Cardinal vowels to look out for

In our broad transcriptions of English, we've been following the official practice using the symbol of the nearest cardinal vowel whenever possible. The standard [u] is the closest cardinal vowel to the vowel we use in English boot. The standard [e] is the closest cardinal vowel to the vowel we use in bait (at least the first half of the diphthong).

Here are some of the major differences between the vowels of western Canadian English and the cardinal vowels whose symbols we have been using to right them.


The tongue body is significantly further forward for English /u/ than it is for the cardinal vowel [u]. English /u/ seems to be moving further forward each generation. (A similar change took place in the histories of French, Swedish, and Greek, among others.)

We can see this in formant plots:

f1-by-f2 graph

For many younger speakers, the high central rounded vowel symbol [barred-u] would be more accurate. Some extreme versions, like exaggerated imitations of California dude, are almost as front as the front rounded [y] of French lune 'moon'.

You might have to deliberately pull your tongue body backwards in order to produce a cardinal [u]. The closest most Canadian English speakers will get in natural speech is when the [u] comes before a dark [dark-l], as in school. Anticipating the velarization on the [dark-l] helps keep the [u] in a back, velar position. You should be able to hear the difference between the almost cardinal [u] in school [skudark-l] and the quite front [u] in cute [kjbarred-ut].

school [skuL]
cute [kj&barredu;t]

(The backing effect of [dark-l] is especially noticeable when it doesn't work. Many younger speakers can pronounce slang cool (or kewl) with the /u/ as far front as it would normally be for cute.)


Tense mid vowels, /e/ and /o/

The tongue body is lower for /e/ and /o/ in Canadian English than it is for cardinal [e] and [o], and lower than in many other European languages and even Scottish English. Sometimes a diphthongal /e/ can begin as low as an epsilon: [Ej]. (Australian [æj] takes this one step further.)

[ej] and [ow]

Even in accents of Canadian English that use monophthongs for bait and boat, the monophthongs will typically be lower than cardinal [e] and [o].

Centralized [o]

In southern British English, while the /o/ diphthong does move upward and backward toward [u], the starting point is not a back rounded [o]. It is usually central and usually unrounded. The transcription [schwanonsyll U] is commonly used even in the quite broad pronunciation entries of many British dictionaries.

This feature of British English is also found in many other dialects of English. Even in many dialects of North America, the beginning of the /o/ diphthong is becoming increasingly centralized and increasingly unrounded. Example sound


For the [aj], [oj], and [aw] diphthongs of Canadian English, the direction of movement is more important than the actual endpoint reached. Other languages can be fussier, and different endpoints can change the meaning of the word, e.g., Khmer:

tSau 'grandson'
tSao 'thief'

Nor do diphthongs always have to move upward and to the front or back. It is particularly common for languages to have "centring" diphthongs, where the off-glide is schwa rather than [j] or [w].

In English, some parts of the U.S. use [Enonsyll-schwa] or [enonsyll-schwa] for /æ/, bad [benonsyll-schwad]. Centring diphthongs are also used widely in "non-rhotic" dialects -- the loss of historical [r] from syllable codas does not necessarily result in homophones:

bead bid
bid bId
beard bI6d

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