I understand that the SQUARE vowel is now often realized as the long monophthong /ɛː/ instead of the traditional diphthong /eə/ in contemporary RP. The DRESS vowel is now also closer to the open-mid front vowel [ɛ] than the close-mid front vowel [e], which the DRESS vowel is traditionally transcribed with.

Do /e/ from the DRESS vowel and /ɛː/ from the modern realization of the SQUARE vowel share the same vowel quality then, differing only in vowel length?

2 Answers 2


According to Roach (2004), the DRESS vowel is in between the cardinal vowels [e] and [ɛ] but closer to [ɛ] than [e]—so perhaps a precise transcription would be [ɛ̝].

The SQUARE vowel, however, is a falling centring diphthong and starts lower in the vowel space than DRESS—which one would transcribe as [ɛə̯].

For what it's worth, in other varieties of English such as Liverpool (Watson 2007) and Tyneside (Watt & Allen 2003), the SQUARE vowel is monophthongal, [eː] and [ɛː] respectively.

I can also testify, as a speaker of a non-RP variety of English from the North of England, that my DRESS [ɛ] and SQUARE [ɛː] vowels are the same quality and differentiated only by length (likewise, as it happens, for my KIT [ɪ] and NEAR [ɪː] vowels).


Roach, Peter. 2004. British English: Received Pronunciation. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 34(2), 239–245. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025100304001768.

Watson, Kevin. 2007. Liverpool English. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 37(3), 351–360. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025100307003180.

Watt, Dominic & William Allen. (2003). Tyneside English. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 33(2), 267–271. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025100303001397

  • Note that the Roach article has both phonetic and phonemic əʊ for GO, and more generally still describes 'classic' RP (not a criticism of the article). I get the feeling that the OP was looking for a more modern pronunciation, athough 'contemporary RP' is admittedly vague.
    – legatrix
    Mar 21, 2020 at 14:48
  • 1
    I take your point; although the data the don't come from the youngest generation of RP speakers and so it's not as up-to-date it might be, he says "[t]he accent described here is the present-day version of the accent that has been used as the standard in phoneticians' description of the pronunciation of British English for centuries". As such, it is certainly more modern than Jones (1917) or Gimson (1962), which he cites as previous descriptions.
    – Miztli
    Mar 21, 2020 at 15:22

You might like the 2019 book English After RP by Geoff Lindsey.

He writes (p. 19) that:

The front vowels are lower today than in RP. The vowel of DRESS is [ɛ] rather than [e] […]

In 1962, Gimson described the vowel of SQUARE as [ɛə]. The contem porary SQUARE vowel isn’t lower than this, but has monophthongized to [ɛː]; see Chap. 13. However, publications on RP have generally used the symbol /eə/, suggesting a higher quality […] SQUARE now has the [ɛ] quality and not [e] […]

I would not hesitate to say that they differ only in length, phonemically. Phonetic realizations will of course vary according to lect, individual differences, and so on.

  • I'm surprised to read that as I would have said they are somewhat similar in quality but definitely not the same. I had a look in Gimson (2014 ed), where the vowel in BED is described as between [e] and [ɛ] and the vowel in PAIR is described as C.[ɛ] or [ɛə].
    – rchivers
    Mar 21, 2020 at 14:33
  • I'm not sure that Lindsey (2019) really deals with modern-day RP, rather he seems to be describing contemporary Standard Southern British English (SSBE), which is the successor to RP as the standard variety of British (or, really, English) English. Even though SSBE certainly owes a lot to older versions of RP and defining RP is somewhat fraught with troubles, there are also still speakers of modern-day RP, they are just nowhere near as numerous or as (over-)represented in public fora as they were last century.
    – Miztli
    Mar 21, 2020 at 15:41
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    I agree with you. I was going out on a limb in guessing that the OP was referring to something closer to SSBE (to use that horrible acronym!)
    – legatrix
    Mar 21, 2020 at 18:30

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