From Wikipedia's article on the NATO spelling alphabet:

The IPA form of Golf implies it is pronounced gulf, which is neither General American English nor British Received Pronunciation.

However, as a fairly-close-to-General American English speaker, gulf and golf are homophones for me. I've only heard them distinguished in English accents, never American ones.

My question is, then: which dialects of English distinguish these two words? Is it a peculiar merger that's only happened in my narrow dialect, for instance, or is Wikipedia using a different definition of General American?

  • It's worth pointing out that, in addition the snippet you quote, the Wikipedia article does acknowledge that a lot of the ICAO 2008 IPA convention transcriptions don't match standard English pronunciations: "Several of the pronunciations indicated are slightly modified from their normal English pronunciations: [ˈælfa, ˈbraːˈvo, ˈdeltɑ, ɡʌlf, ˈliːmɑ, ˈɔskɑ, siˈerɑ, ˈtænɡo, ˈuːnifɔrm, ˈviktɑ, ˈjænki]".
    – Miztli
    Apr 23 '19 at 10:50

It’s quite common to distinguish the pronunciations of "golf" and "gulf". Historically, they had the different vowels that the spelling would suggest: a “short o” ("lot") sound in golf and a “short u” ("strut") sound in gulf. In American English, the “short o” sound has typically been rounded to the “cloth” vowel when it comes before /l/ followed by another consonant (or followed by the end of a word).

According to Wikipedia, a general merger of /ʌl/ and /ɔːl/ (“strut” + l and “cloth~thought” + l, as in "hull" and "hall") is known to occur in some accents of American English, but it is not a mandatory feature of “standard” pronunciation and I don’t think it’s very common. I've heard of speakers having the merged vowel be /ɔ/, in which case this could be seen as a kind of rounding change, maybe similar to the one that produced /ɔl/ from what would have otherwise been /ɑl/.

For me, in the specific context of a following voiceless obstruent (which causes the preceding syllable nucleus to become shortened or "clipped"), "strut" + l does sound somewhat confusable with "lot~cloth~thought" + l, but not to the extent that I would say that I have a merger. For context, I have the lot-cloth merger, so phonemically I have /ɑlf/ in "golf" and /ʌlf/ in "gulf". It seems plausible that some speakers with accents similar to mine might have something like "Canadian raising" here that turns former /ɑlf/ into something that sounds more like /ʌlf/, just as /aɪf/ in words like "wife" is turned into [ʌɪf]. There was a post on ELU relatively recently by a speaker who perceived /ʌ/ rather than /ɑ/ in the word "scarf" (but not in "scarves"), which seems similar.

  • Interesting! I'd always assumed it was universal, but I suppose this "golf-gulf merger" is just a peculiarity of my dialect then (and I hear it everywhere because my mind doesn't distinguish those phonemes).
    – Draconis
    Jan 12 '19 at 19:37
  • …though I don't think it's specifically before /l/. Off the top of my head, I distinguish "loll" and "lull".
    – Draconis
    Jan 12 '19 at 19:38

Their transcriptions (p. 58) probably do not represent any actual dialect. For example, [ˈælfa] probably isn't an actual pronunciation in North American English. [ˈtʃɑ:li] indicates a non-rhotic dialect (thus excluding General American); the contrast [noˈvembə] vs. [ho:ˈtel] suggests that they are randomly using phonetic notations since there's no difference in the initial vowels. Noting that ICAO is located in Montreal and they transcribe Quebec as [keˈbek], you may suspect an Eastern Canadian substratum.

I can't say that I've ever encountered a speaker of GAE who pronounces the words the same. Ogden reports that they are homophones for some speakers of Melbourne English, and there is Wiki chat that suggests that it's an Australian thing. This (unnamed) person claims that they are homophones, so it's a credible claim. According to Cambridge, golf is pronounced differently from gulf. If you think the words are more like [gɔlf] rather than [gʌlf], I would conjecture that you're from the Midwest (I'm from the West). There is a lowering going on in the Midwest where my [tʊr] "tour" is pronounced [tɔr].

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