19th century sound change in Kent: THOUGHT


The distribution of  THOUGHT by the eight informants: three had the earlier (O) pronunciation, while five had the new (N) pronunciation.


The map shows that three informants still had the older [ɔ:]-like pronunciation, while five had acquired the new [o:]-like pronunciation. The table below suggests that perhaps 40% of the county still retained the old pronunciation during 1865-1895. This means that the origin of this change is more recent than STRUT or TRAP, starting perhaps around 1830-1840 and spreading inland in the 1860s (Stoke1868 had acquired the new timbre while Bromley1866 had not).

This post continues from the introductory Nineteenth century sound change in Kent, where the informants are introduced and the background presented.


The numbers of informants with new (N) and old pronunciations (O), for each of the ten sound changes, ordered from the left by the total number of O acquired, assuming a progression from the earliest to the most recent. The grand total for each sound change is 8, the number of informants. The new [o:]-like THOUGHT was acquired by five out of the eight informants, and the earlier [ɔ:]-like pronunciation by three.

Alexander Ellis (1889, On Early English Pronunciation, Vol. 5, Teubner) recorded the surviving dialect pronunciation of THOUGHT in Kent and East Sussex as [ɔ:]. Matthews (1938, Cockney Past and Present, Routledge) reported [o:] for East End Cockney since the early 19th century (the popular London accent was the model for these sound changes in Kent).

F1/F2 diagrams for THOUGHT in 19th century Kent
showing older (O)  and new (N) pronunciations

The formant diagrams above show the five informants (abdfg) with the new [o:]-like THOUGHT timbre with F1 at 400-500Hz. The other three (ceh) had retained the earlier [ɔ:]-like pronunciation with F1 at 500-600Hz.

There is no tongue movement involved in changing from [ɔ] to [o], the same constriction location in the upper pharynx is adequate for both timbres. The main difference is more lip rounding, together with more tongue blade depression and more larynx depression  (Wood, 1992, A radiographic and model study of the tense-lax contrast in vowels, in  Phonologica 1988, 283-291, CUP).


Sound examples

The earlier [ɔ:]-like THOUGHT

The new [o:]-like THOUGHT

Examples from contemporary RP

For comparison, here are two RP examples, contemporaries of the Kentish informants. One is a political broadcast recorded by the BBC in 1931 by politician Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947), and the other is a Linguaphone recording (British Library) made in 1929 by Professor Daniel Jones (1881-1967).

Sweet (1892, Primer of Phonetics) and Jones (1932, Outline of English Phonetics) gave [ɔ:] for RP, still reported by Gimson (1962, An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English, Arnold). Gimson also noted that the pronunciation of THOUGHT was approaching cardinal [o] in what he called advanced RP. Harrington, Palethorpe and Watson (2000, Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation, Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 30:63-78) confirmed this for one person by a spectrographic analysis of the Queen’s Christmas speeches. Wells (1982, Accents of English, Vol. 2) also reported a general tendency towards more rounding for RP THOUGHT, particularly so for near-RP. This is an adopted RP that falls short of true RP, or a regional standard sociolect that happens to be close to RP. The latter is particularly relevant for 20th century Home Counties SBE, which is phonologically close to RP but still distinguished by LOT and THOUGHT (a small distinction, like all shibboleths). For example, Wikström (2013, An acoustic study of the RP English LOT and THOUGHT vowels, Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 43:37-47) included near-RP informants, which would bias the results for his target RP.


F1/F2 diagram, showing the [ɔ:]-like THOUGHT in RP


©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2016


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