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I've noticed that my pronunciation of the word only differs from the General American pronunciation (I'm from coastal California). This is the pronunciation of only that I assume is General American: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/File:En-us-only.ogg.

My pronunciation and that of my friends and family is something like [ˈɔn.li] or [ˈon.li].

At first I thought that the first vowel was probably an allophone of /oʊ/, but then I thought how my pronunciation of own is [oʊn], which I think would make a near-minimal pair for the words only and own in my variety of English.

Additionally, my pronunciations of lone and lonely are [loʊn] and [ˈloʊn.li] respectively.

If my observations were typical of most English speakers from urban, coastal California, would that mean my variety of English has an additional vowel phoneme (perhaps /ɔ/ or /o/) compared to General American English that has the cot-caught merger?

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    In General American, the words only, old and own all have the same vowel /oʊ/, so referring to old as a way to describe how your pronunciation differs from own is rather ambiguous. American in general doesn’t have short [ɔ] or monophthongal [o] at all, so if that is indeed what you have here, it could be an extra phoneme. How do you pronounce soul (or sole), [a]lone and lonely? Do those have your only vowel or your own vowel? Do lone and lonely have different vowels? If so, it might be an allophone conditioned by a following /l/ (but only within the same word). Jan 18 at 12:24
  • Do you use the [ˈɔn.li] / [ˈon.li] pronunciation only in connected speech, or also when pronouncing the word on its own? I think I know the pronunciation you're describing, and if so it strikes me as a case of allegro-speech vowel reduction.
    – TKR
    Jan 18 at 17:06
  • Do you pronounce own the same way a General American speaker would? I speak PNW English (if there is such a thing) and for me the vowel is maybe closer to [əʊ], which is a trait borrowed from California English. This does not seem to be the same vowel as in the word only. But I do agree that my vowel in only does not seem to be [oʊ], nor any diphthong. To address Janus Bahs Jacquet's question, I pronounce soul with a different vowel than alone, or own. Harder to tell with lonely; that one might be the same as old/soul/only.
    – Juhasz
    Jan 18 at 17:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thank you, I edited the post to remove the ambiguity. I pronounce soul with the vowel quality of only. I pronounce lone and the first syllable of lonely with the vowel of own. I'm going to edit my post to include your example of lone and lonely since I think it's really useful. Jan 18 at 19:22
  • @TKR I pronounce it that way both in connected speech and when pronouncing the word on its own. Jan 18 at 19:23

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It's probably analyzable as /ol/ (the vowel of "goat" + the consonant /l/) but maybe it has the status of a new phoneme for you. As hinted by the comments, for a number of American English speakers the goat and face vowels /o/, /e/ have different allophones before /l/, /r/ compared to the falling diphthongs that are used elsewhere (giving a pattern that could potentially be loosely transcribed as bone /bon/ [boʊ̯n], bowl /bol/ [bol]~[boə̯ɫ], bane /ben/ [beɪ̯n], bear /ber/ [beɚ̯]; obviously, these phonetic and phonemic transcriptions do not cover all accents of American English.)

If you can't make a distinction between your pronunciation of only and the pronunciation of a hypothetical form "olnly", then it seems best analyzed as /ol/.

I have seen a number of reports from American English speakers who say that they use some special vowel sound, normally found only before /l/, in some words where it is not followed by the letter "L", such as "only" or "both". As far as I know, this is not a fixed feature of any particular variety or region, nor does it affect a fixed list of words. Here's a speaker reporting "olnly" on Reddit. Here's a speaker reporting "bolth" on Stack Exchange.

I don't think the cot-caught merger has much to do with this.

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    I wonder how related this is to the HOLY-WHOLLY split ("GOAT split") of London and Australian English.
    – Michaelyus
    Jan 19 at 22:38

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