r-lax vowels

That’s 12 out of 18 or so vowels covered. We need to look at r. It modifies the sound of a preceding consonant like this:

spellingIPAas in …fallback
aɑːcart, hardaa
eɜːher, learneu
iɜːfir, squirteu
oɔːbore, fourau
uɜːcur, hurdeu
ooboor, hoorayui

Most of these sounds are new, but one is not: the ‘r’ has no detectable effect on the sound of ‘oo,’ so we’ve already dealt with it. Of the other 5 vowels, 3 are identical: her, fir and cur all rhyme.

So the words above will be written ‘cart,’ ‘hard,’ ‘her,’ ‘lern,’ ‘fer,’ ‘sqwert,’ ‘bor,’ ‘for,’ ‘ker,’ ‘herd,’ ‘boor’ and ‘hooray.’

If you are non-rhotic speaker of English (like me), you are probably feeling annoyed at this point, because you can’t hear the letter ‘r’ as in the table (except in ‘hooray,’ where there’s a following vowel). You want to spell them ‘caat,’ ‘haad,’ ‘heu,’ ‘leun,’ ‘feu,’ ‘sqweut,’ ‘bau,’ ‘fau,’ ‘keu,’ ‘heu,’ ‘booꝛ’ and ‘hooray’ (using the fallback spelling). This would make lots of sense if there were no rhotic speakers, but we need to compromise here. Do we want to spell ‘cart’ as ‘cart’ or ‘caat’? The former is much more helpful to non-rhotic speakers than the latter is to rhotic speakers, so it’s the obvious choice. The latter would result in ‘r’ being annihilated from so many words where it provides such useful legibility that the other choice practically withdraws before the election even happens.

These sounds can all also occur without an ‘r’ being present at all. In that case, we have to use the fallback sequence instead of the single-letter form.

spellingIPAas in …
aaɑːglass, past, father
euɜːcolonel, uh
auɔːtaut, thought

So the words in the table become ‘glaas,’ ‘paast,’ ‘faadher,’ ‘keunel,’ ‘eu,’ ‘taut’ and ‘thaut.’ For a non-rhotic speaker, strictly speaking these are ambiguous: they can’t tell from the pronunciation ‘glaas’ if they should write ‘glaas’ or ‘glars,’ and similarly ‘paast’/‘parst,’ ‘faadher’/‘fardher,’ ‘keunel’/‘kernel,’ ‘eu’/‘er,’ ‘taut’/‘tort’ and ‘thaut’/‘thort.’ To this extent, this whole project could be considered as failure. But let’s just call it a blemish instead, and continue.

The sound ‘aa’ has an unusual history: it is another sound (like ‘dh’ or ‘zh’) that has no written cue at all. It has only existed since the 17th century, it started in Southern England, and it soon became a shibboleth for middle- and upper-class speakers. This is called the trap–bath split (or “trap–baath split”). It is not universal: many speakers would say ‘trap’ and ‘bath’ have the same vowel. Nothing in the above stops anyone from pronouncing ‘a’ and ‘aa’ the same, of course, in which case they just have to learn which words are spelled with ‘a,’ which with ‘aa.’ Another blemish. Ah well.

Also, some speakers have pronounce the lax ‘o’ and the r-tense ‘o’ (or ‘au’) the same. This is called the cot–caught merger. At least in this case the difference is already in the spelling which we already learn, so we aren’t making anyone’s life any harder.

There’s also a thing called the lot–cloth split which, like the trap–bath split, once enjoyed vogue among the upper classes of English society. You can hear it the Pirates Of Penzance, where some amusement is derived from the fact that ‘orphan’ sounds exactly the same as ‘often.’ This need not detain us, as we’ll just ignore it.

One last thought: there is a sound that non-rhotic speakers make that has no alphabetic representation at all. It is a schwa (‘ə’) sound that marks an important distinction in words where the vowel is modified by an ‘r,’ but the ‘r’ itself is not pronounced, at least not as any recognisable consonant. If we were going to use the r-free spellings ‘caat,’ ‘haad,’ ‘heu,’ ‘leun,’ ‘feu,’ ‘sqweut,’ ‘bau,’ ‘fau,’ ‘keu,’ ‘heu,’ ‘booꝛ’ and ‘hooray’ from above, we would need some completely new letter, already hinted at in ‘booꝛ,’ to mark that sound. This has to happen even if not inventing new letters is very high on the priority list, as it is. ‘ꝛ’ (r-rotunda) is suitable for this because it’s just a fragment of a letter ‘r,’ which fits what it’s doing here. The list of possible places it would go is this:

spellingIPAas in …

(Some of these are arguably 2-syllable words, but we’ll ignore that.) If we had adopted r-free spelling, we would have to write maꝛ, neꝛ, fiꝛ, loꝛ, cuꝛ, booꝛ, destroiꝛ, flouꝛ, which would be quite a remarkable invention. But we didn’t, so we actually will write mair, nere, fire, loar, cure, boor, destroir, flour, as we will soon see.

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