The NORTH-FORCE Vowels

In Manchester, the north and force phonemes are variably merged, that is, for some speakers, there is no difference between the two vowels, and in consequence, the words in pairs such as hoarse-horse, four-for, wore-war, morning-mourning, etc. sound identical for some speakers, but they sound different for others. For example, the distinction in the speech of Alan K., aged 68, in Figure 1 below can be seen in the acoustic difference (corresponding to the position of the tongue) between the two vowels and can be heard in his four-for minimal pair:

 

Figure-1-AlanK68-ohr2

Figure 1: Alan K., 68, working class: north and force vowels

 

Alan K., 68: four and for

 

This is different from most dialects of English, where the two vowels are usually completely merged. For example, in Received Pronunciation and in the south of England in general, there is no longer a distinction between the two sounds, though, as the spelling suggests, there used to be one.

The distinction in Manchester is weaker than it used to be. The figure below shows the average distinction mean by age, based on minimal-pair tests, for 112 speakers across the age continuum; on the Y axis, 2 means completely distinct, and 0 means completely merged. Note that although the distinction is lower in the younger generation, it is not quite at the 0 level, indicating that that there are still some young people who make a distinction between the two vowels.

 

Figure 2: four-for minimal pair by age; production (112 speakers)

Figure 2: four-for minimal pair by age; production (112 speakers)

It turns out that social class plays an important role in the variation: for middle-class speakers, the vowels are largely merged, whereas they are different for many working-class Mancunians. The figure below shows the relationship between age and social class for three groups: middle class, lower middle class, and working class.

 

fig3

Figure 3: four-for minimal pair by social class and age; production (112 speakers)

Here is an example of a young middle-class speaker with the merger (Figure 4 below):

Figure 4: Martin F., 22, middle class: north and force vowels

Figure 4: Martin F., 22, middle class: north and force vowels

Martin F., 22: war-wore

Martin F., 22: horse-hoarse

 

And here is a young working-class speaker with a distinction (Figure 5 below):

Figure 5: Bobby C., 24, working class: NORTH and FORCE vowels

Figure 5: Bobby C., 24, working class: NORTH and FORCE vowels

BobbyC., 24: war-wore

Bobby C., 24: four and for

 

However, not every young working-class speaker has a distinction. On-going research suggests that the distinction may be stronger in north Manchester than in south Manchester, and this effect of neighbourhood appears to be independent of social class. More details to come…

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