I’ll never forget the day that I really understood the power of the vowel /AE/ when learning or teaching the different accents and dialects of English.
Just to be clear, we are talking about the vowel /AE/ as in “cat.”
This was around 2000 and at the time, I was living in New York City and had just started teaching accents and dialects. I was home visiting my parents for the weekend and I met up with my good friend Brian who was teaching Italian at a university not far from our hometown. We decided to meet for coffee at Yum Yum Donuts, which was the only place in our small hometown that stayed open later than 10 pm. True statement.
Now, I know that accents and dialects are not a common topic of conversation between all good friends, but Brian has also always been really interested in speech, accents, and languages and is now a speech professional himself (and a very talented one!)
Anyway, as we drank coffee and ate Yum Yum’s incredible toast (yes I just said incredible toast. Brian, tell them, you know it was…) I shared every last life-changing insight that I had learned about this amazing vowel and how I was using it to teach accents and dialects in a really simple but effective way.
Brian was super-impressed and hung on my every word. We still have excited conversations about /AE/ to this day.
Why am I telling you all this?
While you may not get as excited about a vowel as Brian and I do, knowing the various pronunciations of /AE/ is really useful when learning or teaching any accent or dialect of American English.
So, to inspire you to appreciate /AE/ as the BEST and most versatile American vowel, I present my
/AE/ is really easily influenced by the sounds that come before it and after it. More so than any other vowel in English.
In a true Standard American Accent, /AE/ should NEVER be nasalized. The back of the tongue should always stay low to keep air out of the nasal cavity. But…..
This is changing. At this point in time, most American speakers, even those with relatively standard accents, will allow /AE/ to be nasalized (that means the back of the tongue is high in the mouth so you will hear a slight “twang”) when /AE/ is followed by a nasal sound. (Nasal sounds are /M/ /N/ and /NG/.)
Most non-native speakers will substitute /EH/ for /AE/. So word pairs like “bed” and “bad” or “met” and “mat” will sound the same. This is definitely something to work on when trying to improve spoken English because a sound substitution like this one, that consistently causes word confusion, is a problem.
Most New York accents (BTW, did you know that there are several different New York Accents based on the different native languages of the major ethnic groups that settled there? Italian, Irish, Jewish, etc.) More on that in another lesson, but these accents will only nasalize /AE/before certain consonants. These include: /B/, /D/, /G/, /K/, /M/, /N/, /NG/, /S/ and /Z/. /AE/ will be standard and non-nasal (low back of tongue) before all other sounds.
The Boston accent will nasalize all /AE/ sounds.
The Upstate NY accent will nasalize all /AE/ sounds.
Most Midwest accents, including Chicago, will nasalize all /AE/ sounds.
The Trans-Atlantic accent (aka, the Joan Crawford accent) NEVER nasalizes /AE/
The many different English (British) accents NEVER nasalize /AE/. Some dialects will turn /AE/ into /AH/ before certain sounds. Think “dance” = /DAHNSS/ or “last” = /LAHST/
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