Thoughts on Allophonic Extensions to Wells' Lexical Sets
In a previous post called “Why do people use
The need for labels for allophones
As explained previously, John C. Wells came up with some labels as a shorthand to refer to words John C. Wells. 1982. Accents of English: Vol 1. p. xviii.“which tend to share the same vowel, and to the vowel which they share.” These labels, traditionally notated in
|ɪ||ɪ||1.||kit||ship, sick, bridge, milk, myth, busy…|
|e||ɛ||2.||dress||step, neck, edge, shelf, friend, ready…|
|æ||æ||3.||trap||tap, back, badge, scalp, hand, cancel…|
|ɒ||ɑ||4.||lot||stop, sock, dodge, rmp, possible, quality…|
|ʌ||ʌ||5.||strut||cup, suck, budge, pulse, trunk, blood…|
|ʊ||ʊ||6.||foot||put, bush, full, good, look, wolf…|
|ɑː||æ||7.||bath||staff, brass, ask, dance, sample, calf…|
|ɒ||ɔ||8.||cloth||cough, broth, cross, long, Boston…|
|ɜː||ɜr||9.||nurse||hurt, lurk, urge, burst, jerk, term…|
|iː||u||10.||fleece||creep, speak, leave, feel, key, people…|
|eɪ||eɪ||11.||face||tape, cake, raid, veil, steak, day…|
|ɑː||ɑ||12.||palm||psalm, father, bra, spa, lager…|
|ɔː||ɔ||13.||thought||taught, sauce, hawk, jaw, broad…|
|əʊ||o||14.||goat||soap, joke, home, know, so, roll…|
|uː||u||15.||goose||loop, shoot, tomb, mute, huge, view…|
|aɪ||aɪ||16.||price||ripe, write, arrive, high, try, buy…|
|ɔɪ||ɔɪ||17.||choice||adroit, noise, join, toy, royal…|
|aʊ||aʊ||18.||mouth||out, house, loud, count, crowd, cow…|
|ɪə||ɪ(r||19.||near||beer, sincere, fear, beard, serum…|
|ɛə||ɛ(r||20||square||care, fair, pear, where, scarce, vary…|
|ɑː||ɑ(r||21||start||far, sharp, bark, carve, farm, heart…|
|ɔː||ɔ(r||22||north||for, war, short, scorch, born warm…|
|ɔː||o(r||23||force||four, wore, sport, porch, borne, story…|
|ʊə||ʊ(r||24.||cure||poor, tourist, pure, plural, jury…|
As research on American English continues though, we find ourselves needing to propose extensions to these lexical sets refer to specific allophones of vowels. For example, a common phenomenon is that
However, since some of these allophones exhibit socially conditioned variation, it becomes important to talk about these subsets of words. And, to fit in with the existing labels that Wells proposed, these relevant environments are often referred to using a new label. That’s where the trouble begins.
Problems that arise with labels for allophones
Proposing a lexical set for the vowel classes in English (and select allophones) may be somewhat straightforward (Wells said later he created his over the course of a weekend). However, when trying to do the same for English allophones, there are a number of issues that have come up: competing labels, variety-specific labels, and keeping track of modifications to Wells’ original labels. Let’s consider each of these problems.
We see a recurring problem when scientists study some new thing: we don’t know what to call it. And when independent research is happening in parallel on that new thing, multiple terms are introduced, each with perfectly good and justifiable reasoning.Another example is the California Vowel Shift a.k.a. Canadian Vowel Shift a.k.a. Elsewhere Shift a.k.a. Western Vowel Pattern a.k.a. Low-Back-Merger Shift a.k.a. Short Front Vowel Shift a.k.a. Third Dialect Shift etc. This is what has happened with labels for allophones in the study of English sociolinguistics.
As an example, let’s look at the
Well, each one is perfectly justified. First, because the phenomena is most often called the pin-pen merger, it would make sense to just refer to the two classes of words as
These inconsistencies have lead some papers to use the lexical set and an IPA symbol, just for clarity. Boberg (2019)Charles Boberg. 2019. “A Closer Look at the Short Front Vowel Shift in Canada.” p. 22. consistently refers to vowels by their ANAE transcription followed by the Wells keyword in parentheses. For example: “the raising of /aw/ (
As long as authors are clear about what their labels refer to, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem when reading a particular work (since it hasn’t really so far). However, it does create inevitable confusion when comparing different labels across studies.
Not all varieties need all labels
Another issue that arises when creating extensions to the Wells’ Lexical sets is that they’re often specific to some varieties. The original labels were designed to be used for studying both American and British varieties of English. This mostly works since they more or less have the same vowel inventory. The problem is not all allophones are relevant to all varieties of English.
Take, for example, Wells’
As a more extreme example, an increasing number of varieties of English have collapsed
On the other hand, phonemic splits have necessitated more specific labels. At least one has been encoded into Wells’ original labels: the
If you look through studies on other World Englishes, particularly the Varieties of English volumes, Edgar Schneider, ed. 2005. Varieties of English (4 volumes) and Bernd Kortmann, et al., eds. 2008. A Handbook of Varieties of English (2 volumes). you’ll see lots and lots of ad hoc, variety-specific labels. One that I read recently was in relation to Southern American English is the
Overall, it becomes difficult to standardize these labels. In future varieties of English, we will most certainly see allophonic/morphological/lexical splits that we could not have anticipated. So even if someone were to cannonize a large set of extensions to Wells’ lexical sets, they’d become outdated as language change continues its merry way. Furthermore, not all varieties and not all speakers classify words into the same lexical sets, so a strict definition wouldn’t be uniform across all dialects anyway.
In the end, I think defining ad hoc labels is fine. However, I feel that they should be more rigorously defined to facilitate comparison across studies.
Narrowing of the original Wells label
One final issue that I’ve run into is that the original Wells or
For example, in the South, glide reduction in
The problem is that we now have two different meanings of Wells’ original
This failure to create a new label for the elsewhere allophone can lead to confusing labels. One study I’ve read used the labels
My recommendation is that, if allophones will be referred to by a non-canonical label, the elsewhere allophone should also get a new one. The canonical label can then be reserved for the entire vowel phoneme. In my dissertation, I used a set of labels for allophones of /æ/ (
To sum up my ramblings, here are some suggestions that I have come up with:
If you are considering proposing a new label, check to see whether one has already been created for that set of words. We don’t need more labels to refer to the same thing. However, if the label(s) violates some of the suggestions below, perhaps a new standard is needed.
Non-canonical, Wells-inspired labels should be more rigorously defined, ideally accompanied with wordlists in an appendix. It should not be difficult to provide at least the 20 most common words. In fact, for reasonably-sized corpora, I don’t think it’s asking too much to put an exhaustive list of words that are attested in your data, especially if online appendices are an option. After all, how did you code your data? You’ve got that list on some spreadsheet somewhere already.
The set of words that existing Wells labels refer to should not be modified; if the lexical space of some set is divided into subsets, be sure to also propose a new label for the elsewhere allophone. This avoids the confusion with
price-as-/aɪ/ vs. price-as-prevoiceless-/aɪ/ and the coexistence of batand bat2. Reserve the original Wells label to refer to the phoneme rather than to any specific allophone. Consider using the b_tframe for these elsewhere allophones.
More going back to my previous post, labels should not be based on minimal pairs or minimal sets. They may be fine in writing, but they get confusing when spoken. If a new label is proposed, carefully consider potential mergers with nearby vowels and choose a word that satisfies the ideal property of being unambiguous regardless of the speaker’s variety.