Learn English – pronounce “horrible” so harrhibly


With Friends Like These

A few months ago, a couple good friends brought up a topic they know I disdain, and kept prodding me for my opinion on it. They wouldn't let up, until finally I proclaimed "[It's] terrible!", to which they replied, scheming, "Don't you mean horrible?", and I said, "Yeah, horrible!". They both burst out laughing.

Apparently, I pronounce horrible weirdly, and these goofs just wanted to hear me say it¹.

I struggle with IPA, but my understanding is in General American the word is pronounced with a proper o sound, like whoreible. On the other hand, I pronounce it with an ar sound, like in hard, HARHible. They also told me I do the same with orange (arrnje)².

Comparing Oranges to Oranges

In the intervening months, I've polled a bunch of other people, and almost all of them pronounce the o like an o. And their oranges start with the sound in oar.

One issue I have with these comparisons is that I don't think they're truly oranges-for-oranges. I am a native-born New Yorker, and most of my adult relations live here, but were born elsewhere.

So let me give a little background on forces which may have influenced my idiolect:

  • I was born and raised in Manhattan, and have lived most of my adult life on the island (with a couple brief stints in neighboring Jersey City).
  • My father was a Bronx Jew, his parents immigrated from the (newly-formed) Soviet Union, and were bilingual.
  • My mother was raised in rural Connecticut, among working-class Italian immigrants. Her grandparents immigrated at the turn of the 20th century from (northern) Italy. Her parents were quasi-bilingual.
  • My linguistic exposure during my formative years can be broadly characterized as "New York Jews", with a smattering of WASPy 5th Avenue aristocrats (kid I knew in 3rd grade could already trace his family back to the Mayflower).
  • Both my parents had college educations. I have a college education.
  • I speak ludicrously fast. I don't think this is part of my "dialect", per se, just a personal quirk, but I'm wondering if my pronunciations can be explained by subconscious tactics to streamline or re-shape certain words and thereby increase my bandwidth.

Or Is It Just Me?

So, is this a known feature of any particular, documented dialect, sociolect, etc? Has anyone studied its origins (i.e. when it diverged from General American), and what social or linguistic forces might account for it? Or is it really peculiar to me?

I do note that Wiktionary specifically breaks out New York City and Philadelphia in its pronunciation guide for horrible:

(Received Pronunciation) IPA: /ˈhɒɹɪbəl/
(US) IPA: /ˈhɔɹəbəl/, /ˈhɒɹəbəl/, [-bəɫ]
(NYC, Philadelphia) IPA: /ˈhɑɹɪbəl/

which seems like a hint that I may not be as crazy as I sound.

If this is a feature of a known lect, how else does that diverge from General American? What else am I likely to pronounce in a way others find surprising?

¹ Bonus points for anyone who can help me get back at one of them by diagnosing the illness which compels her to pronounce obsessed with all zs, obzezzed (if it helps, she immigrated from Kiev in early childhood and was raised in Northern California. The only other guy I know who does this is also from NoCal.)

² Note to editors: please feel free to update the question to use proper IPA or other formal phonetic transcription.

Best Answer

This is a pretty well-known area of variance among different North American accents of English. It's certainly not unique to you. In this post, I'll use the spelling "ohr" /or/ to represent the sound in in sore, and "ahr" /ɑr/ to represent the sound in star.

However, there are added complications in that some people may distinguish three vowels among glory, sorry, and starry (they are all different in standard British English, for example). So I'll start out by outlining these, and then describe how these vowels area merged in various North American accents.

Accents with a three-way distinction

In British English, words like glory are pronounced with /ɔː/ (the vowel in law), words like sorry are pronounced with /ɒ/ (the vowel in lot), and words like starry are pronounced with /ɑː/ (the vowel in spa).

Usually, Canadian English speakers shift the vowel in lot to /ɑː/, but there is an exception before /r/. So they generally do not shift the vowel in sorry to /ɑː/ Most transcriptions I've found give the vowel in "sorry" as /ɔ/ or /o/; despite this, it seems that some Canadian English speakers still maintain a contrast between the vowels in sorry and glory (with a higher, tenser or longer vowel in the latter word), although both vowels may be shifted a bit compared to British English.

Accents where horrible = hahr-ibble

Accents like yours, where words like sorry and horrible are both pronounced with /ɑr/, are described in this blog post: The Oral-Aural Merger?, by Neal Whitman. Whitman says he sent a message to the American Dialect Society email list asking about dialects like this, and got several responses. Ben Zimmer said that areas where this pronunciation is common include New York City, Philadelphia and the Carolinas.

In 1944, it seems the "ahr" pronunciation was associated with Eastern-Southern American speakers, and the "ohr" pronunciation was associated with Western speakers, according to the research of Charles K. Thomas of Cornell (American Language Supplement 2, H.L. Mencken).

In some accents, even more words have /ɑr/: for speakers with the card-cord merger, words in the "north" lexical set are also pronounced with /ɑr/. These speakers only use /or/ in words like "glory" and "hoarse" that historically had long vowels (this is mentioned by one of the mailing list replies by Matthew J Gordon). (For a longer explanation of the distinction between "north" and "force" lexical sets, see my answer here: Why is 'forty' spelled without a 'u' in Canadian/British English?)

Accents where horrible = hohr-ibble, but sorry = sahr-y

For many other speakers in North America, the vowel in words like horrible has merged in another direction: with the vowel of glory. American English speakers with this merger, like me, say "ohr-ange, hohr-ible," etc. Interestingly, though, this change does not apply in all words: we also say "sahr-ry, sahr-roh, to-mahr-row." That is, we split this set of words into two new sets. Here's a relevant question about this: Where did "sorry" get its vowel sound?

There's a description of this split in this Wikipedia article: North American English Regional Phonology - General American. Apparently, the "ahr" set includes, at a minimum, the four words borrow, tomorrow, sorry, and sorrow. It says more words may be pronounced with "ahr" in the accents of speakers from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Carolinas.

Not everybody agrees about which words fall in which set. Based on your described pronunciation of historic and exploratory with "ohr" rather than "ahr," it seems like you actually have a split as well, just a different one from your friends where more words are in the "ahr" set.

The Language Samples Project site that I linked to earlier for the description of Canadian English actually gives two lists. For words pronounced as /ɑr/ by nearly all General American speakers, it gives sorry, tomorrow, borrow, sorrow, and additionally Laura. (In fact, this doesn't seem to be entirely accurate. I pronounce Laura with "ohr," and Peter Shor agrees that this is the most common pronunciation outside of New York.) For words variably pronounced as /ɑr/ by General American speakers (but more commonly pronounced as /or/), it gives Florida, orange, oracle, Norwich, adorable, thesaurus. You pronounce "horrible" with /ɑr/, even though it's not on the second list. In fact, according to Wikipedia and Merriam Webster, the set of words that may be pronounced with /ɑr/ is much more extensive than either of these lists, and seems to potentially include any word that historically had /ɒr/; for example, it lists alternate pronunciations with "ahr" for florist, forest and historic. The sound in words like florist has been discussed on John Wells's phonetic blog (forceful sports supporters), and although he mainly focuses on British pronunciation, there are some interesting comments about variations in American pronunciation.