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February 8, 2022

Pre-L Back Vowel Madness

Some American English sound changes are very well documented, such as the PIN-PEN merger or the COT-CAUGHT merger. Others, not so much. One example is back vowels before an /l/ sound. Back in 2006, Labov noticed four potential mergers happening in some North American English varieties:

  • /ʊl/ and /oʊl/ (BULL vs BOWL)
  • /ʌl/ and /ɔːl/ (HULL vs HALL)
  • /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (BULL vs HULL)
  • /ʌl/ and /oʊl/ (HULL vs BOWL)

I have a small collection of examples for these, as well as other potential mergers and vowel shifts involving back vowels before /l/. Let's take a look!

HULL and DOLL (new) ✔️

This one was not mentioned by Labov, probably due to overlap with HULL vs HALL with the COT-CAUGHT merger applied. The /ʌl/ sequence is pronounced as [al].

  • "You're not getting any added b[ɑ]lk from your finish, in fact it's taking away balk" - Love To Sew at 15:10
  • "Blossom's behavior [ɑ]ltimately pushed them" - Sarah Z, Johnlock, 53:00

BULL and BOWL ✔️

Short u /ʊl/ is pronounced as [ol], so theoretically 'bowl' and 'pull' ended up rhyming.

HULL and BOWL ✔️

'Uh' /ʌl/ is pronounced as [ol], so 'hull' and 'bowl' rhyme. In my experience, this one is quite common among Americans and isn't restricted to a particular region.

  • "[O]ltron has been a long-time adversary of the Avengers" - Comic Drake

See also this previous post on the Colt-Cult Merger.

BULL and HULL ✔️

Short 'u' /ʊl/ is pronounced as [ʌl], so 'bull' and 'hull' rhyme.


Not mentioned by Labov. I've noticed a trend towards words with 'ol' in them being pronounced as [ol] instead of [ɑl]. Most examples I've found are of words with 'olve' in them (resolve, revolve) so it's possible this is just a reanalysis of 'olve'. I've also heard the variant 'psych[o]logy' and 'alcoh[o]l' (no audio clip). I haven't found anyone that turns all /al/ into [ol]. This means [o] may exist as an allophone of /ɑ/ before /l/ for some speakers with the COT-CAUGHT merger. This allophone may restore the CAUGHT vowel in some words (e.g. 'all' with [ol] is very common) while also innovating [ol] in places where it isn't found historically, like [olv].

  • "Try to focus on s[o]lving the problem" - Natalie Wynn
  • "Many of the criticisms rev[o]lved around..." - Sarah Z
  • "So central to the American psych[o]logy" - Not Just Bikes


Unsure in which direction these are merged: does /ʌl/ become [ol] or does [ol] become [ʌl]? It's also complicated because the COT-CAUGHT merger affects HALL words, and it's unclear if this merger is meant to apply to accents with a separate 'aw' /ɔ/ vowel or also ones with a COT-CAUGHT merger (in which case, see HULL-DOLL above).


Many of these speakers are Canadians (Love To Sew, Sarah Z, Linus from Tech Tips) which makes me wonder if these pronunciations are affected by the Canadian Vowel Shift. Sarah Z, for example, has HULL-DOLL and DOLL-BOWL - and I would not be surprisd if she also has HULL-BOWL and BULL-BOWL. I am also curious how many of these changes result in proper mergers - I did not look for comparative examples of 'BOWL' to see if there was a merger, for example.

If trends continue, then there may be a phonological movement towards simplifying the back vowel space before /l/. Many of these are moving towards [ol]. I'd love to know if there's a speaker out there who has a PULL, HULL, and DOLL all with the BOWL vowel.

Off-the-cuff speculation: I suspect some of this instability with /ol/ is caused by an incomplete COT-CAUGHT merger leaving some words with lexicalized pronunciations. In my area (South Florida), most people do not have the COT-CAUGHT merger but some people continue to use the [o] vowel in 'all', 'mall', and other high-frequency -all words (yes, mall is a high-frequency word here). These are reanalyzed as having the same vowel as BOWL (no surprise, as American /ɔ/ is usually realized as [o] with an offglide by people who distinguish it). There may be some reanalysis involved - the DOLL words that are being pronounced with [ol] are words that are also spelled with 'o'. I would be curious to see if COT-CAUGHT merged North Americans with the DOLL-BOWL merger actually extend it to words spelled with 'al', like 'halter'.

February 1, 2022

Cross-language wordplay and code-switching

I like listening to songs in languages other than English, and on occasion these songs will borrow words or even entire phrases from other languages. This type of code-switching can happen for many reasons, but usually it doesn't involve any sense of lyricality to it: you were in one language, and now you are in another. This isn't always the case, though. Some songwriters try to make a rhyme or a pun between two languages. Here are a couple of examples of cross-language wordplay.

"Baddest Girl In Town - Pitbull" (Spanish/English)

Baila, dejame ver como tu mueves la salla
Ella es candela, fuego, fire
Dance, let me see how you move your skirt, she's a flame, fire, "fire"

The reggaeton genre features a fair amount of code-switching between English and Spanish, since it's not uncommon for singers to be bilingual. Here Pitbull shows a rhyme between "salla" (skirt) and "fire", pronounced with a non-rhotic accent. [aja] is a common sound sequence in Spanish, and English words ending in -ire can be pronounced non-rhotically to sound close enough to rhyme. Another example of a song using this rhyme is "Summer's Not Hot" by Selena Gomez, which goes:

The temperature is 99 and it can't get much higher, so come on over Romeo, and vamos a la playa (let's go to the beach)

"Shape of You - Ndlovu Youth Choir" (Zulu/English)

Ngamshaya ngo 'hi' yena wangshaya nge 'smile'
(I said hi, and she hit me with a smile)

Translation via Lyrics

This song features a fair amount of borrowing from English, some of it being lyrics from the original English version and some being original. This line has a lot of assonance, and like the Pitbull example, relies on the [aja] sequence. I especially like the combo of 'hi yena', which seamlessly puts an English word into a Zulu construction to continue the assonance. 'Smile' is pronounced with the diphthong broken into two syllables, as in 'smi-yul'.

"I am the Best - 2NE1" (Korean/English)

Geondeurimyeon gamdang mothae I'm hot-hot-hot, hot fire
Dwijibeojigi jeone jebal nuga nal jom mallyeo
(If you touch me you won't be able to handle it, I'm hot, hot, hot, hot fire)
(Before I flip something over, Please, can someone stop me?)

Here we have another 'fire' example (no English word has contributed as much to songwriting as 'fire'), but the rhyme is more slant than straight. 'fire' is still pronounced nonrhotically as [faja] but it's being rhymed with 'mallyeo' [maljʌ]. It's not unusual for k-pop songs to prefer inexact rhymes over direct rhymes. We can see another example of this Korean-English loose rhyme in the following lyric, where 'yaegi' [jɛgi] is rhymed with 'baby' [beibi]:

Eotteon bigyodo nan geobuhae igeon gyeomsonhan yaegi
Gachireul nonhajamyeon naneun Billion dollar, baby
(I refuse to be compared, I'm telling you the truth)
(If we're talking about my value, I'm a billion dollar baby)

Translation via Genius

Moj kalashnikov - FACE (Russian/English)

Я не говорю про юмор, bitch, но мы shoot'им
Ya nye govoryu pro yumor bitch no my shutim
I'm not talking about humor, bitch, but we're joking/shooting

This one isn't a rhyme, but a pun. The Russian word for 'we're joking' is 'shutim', which sounds as if it had the English word 'shoot' in it. This leads to a pun on both the immediate theme of humor and the song title, 'my kalashnikov'.

"KAWAII - Tatarka" (Tatar/English)

Яңгыр ява, тама тамчы, Чылана минем Versace, She is cutie, she's almighty, You will never ever catcha
yaņgyr yava tama tamchy, chylana minem Versace, she is cutie, she's almighty, you will never ever catcha
It's raining cats and dogs, soaked my Versace, she is cutie, she's almighty, you will never ever catcha

Finally, a Tatar selection. Though 'Versace' is an Italian name, it's pronounced 'Versachy' as it usually is in English. The rhyme is for 'tamchy' [tamtʃɤ], Versace [versatʃi], and catcha (catch her) [katʃa].

Common themes in the English words being pronounced is a relatively simple consonant structure: 'fire' CVCV, 'baby' CVCV, 'shoot' CVC, 'catcha' CVCV. The most complicated words were 'smile', CCVCVC and and 'Versace', CVCCVCV. Not all languages allow for the types of consonants clusters English allows (e.g. 'strengths', 'strum', 'fixed'), so words with fewer consonant clusters are more likely to rhyme across languages.

Similarly, vowels were kept simple: [ai], [ei], [u]. Tatarka pronounced the /æ/ in 'Versace' and 'catcha' as [a], which made vowel repetition easier. English also has a high number of possible vowels, so it's not a surprise that words with the 5 cardinal vowels should be easier to rhyme and pun on cross-linguistically. I'd like to find examples of cross-language rhymes with rarer English words.