He sticks his neck out again

To accompany my post on back close rounded vowels here is another dangerous prediction about the future of General British English pronunciation. At some date in the future, maybe not too distant, GBE will have no centring diphthongs. /ɪə eə ʊə/ are doomed to extinction. They will go the way of /ɔə/, which I reckon is dead.

/ʊə/ is hanging on by its fingertips, I think, but has for most people (1) merged with /ɔ:/ OR (2) merged with /ɜ:/ OR (3) become a new phonological unit which we could symbolise as /ʊ:/. I don’t think we can exclude the possibility that combinations of (1), (2) and (3) occur in some people’s speech. I don’t know if anyone has done any empirical studies on the various fates of /ʊə/, but I reckon it would a worthwhile project.

/eə/ is pretty sickly looking too. It is my impression that increasingly people are using a long monophthong [ɛ:]. The same sort of fate is overtaking /ɪə/, which now turns up as [ɪ:] in all environments for many younger speakers.

A bear drinking beer The situation with the last two is interesting in NZ English too. For a long time now, the /ɪə/ – /eə/ distinction has been lacking for many, probably most, NZ speakers. However, a change has taken place relatively recently. Initially, it seems that word pairs like bear/beer were homophones in NZE, both being produced with [eə]. However, there has been a switch and now, for younger speakers, both have [ɪə].

7 thoughts on “He sticks his neck out again

  1. Ah, but Harry, who is to say that something will not come along to reverse the trend? Maybe there will be a sudden outbreak of breaking which will create new centring diphthongs. It’s happening/has happened in other accents of English — NY for instance where [æ] → [ɪə].

  2. Beat you to it John. See my:
    Ball, M. J. (1984) The centring diphthongs of Southern English: a sound change in progress? Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 14, 38-44.

  3. Martin, Thanks for the info. I shall read and inwardly digest. Have you any thoughts on what has been happening since 1984?

  4. Well, I’ve been out of the UK for nearly 10 years now, but what I notice on visits is the greater spread of [ɪ:]; in 1984 I felt that this was just coming in. We regularly see Sophie Allsopp on her show ‘The Unsellables’ (I know – it’s purely for phonetic research) and she alternates between [ɪ:] and [ɪə] (schwa should be superscript here) for /ɪə/.
    Also, the [ɛ:] is almost universal among both young and middle-aged speakers (haven’t especially listened to old speakers for this feature).
    Do you think all /ʊə/s will go to /ɔ:/, or will some go to bisyllabic /u.ə/?
    So, the question is, when (if ever) do we stop transcribing these as diphthongs at the phonemic level, and do we now have to introduce length marks in all versions of “RP” transcription?

  5. How to avoid length marks and centring diphthongs: thoughts from abroad:

    Use /e/ for DRESS vowel (over here it’s almost universal to use /ɛ/); use /ɛ/ for the former /ɛə/~/eə/; use /ɔ/ for former /ɔə/ and /ʊə/. Aah, but what to do with [ɪ:] for former /ɪə/? there’s the problem! Any suggestions – or do we assume it may merge with /ɛ/ eventually to mirror what happened with the back centring diphthongs?

  6. @ Martin Bell
    I’m not too enthusiastic about a proposal to use /E/ for SQUARE. I would change /e/ in DRESS to /E/; DRESS is after all closer to (or at) Cardinal 3 nowadays. I think /E:/ keeps us in touch with reality. What is the difference between ‘shared’ and ‘shed’ in pronunciation? I don’t see the appeal of having separate symbols for each vowel, ignoring if it’s quantity or quality that distinguishes them in reality.
    This phobia of length marks is difficult to understand.

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