ were heard as the same word, but /sɒd/ and /sɔːd/ were heard as two different words, suggesting minimal pairs to be not as likely in New York City as in Philadelphia. In New York, tensing occurs in closed syllables before the /n/, /m/, /f/, /θ/, /s/, /ʃ/, and voiced stops. The word avenue normally has tense [eə] (unlike average, etc.). In open syllables, /æ/ tends to stay lax, regardless of the following consonant.
Exceptions in New York City English include the following:
- Function words with simple codas
- can (simple coda) [æ] vs. can’t (complex coda) has [eə]
- Learned words (i.e. borrowed words) typically are lax
- alas and carafe with [æ]
- Abbreviated personal names are usually lax
- Cass and Babs with [æ]
- When a vowel-initial word-level suffix is added to a word with tense [eə], the vowel remains tense even though it has come to stand in an open syllable:
- mannish has [eə] like man, not [æ] like manage
- classy has [eə] like class, not [æ] like classic
- passing has [eə] like pass, not [æ] like Pasadena
The New York split system has also diffused into Albany, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and nearby parts of New Jersey.
Northern New Jersey
In Northern New Jersey, Labov finds the New York City system, but with some variability. East of the Hackensack River, i.e., by Hoboken, Elizabeth, and Jersey City, Labov finds the split with no more variation than in the city itself.
Between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, Labov finds speakers typically lack the function word constraint. Thus, am, can (the verb), an, and and all typically result with tense [eə]. Labov also reports variable tensing in open syllables, resulting in potential tensing of planet and fashionable.
West of the Passaic River, /æ/-tensing only occurs before nasals.
Like in Northern New Jersey, Labov finds that the New York split system has also diffused in Albany with some alterations. Whereas the function is lost in Northern New Jersey, Labov reports that the function constraint is only weakened in Albany. Thus, can, an, and has may be tensed while have and had may be lax. Also, while the open syllable constraint is variable in Northern New Jersey; Labov reports that in Albany, this constraint is absent altogether. Thus, national, cashew, family, camera, planet, and manner are all tense.
Labov finds the remnants of the New York split system present in the now-declining traditional dialect of Cincinnati, with similar variations to Northern New Jersey and Albany. Like in Albany, the open-syllable constraint is completely absent. However, the function word and is reported as being lax.
Labov further reports consistently laxing before /g/. While, in New York, tensing before voiced fricatives is variable, it is reported as consistent in Cincinnati.
Labov finds the New York split system in New Orleans with similar variations. As in older Cincinnati, tensing may also occur before voiced fricatives. As in Northern New Jersey, the function constraint is virtually absent. However, closer to the split of New York City proper, the open syllable constraint is still retained. Also, the tense variant [eə] appears to always be present before voiced fricatives like /v/ and /z/.
Philadelphia and Baltimore
Philadelphia and Baltimore use a different short-a system than New York City, though it is similar in that it is also a split system. Tensing does not occur before voiced stops and /ʃ/, with the only exceptions being mad, bad, and glad. Here are further examples that are true for Philadelphia and Baltimore, as well as New York City:
|Tense [eə]||Lax [æ]|
Philadelphia/Baltimore exceptions include the New York exceptions listed above, plus the following:
- When a polysyllabic word with [æ] in an open syllable gets truncated to a single closed syllable, the vowel remains lax:
- caf (truncation of cafeteria) has [æ], not [eə] like calf
- path (truncation of pathology) has [æ], not [eə] like path ‘way, road’
- Mass (truncation of Massachusetts) has [æ], not [eə] like mass
- Function words and irregular verb tenses have lax [æ], even in an environment which would usually cause tensing:
- and (a function word) has [æ], not [eə] like sand
- ran (a strong verb tense) has [æ], not [eə] like man
Non-phonemic /æ/ raising systems
Before /m, n/
Most American and many Canadian English speakers, at the very least, display an /æ/ that is raised (tensed) and diphthongized before the front nasals /m/ and /n/, as for example found in camp, man, ram, pan, ran, clamber, Sammy, etc., while being otherwise lower and laxer, without splitting the “short a” into two contrasting phonemes as the New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Yat accents do. A common form of this is what William Labov calls the “nasal system”, in which /æ/ is raised and tensed most severely, though not necessarily exclusively, before nasal consonants, regardless of whether there is a syllabic or morphemic boundary present. The nasal system is found in several separate and unrelated dialect regions, including the southern Midwest, northern New Jersey, Florida, and parts of Canada, among others, but it is most prominent—that is, the difference between the two allophones of /æ/ is greatest, and speakers with the nasal system are most concentrated—in eastern New England (including in the Boston accent).
More widespread among speakers of the Western United States, Canada, and southern Midwest is a “continuous system,” which also revolves around “short a” before nasal consonants, but does not have quite as extreme a raising of the tongue as the “nasal system” does. Most varieties of General American English fall under this category. This system resembles the nasal system in that /æ/ is usually raised and tensed to [eə] before nasals, but instead of a sharp divide between a high, tense allophone before nasals and a low, lax one before other consonants, allophones of /æ/ occupy a continuum of varying degrees of height and tenseness between those two extremes, with a variety of phonetic and phonological factors interacting (sometimes differently in different dialects) to determine the height and tenseness of any particular example of /æ/.
In the Southern United States, the pattern most characteristic of Southern American English does not employ /æ/ raising at all, but rather what has been called the “Southern drawl”: /æ/ becomes in essence a triphthong [æjə]. However, many speakers from the South do still have the nasal /æ/-raising system described above, particularly in Charleston, Atlanta, and Florida; and certain speakers from the New Orleans area have been reported to have a system very similar to the phonemic split of New York.
Before /ɡ, ŋ/
For speakers in much of Canada and in the North-Central and Northwestern United States, a following /ɡ/ (as in magazine, rag, bags, etc.) or /ŋ/ (as in bang, pang, gangster, angler, etc.) tenses an /æ/ as much as or more than a following nasal does. In Wisconsin, Minnesota, and central Canada, a merger of /æ/ with /eɪ/ before /ɡ/, making bag, for example, rhyme with vague, has been reported.
General /æ/ raising
In accents that have undergone the Northern cities vowel shift, mostly those of the Inland Northern United States, the phoneme /æ/ is raised and tensed in all possible environments: a “general raising” system. The most clear example of this is with the Inland North dialect, spoken in such areas as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. However, reversal of this raising before non-nasal consonants has been observed in at least some communities in which it has been studied, including Lansing, Michigan, and Syracuse, New York.
- It is also used in Wells, 1982.
- Boberg, Charles (Spring 2001). “Phonological Status of Western New England”. American Speech, Volume 76, Number 1. pp. 3-29 (Article). Duke University Press. p. 11: “The vowel /æ/ is generally tensed and raised […] only before nasals, a raising environment for most speakers of North American English”.
- Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 182. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
- Trager, George L. (1940) One Phonemic Entity Becomes Two: The Case of ‘Short A’ in American Speech: 3rd ed. Vol. 15: Duke UP. 256. Print.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 13 & 17
- “Transmission and diffusion” (PDF). www.ling.upenn.edu.
- Labov, “Transmission and Diffusion”
- Mielke, Carignan & Thomas (2017), p. 333.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 181.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 13
- Wagner, S. E.; Mason, A.; Nesbitt, M.; Pevan, E.; Savage, M. (2016). “Reversal and re-organization of the Northern Cities Shift in Michigan” (PDF). University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 22.2: Selected Papers from NWAV 44.
- Driscoll, Anna; Lape, Emma (2015). “Reversal of the Northern Cities Shift in Syracuse, New York”. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. 21 (2).
- Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
- Mielke, Jeff; Carignan, Christopher; Thomas, Erik R. (2017). “The articulatory dynamics of pre-velar and pre-nasal /æ/-raising in English: An ultrasound study”. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 142 (1): 332–349. doi:10.1121/1.4991348.