It’s rather hard

I spent my childhood in various country towns in the Australian state of Victoria. My last year there was my first year of high school. Even now I remember that our science teacher pronounced graph as /gra:f/ (with the same vowel as in palm), in contrast to the prevailing pronunciation of /græf/ (with the same vowel as in trap). The next year we moved to a country town in South Australia, where I quickly discovered that absolutely everyone said /gra:f/ and absolutely no-one said /græf/, not even me after a few days.

In my previous post, I said that for words like bath, the pronunciation with /a:/ is more common in Australia. Between trap and palm is a spectrum of words which some people pronounce with /æ/ and others with /a:/. Graph is one example, but not graphic, which everyone pronounces as /græfɪk/, as far as I know. 

In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, David Crystal lists the results of the pronunciation of castle, chance, contrast, dance, demand, graph and grasp in Hobart, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide. The prevalence of /æ/ pronunciations is in the order that those cities are listed, so people in Adelaide (South Australia) are indeed more inclined to /a:/ than in Melbourne (Victoria). Specifically, 70% of the respondents in Melbourne said /græf/ compared to 14% in Adelaide, which corresponds with my experience. But there are some puzzling results. None of the respondents in Hobart, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney pronounced contrast with /æ/, but somehow 29% of those in Adelaide did. I can’t remember hearing anyone saying that in the six years I lived there or the four years I lived in country towns.

Note that no city uses either pronunciation exclusively. There is a spectrum of pronunciation in each city. Other factors include gender and socio-economic status, with more woman and middle class people using /a:/ pronunciations, and also the phoneme following the vowel in question (/f/, /n/ or /s/ in the examples above). The study Crystal cites* is now 29 years old, so maybe the numbers have changed, due to a combination of immigration and American popular culture. (I have the first edition. It’s now in its third edition (see the link).)

It’s hard for me to be totally sure of my own pronunciations, but I’m fairly sure I pronounce castle, contrast, grasp and graph with /a:/ (or possibly shorter /a/) and chance, dance and demand with /æ/ (note the split of the following phoneme).

At some point in my teaching career I acquired a set of sentences illustrating the vowels of standard Australian English. One was “It’s rather hard to laugh when your fast car can’t pass a large farm cart”. I pronounce all the relevant words with /a:/ (or /a/) but I know that NAmEng tends to use /æ/ for rather, laugh, fast, can’t and pass and /ɑɹ/ for the rest (rhotic pronunciation is another factor). I find it rather hard to pronounce rather, laugh, fast, can’t and pass with /æ/ (but I can easily pronounce fascinate and pastel, for example). I also find it rather hard to pronounce the rest with /ɑɹ/ – I end up sounding like an archetypal pirate.

When I moved to Korea the first time, my language college gave all its students a notebook with a pronunciation guide on the back cover. It was quickly apparent that the list of words for each phoneme was based on NAmEng. I talked to the owner/director about it, but he wasn’t going to change the list and reprint the book just for me. In fact, he hired me just after and specifically because TOEIC had introduced a variety of English accents into its listening examples, and I quickly became The Expert® on varieties of English (all my native English speaking colleagues were from the USA). They may (or may not) have been able to distinguish each other’s accents, but I wasn’t. On the other hand, some people I met there thought I was English, simply because I obviously wasn’t American. 

The pronunciation I started with in my last post was ee-ther/eye-ther/nee-ther/nye-ther. I genuinely don’t know how I pronounce those words, but an American colleague told me she’d had a student in her class who said eye-ther and nye-ther, and she asked if she’d been in my class, so apparently I say eye-ther and nye-ther and apparently my students pick it up. 

Another word in the last post is tomato. In Korean, it is written 토마토 and pronounced to-mah-to, with equal emphasis on each syllable. But when they speak English, most Koreans pronounce it as t-may-to or even t-may-do. 

*Bradley, D. 1991. /æ/ and /a:/ in Australian English, in J Cheshire (ed), English around the world: sociolinguistic perspectives (Cambridge University Press). Note that the study used only 50 people, an average of 10 in each city.


One thought on “It’s rather hard

  1. Pingback: graph and tele | Never Pure and Rarely Simple

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