Sound change in 19th century RP: THOUGHT and GOOSE

Seven speakers of RP born in the latter half of the 19th century are examined for signs of reported sound change to THOUGHT and GOOSE. They are described here.

RP THOUGHT is described by Jones (1932) and Gimson (1962) as [ɔː]. But Gimson also reported a possible on-going sound change to [oː], supported by Wells (1982). This turns out to be rare in RP, the often-quoted example being HM Queen Elizabeth (Harrington et al. 2000).

RP GOOSE had a relatively dark timbre, although Jones noted an advanced variety following /j/, while Gimson noted increasing centralization. Henton (1983) reported higher instances of F2 since Wells (1962). Harrington et al. (2011) noted that part of the F2 increase was due to weaker lip-rounding.

Gimson, A. C. 1962. An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London, Arnold.
Harrington, J., S. Palethorpe & C. Watson. 2000. Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 30:63-78.
Harrington, J. S., F. Kleber & U. Reinhold. 2011. The contributions of the lips and tongue to the diachronic fronting of high back vowels in Standard Southern British English. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 41:137-156.
Henton, C. 1983. Changes in the vowels of Received Pronunciation. Journal of Phonetics 11:353-371.
Jones, Daniel. 1932. An Outline of English Phonetics. Leipzig: Teubner. 3rd revised edition.
Wells, J. C. 1962. A Study of the Formants of the Pure Vowels of British English. MA thesis, University of London.

All the recordings have been subjected to lossy MP3 compression at some time during their lives. They were analysed using Praat, by LPC formant tracking where possible, by measuring directly on the spectrogram where that failed, or by measuring formant peaks on FFT slices. Some lower back vowels had to be abandoned and there are consequently fewer instances of FOOT, THOUGHT or LOT in some cases. Vowel formant frequencies were collected from fully focused syllables, to minimize spectral variation due to vowel reduction. Vowels were sampled at the moment where vowel articulation was least affected by surrounding consonant articulations, selected by comparing VC and CV formant transitions, to minimize spectral variation due to coarticulation.

Figure 1. F1/F2 diagram for RP12 Robert Baden-Powell.
Figure 2. F1/F2 diagram for RP06 Stanley Baldwin.

Figure 3: F1/F2 diagram for RP13 Neville Chamberlain

Figure 4. F1/F2 diagram for RP08 Sir Richard Paget, based
on data in his Human Speech, 1930, London, Kegan Paul
(formants reported as frequency ranges).

Figure 5. F1/F2 diagram for RP01 W. Somerset Maugham.
Figure 6. F1/F2 diagram for RP07 Daniel Jones, combined
from an educational recording (1929) and the commentary
to the 1956 cardinal vowel recording

Figure 7. F1/F2 diagram for RP02 Harold MacMillan.

Tongue height is interpreted as F1 on the vowel diagrams, tongue backing as F2 (explained here). Some of these examples had shorter than average vocal tracts with F2 reaching or approaching 2500Hz in FLEECE, and F1 extending beyond 800Hz. Most were spoken energetically with larger mouth openings so that F1 extended to 700-800Hz. An exception was Neville Chamberlain (Figure 3), whose F1 rarely reached 700Hz (except for BATH).

Open vowels are produced with a low pharyngeal constriction, with F1 higher than about 600-650Hz for most men, and higher for women and children (explained here). Neville Chamberlain’s open vowel limit was lowered to at least 550Hz due to his less energetic articulation.


All these examples had RP [ɔː] for THOUGHT with F1 around 450-550Hz or higher. None of them consistently had [oː] for THOUGHT. This sound change does not appear to have commenced in RP during this period before 1900. However, 5 out of 8 regional Kentish rural informants had acquired that same sound change in this same period.


All these examples had F2 for GOOSE between about 800 and 1300Hz (Neville Chamberlain had one instance at 1500Hz, Figure 3). Assuming this RP F2 range represents Daniel Jones’ “advanced variety” there is nothing remarkable or unexpected here. In contrast, most of the regional Kentish informants had F2 for GOOSE extending to 1700Hz or beyond, underlining the 19th century RP preference for darker [u] timbres. Nor was Daniel Jones entirely correct regarding the nature of his advanced variety. He believed implicitly in the Bell vowel model, and trusted that shifting an [u]-like timbre towards [i] was due to advancing the tongue body. However, Harrington et al. (2011) demonstrated that weakening lip rounding would have the same effect. Again, Wood (1986) and Wood & Pettersson (1988) demonstrated that tongue blade elevation would also contribute to the same effect (several of these instances of higher F2 for GOOSE were combinations of coronal+/uː/).  Finally, in the particular case of /j/+/uː/, the tongue body sweeps along the palate from [i] to the velar constriction for [u]. If this transition is broken off early, the higher F2 will also result, sometimes a very early break indeed resulting in F2 near 2000Hz. But not in 19th century RP, only in the emerging regional Home Counties SBE as yet.

Wood, Sidney. 1986. The acoustical significance of tongue, lip and larynx maneuvers in rounded palatal vowels. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 80, 391-401.
Wood, Sidney & Thore Pettersson. 1988. Vowel reduction in Bulgarian; phonetic data and model experiments. Folia Linguistica 22, 239-262.