In contemporary Boston speech and probably also in Maine it seems to me that the realization of /ɒ/ is widely much less constricted, and in some realizations allophonically more fronted/centralized than RP /ɒ/.

Here are some good samples, although the first one is clearly chosen to showcase Boston's distinctive broad /aː/ and not /ɒ/.



What is the best way to notate this vowel in a close transcription?

2 Answers 2


The standard method exemplified in the illustrations of the IPA is to pick some appropriate symbol, and then situate the vowel more exactly in the vowel space by nudging the vowel up, back, or whatever. The letter <ɒ> is most appropriate. Since there is a contrasting [a], would not be appropriate. The choice between <ɑ> and <ɒ> should be guided by the question of which vowel the sound in question is more like. That requires a standard of comparison, which you can get here, and on those grounds I would select <ɒ>. (The Ladefoged pages also have definitive Jones recordings, but no single clickable chart for side-by-side comparisons). There are also diacritics that can be added to vowels to indicate raised / lowered / retracted / advanced / more~less-rounded variants, but they don't combine well and only allow a 2-way distinction (retracted, but not retracted a lot vs. a little). Hence the practice of positioning the vowels in a standard vowel space diagram gives you greater accuracy. The nudge-diacritics are usually used to represent major contextually-determined subdivisions, such as retracted and non-retracted variants of vowels in Arabic.

Needless to say, greatest accuracy is achieved by measuring and reporting formant means, or even splatter plots with ovals.

[Edit] To clarify, if you can two discern contextually-predictable variants of the back vowel, a fronter and a backer version, then the thing to do is define the "basic" value of the unmodified symbol <ɒ> as that with the most general distribution, and use the "fronted" or "retracted" diacritic (as appropriate) for the restricted variant. This still requires placing unmodified <ɒ> somewhere in the vowel chart, which allows us to vaguely estimate where the other variant is produced.


I have never been able to understand the description given to digraph [æ] by Ladefoged and other phoneticians, as lax. To me, judging just on intuitive kinaesthetic grounds, it seems tense. And when I say it, but relax slightly to let the articulation centralize, what I get sounds to me like Boston ah (which I write [a]). (I'm not from Boston.) That is, I'm suggesting, that Boston ah is a low front lax vowel, the lax counterpart of the tense digraph vowel.

  • But that's the broad a, not the bother vowel ?
    – aestrivex
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 19:58
  • Yes. I was confused about the question. Apparently, there is some variation between the two: dialectblog.com/2012/07/11/father-bother-in-new-england
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 20:26
  • Are "lax" and "tense" even valid as phonetic categories? Phonemically speaking, on the other hand, /æ/ pretty clearly patterns as a lax vowel. I remember reading that /æ/ tends to be realized with more length than the higher lax vowels, like /ɛ/, /ɪ/ and /ʊ/. Commented Jun 16, 2015 at 22:59
  • 1
    @sumelic, I judge tense and lax by my impression of articulatory effort, but my intuitive classification makes [ɪ] and [ʊ] tense vowels, since there's a cupping gesture for them (in English) that seems to me to require extra energy. So far as actual evidence goes, we might look at the reduced final unstressed vowels of Portuguese (orthographic "e" and "o"), which sound high to me. I'd think "reduced" would imply laxity. I've looked at some language systems that are said to have "tense harmony", but I couldn't really make sense of how those systems work.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 0:23
  • That post is focused on the quality of /a/ in young rhotic speakers who otherwise show father=bother. They mention that /ɒ/ is traditionally backed in ENE, which I believe. But I think in contemporary times, possibly due to merger, it is not still /ɒ/, whereas RP has true /ɒ/. Rick Aschmann transcribes it as /ɒə/ aschmann.net/AmEng/#Vowels A centering dipthong that starts somewhat backed seems like a reasonable transcription in many cases. But the realization in contemporary Bostonian speech -- as with Tom Menino's clip -- seems to start more centrally than RP /ɒ/ as well.
    – aestrivex
    Commented Jun 17, 2015 at 15:23

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