Short Paper 1: What is /æ/-tensing?

Due session 8

The core of the assignment is to describe some of the phonetics and phonology of the trap vowel (/æ/) in the accent of a speaker from Long Island. The context is the lack of clarity in many descriptions of the phonological process often referred to as /æ/-tensing —it is unclear exactly what the difference between so-called tense and lax variants of /æ/ is, and it is often unclear exactly where these allophones occur. This is unfortunate because /æ/-tensing plays an important role in the literature on the mechanisms of sound change.

We have an opportunity to try to get a better understanding of this process by analyzing data from a speaker from Long Island who has tense /æ/. The data consists of recordings of relevant words, in a sound file on the course website [not accessible to OCW users]. Download the file and use Praat to analyze the patterns and write up your results in the form of a short paper. Illustrate it with relevant spectrograms. Details of the contents of the recording are below.

Points to address:

  • Introduction: The questions you are addressing and their context. (The discussion in Labov (1981) may be useful here).
  • The transcription of the lax and tense versions of the trap vowel (and any other allophones that you identify)
    • Use your ears and spectrograms.
    • Use comparisons of the formant frequencies in tense /æ/ to formant frequencies in other vowels (e.g. lax [æ], kit, dress, etc) to justify your transcriptions.
    • Duration measurements may be useful also.
  • Are there only two main allophones of the trap vowel, or are there more?
  • The phonological contexts in which the allophones of the trap vowel appear.


Identifying the contexts for allophones of trap:

According to Labov (1981), tense /æ/ appears in monosyllabic words when followed by the boxed consonants in Philadelphia English (dashed box) and New York City (solid box):

A grid of consonants, with a solid line around p, t, j caron, g, m, n, theta, s, and esh, representing the consonants causing tensing of previous /ae/ in New York City, and a dotted line surrounding m, n, theta, s, and esh, representing the consonants causing tensing in Philadelphia dialect.

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  • Start with the monosyllables—the main conditioning factor is expected to be the identity of the following consonant.
  • Once you’ve worked out which consonants condition tensing (or other allophones of trap), see if the same consonants condition tensing (or related allophones) when /æ/ is in an open syllable (i.e. followed by a single consonant, which is in turn followed by a vowel, e.g. ‘cabin’).
  • How about when non-final /æ/ is followed by a consonant cluster (e.g. ‘amber’)? 

Are there just two versions of the trap vowel?

Discussion of the trap vowel in these dialects focuses on a distinction between tense and lax variants of this vowel, but it seems likely that the situation may be more complicated in many accents. Some places to look for more variants:

  • There is supposed to be a tense-lax distinction in non-final syllables. If there is, it seems to be somewhat different from the distinction found in monosyllabic words.
  • There are mixed reports on whether velar nasal [ŋ] conditions tensing. This may be because this nasal can condition a third allophone of the trap vowel. 

Again, use spectrograms and acoustic measurements to characterize the differences between any allophones that you identify. Try to transcribe them, and specify the contexts in which they appear.

The recording

The recording [not accessible to OCW users] includes the following words illustrating trap and dress vowels. (Most of the words with dress vowels are probably not relevant at the moment.)

Monosyllables Polysyllables - Open syllable Polysyllables - Closed syllable
Voiced Stops Voiced Stops Voiced Stops
sad said radish meadow admiral Edna
pad Ted ladder pedal abdomen hebdomadal
bad bed cabin rebel Agnes segment
mad   cabbage debit magnet  
glad   maggot beggar    
slab   baggage   Voiceless Fricatives
bag beg     after  
stag   Voiceless Fricatives Alaska  
    affable effort asterisk ester
Voiceless Stops baffle      
mat met catheter method Nasals
bat   Catherine   candidate Kendall
slap slept castle lesson anchovy  
tap kept passive   canyon Kenyon
back beck fashion   amber ember
stack   passion special lambda  
Voiceless Fricatives Voiced Fricatives anger  
laugh   cavern Kevin    
half deaf avenue      
bath Beth hazard   Reference Vowels
pass   dazzle desert heed  
mass mess     hid  
mash mesh Nasals big  
    banish   head  
Voiced fricatives planet   hog  
halve   manner menace    
jazz   famish feminine    
    camel chemical    
Nasals hangar      
man men        
ban Ben        
slam hem        
dance dense        
pal pell        

The words were recorded in the following random order:

hangar, bath, meadow, laugh, magnet, sad, ladder, beck, mash, abdomen, Beth, after, bang, heed, canyon, affable, ember, met, dense, pal, cabin, pad, bad, bag, said, Catherine, big, tap, amnesty, passion, Ted, hid, castle, stag, camel, glad, jazz, Kevin, admiral, half, mad, amber, man, Ben, ester, mesh, slap, hebdomadal, mess, pedal, slam, men, pass, Kenyon, hog, famish, chemical, dance, anchovy, bed, hazard, asterisk, effort, head, banish, deaf, manner, rebel, planet, stack, passive, avenue, catheter, desert, anger, hang, cavern, baggage, candidate, ban, beg, hand, fashion, maggot, Kendall, Alaska, slab, mat, slept, lesson, mass, bat, beggar, Agnes, segment, dazzle, hem, feminine, baffle, bad, back, menace, halve, pell, cabbage, radish, kept, lambda, Edna