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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'.

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