Home counties SBE vowel formants


This page continues from  the spectrographic study of the monophthong vowels of five speakers of RP here. A similar study for five speakers of home counties SBE is presented now. The home counties (or the South East generally) form one subregion of Southern British English distinguished by John Wells (1982, Accents of English 2, C.U.P., p. 335), the others being East Anglia and the west. There are various definitions of the home counties. Linguistically, Wells identifies Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hertforshire and Essex, together with parts of Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Bedfordshire. Middlesex should also be mentioned for its historical status, although it was absorbed into Greater London in 1965 and no longer exists as an administrative entity.

The focus of this page is home counties SBE, based on five examples available online from YouTube in MP3. Conclusions might also be valid for other SBE subregions, or they might not. That has not been checked.

Listen to these five home counties SBE speakers. They were born more recently, in the 1950s (except no. 2, who was born in the 1970s). The first two are actors and comedians (who have cultivated their popular SBE sociolects for their performances), the final three are a professor, a photographer, and a professor (standard home counties SBE sociolects).

For  comparison, listen to the five RP speakers. They were chosen to cover more than a century from the late 1800s, and are arranged by birth year (William Somerset Maugham 1874, Harold MacMillan 1894, Ian Fleming 1908, Kingsley Amis 1922, William Hague 1961). Two of them, William Somerset Maugham and William Hague, have adopted RP from their former French or Northern English.

Additionally, there is similar data reported from the Queen’s Christmas Broadcasts by Jonathan Harrington et al. (2000, Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation: an acoustic analysis of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts, Journal of the International Phonetic Association 30: 63-78). This is cited here, to supplement the RP data.

Finally, there is similar data published by David Deterding (1997, The formants of monophthong vowels in Standard Southern British English Pronunciation, Journal of the International Phonetic association 27, 47-55). Deterding doesn’t define or cite a source for Standard Southern British English, except to say it was “similar to RP”, and assumes, following Peter Roach et al. (1993, MARSEC: a machine-readable spoken English corpus, Journal of the International Phonetic Association 23, 47-54), “that the accent of all the speakers is RP or close to it”. I assume, in turn, that this means the accents are RP, or some other accent(s) partially or completely modified towards RP, or perhaps unmodified home counties SBE. RP and home counties SBE are certainly very close in an objective sense, for example it turns out that the only real difference today among the monophthong vowels could be as little as RP [ɒ] and home counties [ɔ] for LOT. But there was a time when the RP-speaking community were very much aware of that slight difference, and home counties SBE speakers were expected to modify their accents to RP for careers in most professions. Discrete differences are the basis of shiboleths.


praatfftsliceFigure 1: Example of a narrow band spectral slice, showing the partial structure of a vowel to help determine which partials are included in a formant.
formantssbeln01Figure 2: F1/F2 vowel diagram for home counties speaker 01.

The recordings were all continuous speech, interviews or public speeches, 3-5 minutes for each speaker. The recordings had unfortunately been compressed by MP3 to low quality to facilitate handling on the web. Consequently broadband spectrograms and LPC formant tracking were not always distinct. Narrowband spectrograms turned out to be easier to work with, by identifying which harmonics were included in a formant, and which were not. Formants were sampled at moments where vowels were least affected by neighbouring consonants, as indicated by formant transition movements. The formants were then measured on the computer screen from spectral slices taken at the selected moments (Figure 1). Stressed vowels in focally accented words were chosen, 3 to 5 instances of each phoneme, taken as they occurred. There were very few examples of the FOOT vowel.

formantssbehc02Figure 3: F1/F2 vowel diagram for home counties speaker 02.

Figure 4: F1/F2 vowel diagram for home counties speaker 03.
formantssbehc04Figure 5: F1/F2 vowel diagram for home counties speaker 04.
formantssbehc05Figure 6: F1/F2 vowel diagram for home counties speaker 05.

The frequency scales of the vowel diagrams are compressed to the Mel scale, so that equal linear intervals are perceptually equal in Mels (Stevens, Stanley et al, 1937, A scale for the measurement of the psychological magnitude pitch, Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 8, 185–190; Fant, Gunnar, 1968, Analysis and synthesis of speech processes, in B. Malmberg (Ed.), Manual of phonetics, Amsterdam, 173-177).  Other psychophysical scales are also found in the literature, a straight logarithmic transformation (yielding linear octaves and semitones), and Bark transformations (based on auditory critical bands).

The F1/F2 diagrams for each of the five home counties SBE speakers are shown in Figs. 2-6.

Potential differences between RP SBE and Home Counties SBE

In RP SBE vowel formants, the RP diagrams and three previously published home counties SBE diagrams were compared, to check expected differences concerning the TRAP, THOUGHT, LOT, STRUT and GOOSE vowels. This preliminary comparison suggested there were indeed differences for the THOUGHT and LOT vowels ([ɔː] and [ɒ] by the five RP speakers, [oː] and [ɔ] by the three home counties SBE speakers, respectively). The RP STRUT vowel was not the [ʌ]-like timbre expected from the standard descriptions, but [a], like the home counties SBE speakers. Finally, the GOOSE fronting recently reported for the late 20th century was detected in both RP and home counties SBE from the early 20th century. These preliminary observations will now be reviewed again against the new data from the five home counties SBE speakers.

  • TRAP. The RP TRAP vowel formerly had a more [ɛ]-coloured [æ] timbre, close to the DRESS vowel. This gave way during the early 20th century to a more [a]-coloured [æ] timbre, closer to STRUT. The three older home counties SBE speakers, previously compared with RP, and now these five home counties SBE speakers, all had their trap vowel near STRUT. This former difference between RP and home counties SBE has long since been given up.
  • THOUGHT. The RP examples confirmed an [ɔː]-timbre for their THOUGHT vowel (F1 was typically in the interval around 500~600Hz), and the three home counties SBE examples had an [oː]-like timbre (F1 400~500Hz). This suggested a consistent difference between the two accents, which is also continued now in these five home counties SBE examples (Figs. 2-6), with F1 of the THOUGHT vowel ranging 400~500Hz. However, Gimson and Wells had both detected a recent tendency in RP to shift from [ɔː] towards [oː], which, if it continues, would eventually eliminate this difference. There were no examples of such a tendency from the five RP speakers, but the data of Harrington et al. (their Fig. 1) from the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts does illustrate it. The F1 range for her THOUGHT vowel shrank from 400~700HZ in the 1950s to 400~600Hz in the 1960s and 1980s, indicating an earlier wide [ɔː~oː] variation shifting towards mainly [oː] in the later years. It’s clear there has been a consistent difference between [ɔː]-like RP THOUGHT vowels and [oː]-like home counties SBE THOUGHT vowels. However, that difference could disappear if younger RP speakers continue to shift their THOUGHT vowel from [ɔː] towards [oː].

Listen to examples of the [oː]-like THOUGHT vowel by the five home counties SBE speakers:
Three examples from each: performance, glory, warzone; absorbing, exhausted, dawn; thoughts, talk, endorsed; sports, important, forties; withdrawing, proportions,  forces.

For comparison, listen to examples of the [ɔː]-like THOUGHT vowel by the five RP speakers:
Three examples from each: often, forties, course; short, course, more; straightforward, war, taught; endorse, importance, more; lord, forebears, your.

  • LOT. The RP examples confirmed an [ɒ]-like timbre (F1 mostly above 600Hz, with the LOT zone very close to the BATH zone), while the three home counties SBE examples had an [ɔ]-like timbre (with F1 500~600Hz, and the LOT zone further away from the BATH zone). This also indicated a consistent difference between RP [ɒ] and home counties SBE [ɔ], continued now with [ɔ] by these five home counties SBE speakers (Figs. 2-6). The Queen’s LOT vowel was always [ɒ]-like (F1 600~800Hz). It’s clear there’s always been, and still is, a consistent difference between RP [ɒ]-like and home counties SBE [ɔ]-like LOT vowels.

Listen to examples of the [ɔ]-like LOT vowel by the five home counties SBE speakers.
Three examples from each: dots, wants, Hollywood; from, Johnson, comedy; not, gods, teleology; modern, lots, spin off; authority, strongest, crossing.

For comparison, listen to examples of the [ɒ]-like LOT vowel by the five RP speakers.
Three examples from each, some repeated: honest, honest, competent; office, historic, economy; watch, foreign, job; neurotic, moral, stocks; honouring, colleague, policies

  • STRUT. The RP examples failed to confirm the expected [ʌ]-like timbre. Instead, they all had [a]-like timbres, just like home counties SBE, between their TRAP and BATH timbres. Two earlier RP speakers had a darker [ɑ]-like timbre that coincided with the BATH vowel, possibly an older obsolescent pronunciation. But none had [ʌ]. RP and home counties SBE speakers alike, the TRAP, STRUT and BATH vowels were all strung out along the bottom of the vowel diagrams, distinguished by their F2 frequencies: highest for TRAP, intermediate for STRUT and lowest for BATH. The same distribution can be seen in the Queen’s data. Her STRUT vowel was also [a]-like, between TRAP and BATH, with F1 600~1000Hz. It’s clear that there’s no consistent difference between the STRUT vowels of RP and home counties SBE, despite any expectations prompted by the standard RP literature.

Listen to examples of the [a]-like STRUT vowel by the five home counties SBE speakers.
One example from each, repeated three times: lucky; company; punishing; summer; structured

For comparison, listen to examples of the similar [a]-like STRUT vowels by the five RP speakers.
One example from each, repeated three times: sometimes; country; publisher; eachother; hundred

  • GOOSE. Traditionally, the RP GOOSE vowel had a relatively dark timbre, reflected in lower F2 frequencies, around 1000~1200Hz. Recent reports indicate that this phoneme is much brighter nowadays in RP, reflected in [ʉ]-like timbres with F2 frequencies well above 1500Hz. The data from the five RP speakers suggested this process had progressed throughout the 20th century. The same tendency was evident in the three home counties SBE examples also cited in Part 2 (birth years 1910s and 1930s). Of the five home counties SBE speakers seen here in Figs. 2-6, speakers 1 and 2 have GOOSE zones with F2 frequencies approaching 2000Hz, while  speakers 3 and 4 both have GOOSE zones that exceed exceed 1500Hz. Similarly, the Queen’s Christmas broadcast data reported by Harrington et al. show her highest F2 frequency in the GOOSE zone aproaching 2000Hz in the 1950s and exceeding 2000Hz in the 1960s and 1980s. That’s not quite so dramatic as it sounds if we allow a few 100Hz for a shorter vocal tract, but the tendency is clear, there were some very bright instances of her GOOSE vowel. It’s clear there’s no longer any consistent difference between RP and home counties GOOSE vowels that would discriminate the two accents, nor has there been for most of the 20th century.

Deterding’s study (1997)

formantssbedetmFigure 7: F1/F2 vowel diagram for the individual averages of Deterding’s five male speakers B C H J K. The LOT zone is split into blue and red areas (see text).
formantssbedetfFigure 8: F1/F2 vowel diagram for the individual averages of Deterding’s five female speakers A D E F G.

Deterding analysed vowel formants from ten BBC announcers recorded in the 1980s. Vowel diagrams for these ten speakers (five men, five women), based on the individual speaker averages published by Deterding, are shown in Figs. 7 and 8.

  • THOUGHT vowel. Taking the male group first again, the THOUGHT zone had F1 around 400~500Hz, expected for the home counties [oː] timbre. However, B and H were both at the higher F1 end of the zone closer to the RP [ɔː] timbre. Once again C J K are singled out as possible home counties candidates. The female group were clustered with F1 mostly below 400Hz, despite their shorter vocal tracts, which definitely points to a darker [oː] timbre, and leaves a large empty space for [ɔː] between their LOT and THOUGHT zones. Perhaps they weren’t RP speakers after all. Or were they following Her Majesty’s lead in shifting their THOUGHT vowel from expected [ɔː] to [oː], closing yet another difference between RP and home counties SBE?
  • LOT vowel. Taking the male group first, there were two clusters: B and H with F1 higher than 600Hz (blue zone), and C J K with lower F1 at 400~500Hz. This suggests B and H had the RP [ɒ] timbre, and C J K had the home counties [ɔ] timbre. The female group was closely clustered near the BATH zone with F1 600~700Hz, suggesting all had targeted the RP [ɒ] timbre. This singles out C J K as possible home counties SBE candidates.
  • STRUT vowel. Both groups exhibit the same result as all the previous data, an [a]-like spectrum, between TRAP and BATH. Still no example of an [ʌ]-like target.
  • GOOSE vowel. Figures 7 and 8 report the individual speaker averages, so we don’t know how high the F2 scatter actually was. Some of the averages are around or above 1500Hz, suggesting brighter GOOSE vowels.


  • The former TRAP vowel difference difference between RP [ɛ]-coloured [æ] timbre and home counties SBE [a]-coloured [æ] timbre has long since been given up.
  • The home counties SBE THOUGHT vowel has consistently been [o:]-like throughout the 20th century, while the RP THOUGHT vowel has been [ɔː]-like. However, if a recent tendency for RP to shift to [o:] persists in the future, this difference between the accents will be given up by RP.
  • There is still a stable difference for the LOT vowel, [ɒ] for RP but [ɔ] for home counties SBE.
  • The RP and home counties STRUT vowel have both shown a similar [a]-like timbre. So far, an [ʌ]-like timbre for RP, expected from all the standard literature, has not yet been seen.
  • The former RP preference for a dark GOOSE vowel has long since been given up. RP now accepts the brighter GOOSE timbres of home counties SBE.
  • This comparison has only concerned the monophthong vowels. There are still other differences that distinguish RP from home counties SBE, for example the MOUTH and GOAT vowels, and possibly other diphthongs. There are potentially differences in prosody, the pronunciations of certain words, or tendencies to syllable reduction.
©Sidney Wood and SWPhonetics, 1994-2014