Voices of the UK - Goats and Prices
For each recording in the BBC Voices collection, we’re writing a linguistic commentary that summarises the main features of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. To describe the pronunciation of vowels, we are using a system of “lexical sets” developed by John Wells at University College London.
Wells’ system provides a neat shorthand for grouping together words that contain the same vowel sound (irrespective of their written form) and each lexical set has a keyword that can be used to refer to the group of words. So for example soap, joke, host, toe, mauve all belong to one set, which is indexed by the keyword GOAT. Sociolinguists then talk about ‘the GOAT vowel’ and can compare its different pronunciations in regional varieties of English. The list of 27 sets Wells proposes for English is on his website here.
This week I’ve been listening to a recording of a group of young dance students from Hull. The GOAT vowel has a quite distinctive realisation in the speech of the female speakers here, and in the sound clip on the Voices website you can hear the sound itself (in the words go and coke) as well as a Londoner’s reaction to it (click here to listen):
I find it a lot when you go on holiday and you meet different people from different places. It’s the Londoners really... like we’d go to the bar and say, “got half a coke?” And they just rag you all the time and, “it’s ‘coke’,” ’cause that’s how they would say it.
If you listened to the clip, does anything also strike you about her pronunciation of the word time?
In Received Pronunciation (RP) and many other accent varieties of British English, the words ripe, tight and bike have the same vowel sound as bribe, side and time. They all belong to the PRICE lexical set. But occasionally the sets need to be re-divided to reflect regional variations in the way that vowel pronunciations pattern together.
For this speaker (who is representative of working class females in Hull) ripe, tight and bike would have a pronunciation similar to RP, but bribe, side and time would be pronounced much more like the way she pronounces bar in “...we’d go to the bar…”. This phenomenon was described by the English Dialect Society way back in 1877, and there is a nice overview of it (with some modern updates) in a study by Ann Williams and Paul Kerswill that you can access here. The PRICE vowels are discussed from the bottom of page 16 onwards.