How Canadians Really Pronounce "About"
Gretchen McCulloch from All Things Linguistic explains why Canadians don't say "aboot" and why most Americans think they do.
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This week, guest writer Gretchen McCulloch is going to help us understand what it is that makes the Canadian accent sound the way it does.
What’s the difference between the pronunciation of house as in a big house and house as in I housed the visitors?
Despite the fact that they’re spelled the same way, the noun house is pronounced with an /s/ sound while the verb house is pronounced with a /z/. (I’m going to spell the verb as houze for the rest of this, just so we can keep track.)
For English-speakers from most countries, the differences stop there. But for Canadians (and for certain Americans, especially from more northern states), there’s also a difference in the vowel, or more accurately, the diphthong.
What Is a Diphthong?
A diphthong is a combination of two vowel sounds. For the ow diphthong in the word how, you start with the /a/ in la and gradually move your tongue towards the /u/ in blue, that is, a bit higher and towards the back of your mouth, while at the same time your lips get rounder. Try it: aaaaaaaauuuuuuu aaaauuuu aauu. If you speed it up, you get the diphthong in how. For people who pronounce house and houze with the same diphthong, that ow is the diphthong they’re using.
But for people who pronounce them differently, there’s a second diphthong. This one starts with the vowel in cut and moves towards the same /u/ in blue. But notice how if you switch back and forth between the vowels in la and cut (ah uh ah uh), the only thing that really changes is that your tongue moves a little bit higher. So if you go from the cut vowel to the blue vowel (uhhhhhooooo) and speed it up a little, you’ll get a diphthong that’s pretty close to what Canadians produce in house-the-noun. Because the difference between the two diphthongs is whether they start with the la vowel or the slightly higher tongue position of the cut vowel, this phenomenon is known as Canadian raising.
Does Canadian Raising Only Happen with House?
As you may have guessed by now, Canadian raising isn’t only limited to the difference between house and houze. There are a whole bunch of other words where this distinct diphthong also happens, such as the famous about, as well as couch, mouth (as noun) south, mouse, lout and so on, but not in words like loud, browse, mouth (as verb), gouge, or vow. (Listen to Gretchen McCulloch, a Canadian, pronounce these words.)
Is this just random, or do these words have something in common?