19th century sound change in Kent: MOUTH


The distribution of MOUTH pronunciations by the eight informants. Four informants had acquired the new pronunciation [æɒ], [æ:] (N) or the partially new form [æʉ] (P). Four informants still had the earlier pronunciation [ɛʉ] (O).

Alexander Ellis (1889, On Early English Pronunciation, Vol. 5, Teubner) recorded the surviving dialect pronunciation of MOUTH in Kent and East Sussex as [ɛʉ]. The target model brought by migrating Londoners to the estuary towns was [æ:] or [æɒ]. The map shows that four informants spread across the northern half of the county had the new [æ:]~[æɒ]-like MOUTH or the partially new [æʉ]. The table below suggests that half the county was still acquiring the old [ɛʉ]-like MOUTH during 1865-1895. This is similar to the distribution for the loss of rhoticity, indicating that the MOUTH sound change also commenced around 1850. The map indicates that two factors are involved, time and location. The time factor is illustrated by Bromley1866, who had acquired the new pronunciation while Stoke1868 still had the old pronunciation (both born in the 1860s). The location factor is illustrated by the new N appearing in the NW and partially new P in the NE, while the O are in the S or E.

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 pronunciations (N), partially new pronunciations (P) 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 open [æɒ]-like MOUTH and partially new [æʉ]-like MOUTH was acquired by four out of the eight informants, and the earlier [ɛʉ]-like pronunciation by four.

The MOUTH change is complicated, the beginning being modified from [ɛ] to [æ] (from a palatal to a low pharyngeal constriction), and the end from [ʉ] to [ɒ] (from a velar to a low pharyngeal constriction).


F1/F2 diagrams for MOUTH (and PRICE).

The formant diagrams for MOUTH (above) appear confusing at first sight. The new [æɒ]-like MOUTH (informants a and b,c) has F1 higher than 600Hz all the way through from beginning to end, showing it is an open (or low) diphthong (following the Bell tradition), articulated with a low pharyngeal constriction. Informant (a) has two forms, the new [æɒ]-like pronunciation and the partially new [æʉ]-like pronunciation (apparently randomly, although the partially new example is a dialect word browsells and possibly a citation). The earlier [ɛʉ]-like pronunciation (informants d,e,g,h) starts with F1 at 500~600Hz.

The partially new forms were short-lived. Those who acquired them kept them throughout their lives, but they did not persist into later generations (see 20th century examples below).


Sound examples

The earlier [ɛʉ]-like MOUTH

The partially new [æʉ]-like MOUTH

New [æɒ]-like and partially new [æʉ]-like MOUTH

New [æɒ]-like MOUTH

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).


F1/F2 diagrams for RP MOUTH (and PRICE)

The RP pronunciation [au] has been stable since around 1800 at least, and has clearly progressed by a different route than Kentish ɛʉ>æɒ. This means that MOUTH is one of the vowels that still discriminate RP from 20th century Home Counties SBE. The standard solution for the Great Vowel Shift leading to RP MOUTH (Luick, 1896, Untersuchungen zur Englischen Lautgeschichte, and Jespersen, 1909, A Modern English Grammar, examined and reviewed by Chomsky & Halle, 1968, The Sound Pattern of English, and by Wolfe, 1973, Linguistic Change and the Great Vowel Shift in English) is roughly uw>ou>ʌu>au.


The Great Vowel Shift

This change in MOUTH (along with FACE, PRICE, GOAT) is the latest step in the Great Vowel Shift for Kent (and the entire south east since it was happening in all directions from London). Starting from /uw/ in the middle ages, with a constriction along the velum,  this phoneme has drifted through the vowel system until its starting element has now reached an [æ] or [a]-like timbre with a low pharyngeal constriction in most dialects of English around the world (Britain, 2008, On the wrong track?, Essex Research Reports in English Linguistics 57). Dialects do not necessarily progress in phase with each other, and there are still some waiting at the previous step where Kent was in the 19th century. Examples of dialects that still have [ʌu] are found in Virginia and Canada, suggested by Robert Stockwell (2002, How much shifting actually occurred in the historical English vowel shift? in Donka Minkova and Robert Stockwell (eds), Studies in the History of the English Language: a Millenial Perspective, Berlin, Mouton de Gruyter, 267-281) or Massachusetts and Marthas Vineyard (Labov, 1963, The social motivation of sound change, Word 19). London had completed this step much earlier before the migration to the estuary towns and the home counties. RP had also completed it by 1800.

GreatVowelShiftMouthbThe two routes for MOUTH, designated polite educated and provincial by the ortheoepist Cooper. The standard route branches right through polite educated to RP, with pharyngeal constrictions for the first element of the diphthongs (through [o] and [ʌ] to [a]). The provincial route branches left with a palatal constriction for the first element (through [ɛ]) in London, Kent and Norfolk.

The standard solution to RP [au] overlooks a second MOUTH route leading to [ɛu] in 19th century Kent, reported by Ellis and found above in the SED recordings. This route was recognised by Christopher Cooper (Bertil Sundby, Ed., 1953, Christopher Cooper’s English Teacher (1687), Lund, Gleerup), who recorded it as a provincialism. Sundby also cited the dialect of Norfolk and Suffolk as sharing this route, which is confirmed now by listening to the SED and BBC recordings at the British Library (see also John Wells, 1982, Accents of English, Cambridge University Press, vol. 2 §4.3.3). This route via [ɛu] is common to the entire Southern British English region, including the south west (see Wells 1982 again, vol. 2 §4.3.7), and parts of the north (Wells 1982, vol. 2 §4.4.5), and taken overseas by emigrants.

©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2016


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