Extending Wells' Lexical Set to Prelateral Vowels

At some point in the past few years, I’ve analyzed pretty much every English vowel before laterals. They’re pretty cool because they’re understudied, they’re somewhat infrequent, and they’re involved in a lot of different mergers in different parts of the country. When referring to these prelateral vowels, several labels have been used in the past, but none do the job quite right. So, I think prelaterals should get a standardized set of Wells-style labels. The problem is figuring out what they should be. In this post, I explain why existing labels aren’t great and then propose a complete set of new labels for prelateral vowels.

To cut to the chase, this table—particularly the column labeled “Prelateral Keyword”—shows the labels I’ve come up with:

  IPA   Wells
Keyword
Prelateral
Keyword
  Example words
i fleece zeal feel, peel, deal, kneel, meal, seel, yield, shield
ɪ kit guilt ill, pill, dill, gill, shrill, drill, kilt, quill, thrill
e face flail fail, tail, whale, scale, jail, trail, grail, shale, ale
ɛ dress shelf fell, bell, weld, gel, smell, swell, dwell, delve, realm
u goose spool fool, cool, tool, ghoul, stool, school, drool, cruel, Yule
ʊ foot wolf full, pull, bull, wool, wolf
o goat jolt hole, coal, bowl, goal, cold, scold, troll, molt, gold
ʌ strut mulch hull, dull, gull, pulse, skull, cult, gulf, lull, sulk, sculpt
æ trap talc pal, gal, shall, scalp, talc, valve, Hal, Alps
ɑ lot golf doll, alm, golf, qualm, psalm
ɔ thought fault all, hall, fall, scald, bald, shawl, crawl, vault, false
price child aisle, dial, pile, tile, bile, mile, child, trial, vile, guile
mouth prowl foul, howl, towel, bowels, jowl, scowl, growl, owl
ɔɪ choice broil oil, foil, boil, coil, toil, spoil, broil, soil, royal(?)
ɚ nurse twirl Earl, girl, curl, hurl, pearl, whirl, swirl, twirl

A standard set of prelateral keywords.


Yes, this is probably another case of competing standards, but it illustrates what I think lexical sets for allophones should look like.

For additional background how and why I came up with these labels, read on.

Wells Lexical Sets

As a small bit of background, John C. Wells. 1982. Accents of English.John C. Wells came up with standardized labels for sets of words that historically share the same vowel. The labels are also used to refer to the vowel itself. So something like fleece may refer to words like creep, speak, leave, feel, key, and people but also to the phoneme /i/. This is useful in cross-dialect comparisons when the actual phonetic quality of that vowel may systematically differ in that set of words.

The keywords themselves are not just arbitrary words within that lexical set, but rather they were carefully selected:

The keywords have been chosen in such a way that clarity is maximized: whatever accent of English they are spoken in, they can hardly be mistaken for other words. Although fleece is not the commonest of words, it cannot be mistaken for a word with some other vowel; whereas beat, say, if we had chosen it instead, would have been subject to the drawback that one man’s pronunciation of beat may sound like another’s pronunciation of bait or bit. (Wells 1982:123)

Presumably then, a good set of keywords for prelateral vowels should be deliberately chosen to follow this same principle of maximal clarity.

To be clear, what I am proposing is a set of keywords that refer to the prelateral allophones of each English vowel. That is, a label like zeal would refer to /i/ when followed by an /l/, as in the words feel, peel, and deal. As explained in my previous post on non-canonical allophonic extensions to Wells’ lexical sets, zeal would be a subset of the umbrella label fleece, which refers to all tokens of /i/ regardless of phonetic environment.

Existing Prelateral Labels

Of the research I’ve seen on prelateral vowels, if labels are given to them, they usually take the form of a minimal pair or set (or as close to one as possible). See, for example, Bowie (2000), Thomas (2004), and Tillery & Bailey (2004).Some of the more common labels include pool, pull, and pole for back vowels, or feel, fill, fail, and fell for front vowels. I’ve used them myself, actually.

I presented an abbreviated version of this table already in a previous post since it’s what popularized the b_t frame.To my knowledge, the only attempt at standardizing prelateral labels was by Thomas & Yeager-Dror (2009). In their table, reproduced below, they list the labels they use in that volume. In addition to standarizing other allophones’ labels, prelateral vowels get an entire column, and a nearly complete set of labels.

  IPA       Keyword         [_r]         [_l]     Specific Formulations  
/i/ beet beer peel
/ɪ/ bit bill bin [_N]
/e/ bait bear bail
/ɛ/ bet bell ben [_N]; beg [_ɡ]
/æ/ bat back [_k]; bag [_ɡ]; ban [_N]; tap [_p]; tab [_b]; bad, for Milwaukee [_d], for New York see p. 109.
/ɑ/ bot bar
/ɔ/ bought border ball
/o/ boat boar bowl
/ʌ/ but cull
/ʊ/ book boor pull
/u/ boot pool toot [C_coronal_]
/aɪ/ bite pyre bile bide [_Cvd]; buy [_#]; pine [_N]
/aʊ/ bout hour howl bough [_#]
/ɔɪ/ boy boil
/ɚ/ bird burr [_#]; bother [-stress]

The lexical set, including prelateral and other allophonic expansions, from Thomas & Yeager-Dror (2009:6).


It appears the authors wanted to select as many keywords as possible that started with /b/. The now somewhat widespread b_t frame is established, and most prerhotic labels start with /b/ as well. The prelateral vowels had the most exceptions: there are seven keywords with b_l, but there are several consonant onsets to fill in the gaps (three with /p/ and one each with /k/ and /h/). This inconsistency in the prelaterals creates a somewhat haphazard set of labels.

The draw of using minimal sets for prelaterals is tempting, but I believe they have the same problems that the b_t frame has. In a previous post, I’ve already shared my thoughts on why I think the b_t frame isn’t very helpful, so I won’t rehash it further. The gist is this: if you hear someone say [poɫ] in isolation, are they saying pole or are do they merge /ʊl/ and /ol/ and are actually saying pull? This ambiguity goes against Wells’ original intentions of the words being “hardly be mistaken for other words.”

To put it another way, just because we call something the pull-pole merger, that doesn’t mean we should refer to the entire lexical sets as pull and pole. In fact, I think we should actively avoid referring to them as pull and pole for the very reason that they do form a minimal pair.

Why a minimal set won’t work for prelaterals

Let’s entertain the idea of using a minimal set to unite all prelateral vowels. We’ve got f_l for front vowels and p_l for some of the back vowels. Can we find one frame that works for all vowels?

No. The following table, which is grouped approximately by natural class, lists the frames that have the most words and would therefore be the best candidates for new labels:

IPA b_l p_l f_l d_l h_l k_l t_l g_l
/il/ peel/peal feel deal heal, heel keel teel
/ɪl/ bill pill fill dill hill kill till gill
/el/ bale/bail pale/pail fail Dale hail kale tale/tail gale
/ɛl/ bell pell fell dell hell tell
/ul/ boule pool fool duel who'll cool tool ghoul
/ʊl/ bull pull full
/ol/ bowl pole/poll foal dole hole/whole coal toll goal
/ʌl/ dull hull cull gull
/æl/ pal Hal Cal gal
/ɑl/ doll
/ɔl/ ball Paul fall hall call tall gall
/ɑɪl/ bile pile file dial Kyle tile guile
/ɑʊl/ bowel foul/fowl dowel howl towel
/ɔɪl/ boil foil Doyle coil toil Goyle

Minimal sets of and potential keywords for prelateral vowels. Words in gray are not ideal for a variety of reasons (infrequent words, proper nouns, or inconsistent vowel assignments). Blank cells are, as far as I can tell, accidental gaps in the English lexicon.


As you can see, no one frame works for all vowels. The main culprits are /ʌl/ and /ɑl/ and maybe also /ʊl/ and /æl/. Let’s look at each frame individually:

Several frames work pretty well, but they all have their problems. More importantly, no one frame works well for all front vowels (if you include /æl/), no one frame works for all back vowels (if you include /ʌl/), and no one frame works for the low vowels (thanks, /ɑl/). To get a complete set of labels, you’re going to have to pick three different frames—at a minimum. Such a patchwork of frames is inconsistent and confusing.

So, should we ditch the minimal sets and go for unambiguous, truly Wells-style lexical sets? Yes.

Unambiguous labels for prelateral vowels

My goal in all this was to select prelateral vowel keywords that are, in Wells’ words, “unmistakable no matter what accent one says them in.” So, rather than finding the optimal minimal set, I decided to choose words that were were very different from one another.

To identify potential words, I would need a list of all monosyllabic English words with a prelateral vowel. Fortunately, I’ve got that (and I’ve had it for some time)!

This spreadsheet is based on the CMU dictionary. I searched for all words that contained just one vowel and where that vowel was followed by an L. I then just organized them by their consonants in a spreadsheet. It’s pretty handy.

With this spreadsheet, I can easily identify candidate representative words. So, loosely based on Wells’ original keywords, here were the criteria that I established for selecting a word, approximately in order of importance:I’ve outlined more general criteria for selecting a new Wells-inspired label for an allophone in a previous post.

  1. They must be monosyllabic.

  2. They must be monomorphemic.

  3. Words should not form another English word when the vowel is replaced with another (i.e. it should have no minimal pairs).

  4. Onsets should ideally have just one consonant. Glides are avoided and liquids are acceptable as a last resort.

  5. Codas consist of a single voiceless obstruent following the /l/. I have relaxed the coda requirement a little bit from what Wells says (1982:123):

    “As far as possible the keywords have been chosen so as to end in a voiceless alveolar or dental consonant: a voiceless consonant minimizes the likelihood of diphthongal glides obscuring a basic vowel quality, while coronality (alveolar or dental place) minimizes the possible allophonic effect of the place of a following consoannt. An exception here is trap for the /æ/ correspondence, where no items in /-t, -s, -θ/ are altogether suitable; another one is palm.”

    I figure the presence of the lateral is enough of a buffer between the vowel and any following consonant (though phoneticians may prove me wrong).

  6. Nouns are preferred.

With this organized spreadsheet, applying the six criteria for each vowel class was relatively straightforward. The below table shows the list I came up with:

  IPA   Wells
Keyword
Prelateral
Keyword
  Example words
i fleece zeal feel, peel, deal, kneel, meal, seel, yield, shield
ɪ kit guilt ill, pill, dill, gill, shrill, drill, kilt, quill, thrill
e face flail fail, tail, whale, scale, jail, trail, grail, shale, ale
ɛ dress shelf fell, bell, weld, gel, smell, swell, dwell, delve, realm
u goose spool fool, cool, tool, ghoul, stool, school, drool, cruel, Yule
ʊ foot wolf full, pull, bull, wool, wolf
o goat jolt hole, coal, bowl, goal, cold, scold, troll, molt, gold
ʌ strut mulch hull, dull, gull, pulse, skull, cult, gulf, lull, sulk, sculpt
æ trap talc pal, gal, shall, scalp, talc, valve, Hal, Alps
ɑ lot golf doll, alm, golf, qualm, psalm
ɔ thought fault all, hall, fall, scald, bald, shawl, crawl, vault, false
price child aisle, dial, pile, tile, bile, mile, child, trial, vile, guile
mouth prowl foul, howl, towel, bowels, jowl, scowl, growl, owl
ɔɪ choice broil oil, foil, boil, coil, toil, spoil, broil, soil, royal(?)
ɚ nurse twirl Earl, girl, curl, hurl, pearl, whirl, swirl, twirl

The prelateral keywords I propose in this post.


Allow me to share a few comments about each one, starting with the front vowels.

For the back vowels, it’s especially important that minimal pairs do not exist since there are a variety of mergers that exist among prelateral back vowels, including four-way mergers.

With the low vowels, the number of options was limited, and I had to relax some of the rules.

For diphthongs and pre-/ɹ/, the choices were also limited. You’ll notice that only one has a consonant in the coda, and its voiced, violating my rule 5. The reason is because none of the monomorphemic words with these vowels had anything else in the codas, other than child, wild, and mild.

I believe the resulting list forms a decent set of labels to refer to prelateral vowels.

Using this new lexical set, we can now refer to things like the zeal-guilt merger, the flail-shelf merger, or the dress-talc merger among the front vowels. Among the back vowels, we might find the spool-wolf merger, the wolf-jolt merger, the jolt-mulch merger, or possibly, the wolf-mulch or the mulch-fault mergers. I personally have the golf-fault merger, though only if the /l/ is in the coda (collar and caller are still distinct).

Conclusion

I have proposed a new set of labels akin to the Wells Lexical set for referring to prelateral vowels. The ad hoc labels in existing literature are inconsistent, and the attempts at using lexical sets are unsuccessful. This new set should make labels more consistent in sociolinguistic research going forward.