“Tense” /æ/ is still lax: A phonotactics study

Daniel Duncan


The production of the lax vowel /æ/ is widely studied as a sociolinguistic variable in American English, as several dialects differ in the allophonic distribution of lax and tense variants of the vowel. Using a forced-choice well-formedness judgment task, this paper tests whether the /æ/ used by Northern Cities Shift (NCS) speakers, which is described as a raised and tensed [ɛə] in all environments, is still represented as a lax vowel in speakers’ grammars. Participants who were native speakers of California English, which only tenses preceding nasals, and NCS English, which tenses everywhere, were asked to choose which of a pair of nonce words, constructed to include a lax-only environment /Vsk, Vsp/, as in gasp, risk, sounds more like a possible English word. California English speakers significantly prefer frames containing lax vowels, including [æ], over those containing tense vowels. NCS speakers respond in the same way: they favor [ɛə] in trials like [bɛəsp] vs. [bisp] just as California English speakers favor [æ] in [bæsp] vs. [bisp]. This suggests they keep the vowel in the phonologically active class usually considered to be lax vowels, providing evidence that speakers generalize features based on lexical distributions rather than phonetic properties.


Northern Cities Shift; Phonotactics; Tense/Lax Distinction; Feature Generalization, Natural Class

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/amp.v3i0.3653

Copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Duncan

License URL: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/