Faculty Research at Morehead State University


Low Back Vowels in Kentucky Speech

Document Type


Publication Date



In "The Phonetics of Great Smoky Mountain Speech," Joseph Sargent Hall notes that "as generally in American, there is much much instability and vacillation in the low-back vowel group, the unrounded sounds tending to become rounded and the rounded tending to become unrounded." In fact, the distinction between low back vowels is not maintained in a large general area of American speech, such that Don and dawn sound alike The area of this merger is indicated in the map in Figure 1 Indeed, in "The Three Dialects of English," William Labov has suggested that merger of the low back group is a defining characteristic of a third major dialect of American English, stretching across the middle section of the country. More recently, in "The Organization of Dialect Diversity m North America," Labov has presented evidence to show that the merger has extended into Kentucky speech, at least in the major urban areas in Fayette and Jefferson counties. The current paper presents results of a study of low back vowels m Kentucky speech, mcludmg rural and urban areas. While the study does confirm Labov's claim that this merger extends into urban areas of central Kentucky, the central finding is that low back vowels are distinct m Kentucky speech overall and in the metropolitan area of Louisville. There is no evidence of a regional distribution of merger vs non-merger, particularly m the speech of informants under 30, indicative of change in progress There 1s no evidence that gender plays a significant role in the progress of the merger, contrary to the prevailing view that females are in advance of males.