Has anybody heard of vowel-backing in English?

In East-Central Alabama, USA, I have observed forms such as:

suckint ['sOkh Inˀ] for "second"
butter ['bOD ɚ] for "better"
woonda ['wUnd ә] for "window"

NOTE: I'm using the symbol [O] instead of [^] because it appears to be a mid-back, lax, pure vowel, rather than a mid-central one.

Before I moved here, I expected vowel-fronting (not vowel-backing) in this area.


  • Yup. That's my native dialect (I grew up in Auburn) and I've heard it. I think it's an artefact of a very slack-jawed speech style, with the voice 'placed' toward the back of the mouth. (I don't know the technical term for what I call placement--that's the way acting teachers talk about it.) Jun 24, 2015 at 0:03
  • @ StoneyB: Thanks -- actually Auburn is where I teach. I can't seem to identify a phonological pattern, except possibly /w/ beforehand, so I've been wondering whether it could be conditioned sociolinguistically instead of phonologically. Mystery upon mystery... Jun 25, 2015 at 19:24
  • I can't help you much with the soci dimension: in my cohort the main linguistic contrast was faculty brats vs everybody else (except blacks, who were still completely segregated). I'd look suggest looking at a) whether backing is associated with the PIN/PEN merger, and b) how the phonemes the backed forms contrast with are realized. Jun 25, 2015 at 20:55
  • @ StoneyB: 2 people from Chambers County (a father and daughter) were the ones who produced the forms such as "butter" for "better" and "suckint" for "second" (which do not have a preceding /w/). I observed the speech of these 2 speakers as much as I could, specifically looking for what had happened to their original back-vowels (had they merged, or had something else happened to them?) but found a puzzling paucity of this vowel-backing; in other words, the production of the backed vowels seemed sporadic. Jun 27, 2015 at 14:38


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