Crap Lolly Pop

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Ambarish Sridharanarayanan sent in this image of a restaurant menu from Chennai:

He explains:

Because Tamil traditionally doesn't distinguish voiced and voiceless plosives, there's lots of confusion with English loan words learnt through hearing; this seems to be an egregious case 🙂 [Podimas is a sort of stir-fry]

(Here's Wikipedia on Tamil consonants. And in case it's not obvious to you, "crap" means crab.)

This might be a question of pronunciation-influenced memory for the spelling of words learned in text as well as speech. Thus native speakers of languages with ambiguous spelling systems, like English, often make spelling errors matching the correct pronunciation, like "absense" for absence or  "appearence" for appearance, even if they've read the words in question as often as they've heard them.

Similarly, native speakers can also make spelling mistakes that reflect their particular speech patterns — thus Treiman and Barry, "Dialect and authography: Some differences between American and British spellers" (2000), report that

Our results show that adults who speak British English make certain dialect-related errors when they spell. Speakers of this dialect appear to have learned that final schwa has two primary spellings: vowel + r (as in mother and tiger) and a (as in pizza and sofa). Given words such as leper (Type 1) and polka (Type 2), speakers of British English do not always know which spelling is appropriate. They sometimes select the wrong alternative, producing errors such as "lepa" and "polker."

I'm guessing that Tamil speakers are more like to make 'b' → 'p' errors than the opposite — though maybe hypercorrection would reverse that?



42 Comments »

  1. Laura Morland said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 8:04 am

    Thanks for this post, especially the fun fact that Brits will sometimes "produce… errors such as 'lepa' and 'polker'." (Three cheers for the American rhotic R!)

    However, I'm still waiting for the other shoe to drop: what IS a "Crab(p) Lolly Pop"?

    (And perhaps someone below will explain the difference between an "egg fry" and a "fried egg"?)

  2. Simon Wright said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 8:25 am

    As a Home Counties Brit, I seem to pronounce the final schwa differently: polka’s is definitely more 'a'-flavoured than leper’s.

  3. david said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 9:01 am

    https://www.cuisinart.com/recipes/appetizers/crab-lollipop/

  4. George said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 10:43 am

    Crap body mass surely? (Excuse me.)

  5. Stephen Hart said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 10:47 am

    https://www.cuisinart.com/recipes/appetizers/crab-lollipop/

    The recipe has linguistic/translation interest itself, including this:

    "In a small bowl add crab meat, white pepper power, salt, vinegar, chopped finger, scallion, red wine vinegar and mix well."

    In addition, the ingredients list looks sketchy, to say the least.

  6. MattF said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 11:02 am

    My grandmother used to sign her letters as (Yiddish-inflected) ‘Grenma’.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 11:04 am

    @Stephen Hart: "Chopped finger" is presumably a typo for "chopped ginger" rather than an translation problem — note that 'f' and 'g' are qwerty neighbors…

  8. Kate Bunting said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 11:57 am

    I always think of a lamb chop as a 'lamp shop', having once seen it thus described on a menu in Crete.

  9. robin rapport said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 2:20 pm

    Cuisinart recipe:
    "Remove excess moisture from the crab claws. In a small bowl add crab meat, white pepper power, salt, vinegar, chopped finger, scallion, red wine vinegar and mix well."

    …..finger…?

  10. Terry K. said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 2:34 pm

    @Robin Rapport: As already pointed out in a previous comment, finger is a typo for ginger.

    In fact, if you look in the ingredient list (which has lost it's line breaks) you will see chopped ginger. A simple typo, mixing up two letters typed with the same finger and next to each other on the keyboard.

    A webpage in bad need of proofreading.

  11. PB said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    As the "fried egg" is much cheaper than the "egg fry", my guess is that it's really just a single fried egg, and the "egg fry", maybe, is a larger portion of scrambled eggs?

  12. Terry K. said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 3:08 pm

    Egg fry is an actual thing (I've discovered thanks to Google). Also called boiled egg fry. Take a hard boiled egg, and fry it with spices.

    https://theyummydelights.com/egg-fry-recipe/

  13. David L. Gold said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 5:14 pm

    Regarding "grenma":

    Speakers of Eastern Yidish who do not know English well or at all hear English /æ/ as Yidish /ε/.

    A true story: one of the grandfathers of two siblings in Toronto named Ellen and Alan or Allan or Allen (I do not remember which spelling his parents had chosen) could not understand why his son and daughter-in-law (?) or daughter and son-in-law (?) had given the two the same name, /εln/.

  14. Chas Belov said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 5:16 pm

    Interesting that the last g in finger is pronounced differently from the last g in ginger. And had to think whether the ng in finger is the ng of sing or two separate phonemes. I'm taking it as separate.

    @Terry K: Given the price difference between the two dishes, they better be some fancy spices.

  15. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 6:49 pm

    Thanks, Mark! I see now I was a bit sloppy in my blurb to you.

    > I'm guessing that Tamil speakers are more like to make 'b' → 'p' errors than the opposite — though maybe hypercorrection would reverse that?

    Tamil voices ungeminated plosives word-medially, leading to lots of spelling confusion and phonotactic approximations. I think both directions are plausible depending on the consonant's word place: 'b' → 'p' errors terminally, 'p' → 'b' medially and both initially. I think this phenomenon is less well analysed than, say, gairaigo, and I might well be wrong in my intuition.

  16. David P said,

    November 21, 2022 @ 7:34 pm

    My Yiddish-speaking mother-in-law pronounced "bedroom" and "bathroom" exactly the same, at least to our ears – both sounded more like "bet room." She was exasperated that we couldn't tell the difference between her two pronunciations.

  17. poftim said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 3:52 am

    David P,

    Here in Romania it's the same thing: English /æ/ and /ɛ/ both tend to map to Romanian /e/, while English /t/ and /θ/ both map to /t/, so most of my students pronounce the two words identically (to my ears).

    Last time I visited Belgrade, I had breakfast at a place where the menu options included "hemendeks" and "bekendeks". So you had /æ/, /ɛ/, /eɪ/ and /ə/ all mapping to Serbian "e", with a syllable dropped from "bekendeks".

  18. David Marjanović said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 12:15 pm

    "hemendeks" and "bekendeks"

    Note also the spelling-pronunciation of s as [s] – Serbian does not have final devoicing and ends plenty of words in [z], or in [g] for that matter.

  19. Terry K. said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 2:49 pm

    @Chas Belov

    There's no reason to assume the two dishes are the same size. And though my description describing the basic idea said "a hard boiled egg", the linked recipe and other recipes and photos I've seen have multiple eggs.

  20. Abpants said,

    November 22, 2022 @ 5:54 pm

    To shed some light on the questions above, from a long-time lurker and first-time poster who is also a semi-capable native Tamil speaker:

    Lollipop:
    This is a term I most often associate with Chicken Lollipop, a preparation where the drumette part of the wing of a chicken is frenched and pulled upwards to bunch the meat up near the cartilage, resulting in a bare bone with meat on top: hence, lollipop.

    Crab Lollipop follows a similar theme of food names based on morphology. Pre-cooked lump crab meat taken from the body of the crab is formed into a spherical patty at the tip of a crab claw, then battered and deep-fried. The claw acts as the lollipop stick.

    Podimas (amusingly referred to as body mass above):

    Podi (also meaning small, or used as a word to refer to some powders) is term used in many dishes to refer to a granulated 'something'. It's also used in many different ways within a phrase. As an example, idli podi is a powdered mix of spices that's eaten with idli (savory rice cakes)–the podi is not part of the idli but an accompaniment. Podimas on the other hand is an agglutination of granulated potato (usually) brought together with spices and other flavorings into a soft mash–the podi refers to the texture of the primary ingredient.

    Egg fry versus fried eggs:

    A fried egg is an egg fried in hot oil. Usually sunny side up with crispy edges as south east asians commonly prepare.

    The use of 'fry' after an ingredient typically refers not only to the method of preparation but also to the consistency and the texture of the final dish. A chicken fry for example is not fried chicken, but usually a dry 'fried' dish with spices and pastes but very little gravy. I'm not quite sure what the impetus was for calling it a fry. So the egg fry then becomes an egg that's likely already cooked and then fried in a mixture of spices and pastes to make a gravy-less dish, as another poster pointed out.

    There are many nuances in how Tamil food names are transliterated that I have never quite paid attention to. I enjoyed this post for sparking some questions and memories.

  21. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 7:15 am

    And had to think whether the ng in finger is the ng of sing or two separate phonemes. I'm taking it as separate.

    Well, it's the two phonemes /ŋg/. It isn't the two phonemes /ng/ – at the very least, that would require changing the vowel in the first syllable.

    (I know "sing" and "sin" are conventionally transcribed with the same vowel /ɪ/, but I don't like that – the vowels in those two words are not the same.)

    Wiktionary claims that the pronunciation of ginger was influenced by Old French gingembre; perhaps that explains why the second G is soft.

    There is an apparent inconsistency in the spelling of English where the agent nouns formed from verbs ending in /ŋ/ receive the suffix -er, pronounced /ɚ/ (sing/singer; bang/banger; etc.), but the comparative forms of adjectives ending in /ŋ/ receive the suffix -er, pronounced /gɚ/. As far as I know this category consists of just the two adjectives long and strong, so I'm willing to say they both have irregular comparative forms. But it's a little weird. Perhaps these two forms are related to the hard G in finger?

  22. poftim said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 9:11 am

    Michael Watts,

    "Younger" has the /gɚ/ ending too. There's also the much rarer "wronger", and I think some people put the /g/ in there, though I wouldn't personally if I ever used it. Looks like there are only those four adjectives that end in /ŋ/ and have comparatives in -er.

  23. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 12:30 pm

    I agree that I would probably pronounce "wronger" without a /g/. "Younger" was an oversight on my part.

  24. Rodger C said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 3:50 pm

    (I know "sing" and "sin" are conventionally transcribed with the same vowel /ɪ/, but I don't like that – the vowels in those two words are not the same.)

    They're certainly (?) the same phoneme, and when speaking high-register American, I pronounce them nearly the same. In Appalachian speech, of course, they're quite different–in fact they're a falling and a rising diphthong respectively.

  25. Rodger C said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 3:51 pm

    *rising and falling respectively.

  26. Terry K. said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 4:34 pm

    For me personally, the vowels of sing and sin are most definitely not the same phoneme. I'm an American with a fairly standard accent from the middle of the country, and without the pin/pen merger. /i/ in sing, /ɪ/ in sin.

    I know for at least some speakers with the pin/pen merger, the pin/pen vowel is closer to pen (at least to my ears; I recall my confusing when someone said PIN and I thought she said pen).

  27. Rodger C said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 6:55 pm

    I have the pin/pen merger in my basilect but not my acrolect. I grew up in a much-looked-down-on part of the country, and my acrolect is very practiced andprecise. In Mid-America, people seem to have the cultural confidence to speak a single lect and assume it's okay.

  28. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 8:44 pm

    They're certainly (?) the same phoneme

    Why? They can't rhyme with each other, even if you're willing to overlook the different final consonants. How would we make the determination that they are the same phoneme? The most we can say, as far as I see, is that they're in complementary distribution.

  29. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 9:01 pm

    (But complementary distribution is not enough to identify the vowel in sing with the vowel in sin, because the vowel in sin is not unique in appearing in those contexts where the vowel of sing cannot. For example, this is clearly not about velar consonants: the vowel of tick matches the vowel of sin and fails to match sing. And while the vowel of sing cannot appear in the context /sVn/, there are a very large number of vowels that can: we have sin, son, seen, sane, sown, soon, and sign all attested, and if we broaden the context to /C(C)Vn/ we have ten, tan, pawn, ton, turn, clown, cairn, darn, and horn filling out almost all of Wells' lexical sets. [I was not able to come up with a clear match for the FOOT, CHOICE, or NEAR vowels.])

  30. Andrew Usher said,

    November 23, 2022 @ 10:08 pm

    Michael Watts once again assumes facts about his own idiolect apply to English, or at least American English, in general. He may indeed have so big a difference between 'sin' and 'sing' as to properly identify them as different phonemes, but I know that's not true for many or most Americans. For myself the vowels are slightly different phonetically but the difference is clearly allophonic; the vowel in 'sing' is still much closer to that of 'sin' than to any other – and this in one area in which I have never tried to alter my speech.

    Any nasal assimilation (which is obligatory within a morpheme) that changed /n/ to /ŋ/ would naturally affect the preceding vowel as well. There is simply no ground in arguing whether 'singer' has /ng/ or /ŋg/ underlyingly, because they'd produce exactly the same result. Possibly 'wronger' has no /g/ (I certainly agree there) due partly to influence of the agent noun 'wronger', which doesn't exist for the others – and the agent suffix, as noted, never adds /g/ (actually, of course, it's really conserving the historical /g/).

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  31. Michael Watts said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 1:09 am

    Obviously I can't talk about varieties of English I don't know. You'll never see me comment from the perspective that THOUGHT and FORCE share a vowel. How would that make sense?

    There are several codas that make me uncomfortable classifying the vowel. To me, vowels followed by /ɹ/, /ŋ/, and sometimes /l/ (as in "pull") are obviously different from the standard set of vowels, and I dislike transcribing them because I can't justify the standard transcriptional conventions. I prefer the lexical set approach of just noting that one syllable is in an equivalence class with certain other syllables, but for reasons that escape me lexical sets are defined for vowels followed by /ɹ/, but not for vowels followed by the other sounds that require special vowels.

    Rhymes that match their vowels but not their following consonants are unusual but not extremely rare – perhaps someone can point to some examples of /ɪn/ being used as a rhyme for /ɪŋ/?

  32. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 4:25 am

    Michael — "[I was not able to come up with a clear match for the FOOT, CHOICE, or NEAR vowels]" — I can't help with FOOT but how about "coin" and "firn" for the last two ?

  33. Michael Watts said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 12:14 pm

    Coin yes, but "firn" is not a word I know, and if I read it by the spelling it would rhyme with "learn".

  34. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 24, 2022 @ 1:20 pm

    The LPD gives the pronunciation of "NEAR" as /nɪə | nɪər/ and "firn" as / fɪən | fɜːn | fɪərn/, so a two out of three match. The meaning of "firn" is "A name given to snow above the glaciers which is partly consolidated by alternate thawing and freezing, but has not yet become glacier-ice", taken from the OED.

  35. Watts, Michael said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 12:54 am

    I noticed the /ɪər/ indication when I looked up "firn" in wiktionary. I have no idea what kind of sound that sequence is supposed to represent.

    With your prompting, I do see that e.g. "near" is listed in wiktionary with the pronunciation /nɪɚ/ and in dictionary.cambridge.org with the US pronnunciation /nɪr/. I am honestly baffled by this. The pronunciation of "near" obviously derives from following the FLEECE vowel /i/ with an /ɹ/. The KIT vowel /ɪ/ is not present or suggested.

    Wiktionary inconsistently gives only one American pronunciation for "queer", /kwiːɹ/ — I would say this is correct — while simultaneously listing it as rhyming with the coda -ɪə(ɹ).

  36. Watts, Michael said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 2:52 am

    (My first submission of this comment seems to have been deleted, despite not containing any links. If I end up with a duplicate comment, that's what happened.)

    I noticed the /ɪər/ indication when I looked up "firn" in wiktionary. I have no idea what kind of sound that sequence is supposed to represent.

    With your prompting, I do see that e.g. "near" is listed in wiktionary with the pronunciation /nɪɚ/ and in dictionary.cambridge.org with the US pronnunciation /nɪr/. I am honestly baffled by this. The pronunciation of "near" obviously derives from following the FLEECE vowel /i/ with an /ɹ/. The KIT vowel /ɪ/ is not present or suggested.

    Wiktionary inconsistently gives only one American pronunciation for "queer", /kwiːɹ/ — I would say this is correct — while simultaneously listing it as rhyming with the coda -ɪə(ɹ).

  37. Michael Watts said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 2:53 am

    I'm attempting to respond, but my comment isn't getting through. This mostly content-free comment is part of an attempt to see what's going on.

  38. Michael Watts said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 2:54 am

    (My first submission of this comment seems to have been deleted, despite not containing any links. If I end up with duplicate comments, that's what happened. Perhaps it's related to my attempt to post as "Watts, Michael" rather than "Michael Watts"?)

    I noticed the /ɪər/ indication when I looked up "firn" in wiktionary. I have no idea what kind of sound that sequence is supposed to represent.

    With your prompting, I do see that e.g. "near" is listed in wiktionary with the pronunciation /nɪɚ/ and in dictionary.cambridge.org with the US pronnunciation /nɪr/. I am honestly baffled by this. The pronunciation of "near" obviously derives from following the FLEECE vowel /i/ with an /ɹ/. The KIT vowel /ɪ/ is not present or suggested.

    Wiktionary inconsistently gives only one American pronunciation for "queer", /kwiːɹ/ — I would say this is correct — while simultaneously listing it as rhyming with the coda -ɪə(ɹ).

  39. Taylor, Philip said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 5:24 am

    Michael, when you say "[t]he pronunciation of "near" obviously derives from following the FLEECE vowel /i/ with an /ɹ/", do you mean (a) your pronunciation of "near", (b) the Gen.Am. pronunciation of "near", or (c) something else ? I ask because,as a Briton, I would suggest that the RP pronunciation of "near" derives from following the KIT vowel /ɪ/ with an /ə/ (and then with an /ɹ/ if one is rhotic), an analysis with which John Wells clearly agrees (/nɪə/ | /nɪər/).

    Regarding posts mysteriously not appearing, I experienced a number of such this week, and eventually succeeded in circumventing this by using a different browser and a different identity and e-mail address (my IP address is fixed, so it is not my IP address that is blocked) — I may try clearing cookies in my main browser to see if that helps.

  40. Michael Watts said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 9:19 am

    In this case, I mean the Gen. Am. pronunciation of near. It's worth noting that Merriam-Webster, the American dictionary, identifies "near" and its rhymes as using the KIT vowel ("nir" in the American transcription, where "i" is a "short I").

    But I cannot hear it that way. I checked some examples of US "fear" on Youglish, and to me the vowel is clearly /i/. (Again, I'm talking about my perception of other people's pronunciation.) I would model the full word as /niɹ̩/, I guess – it's supposed to be one syllable, but pronouncing the R is demanding enough that the vowel quality changes. /niɚ/ would be an equivalent.

    There are several observations I can make about this:

    1. Merriam-Webster also describes "idea" as being pronounced ī-ˈdē-ə, /aɪ'diə/, and I would say that (a) this is correct; and (b) this is a perfect match to the vowel pronounced in "near", without the following R but including the schwa! I don't understand why MW transcribes the two sounds differently.

    2a. Taking a phonetics class long ago, my friend and I were both surprised to learn that the FACE, PRICE, and CHOICE vowels were supposed to be transcribed /eɪ/, /aɪ/, and /ɔɪ/. We felt at the time that those diphthongs actually consist of /ei/, /ai/, and /ɔi/, and — looking back on it now — I can also observe that the standard transcription violates the normal English prohibition on syllables ending in /ɪ/. May, high, and boy are all valid English words. I used the standard transcriptions on the theory that maybe everyone else knew something I didn't; my friend absolutely refused, and just notified the professor that he would transcribe those diphthongs with /i/.

    2b. The Mandarin pronunciation of "ai" (e.g. as in 海) seems much closer to finishing in an [ɪ], to me, than the English PRICE vowel is. I see this as evidence supporting my friend's theory of the English diphthongs.

    3. I think that a big part of what's going on (in my perception of the sounds) is that the diphthongs, and also the NEAR vowel, have a fairly obvious [j] or [ʲ] present (following the diphthongs, or preceding the ɚ in NEAR). And to me, /i/ is the vowel that generates [j] when another vowel follows it. My mental model does not allow for the sequence /ɪə/ to be realized as [ɪʲə] – instead, one vowel would assimilate to the other one. That is the reason the spellings of "girl" and "fir" make sense to me – if I assume an original /fɪɹ/, then the R generates a schwa ([fɪɚ]), and then the schwa assimilates the /ɪ/, leaving [fɚ].

    4. I polled my sister, who is not trained in linguistics, for her feelings about the vowel in NEAR. She is considerably younger than I am and our pronunciations don't necessarily agree, but I haven't noticed a difference for this vowel. Her thoughts:

    4a. Near rhymes with peer. (Me: "What if there were no R?")

    4b. It doesn't make sense to ask about a rhotic vowel with no R.

    4c. But if pressed, it's "kind of like" the vowel in kick, pill, etc.

    5. I [Michael] would further observe that the spelling of peer, leer, queer, veer, steer, and jeer tends to suggest that those words are or were once conceived of as using the FLEECE vowel.

    (It's not directly relevant, but I should probably note that I have no distinction between ɚ and ɝ.)

  41. Andrew Usher said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 2:13 pm

    Michael Watts says:

    > Obviously I can't talk about varieties of English I don't know. You'll never see me comment from the perspective that THOUGHT and FORCE share a vowel. How would that make sense?

    I can't understand this. Of course speak a certain way, but to have meaningful discussions about phonetics you have to know that other people speak differently, and try to know the ways in which they do. And the Internet makes that easier because you can hear virtually every English accent on Youtube even if you never would face-to-face.

    It may not make sense to you that THOUGHT and FORCE could share a vowel but there are many speakers for which they do; and further, all those speakers (to my knowledge) are non rhotic and merge NORTH/FORCE, giving a clue as to how/why it happened so.

    You just said that vowels before /r/ are hard to match with others in the American vowel system, so it is true and unsurprising that NEAR (as you observe correctly from spelling, historically FLEECE + /r/) can't be classified unambiguously as corresponding to either FLEECE or KIT. I personally would write 'near' as /nir/; it is certainly one syllable and has only one vowel before the r sound, better identified with /i/ than with /ɪ/.

    The standard IPA transcriptional conventions for English are based on a British model, and I know many don't fit American English very well. Likewise, John Wells, inventor of the lexical sets, was a non-rhotic Brit and (save only for adding CLOTH) his lexical sets perfectly match his kind of RP. He can't be blamed, though, for some people misunderstanding how to use the lexical sets and saying e.g. that poor just _is_ a CURE word, when in fact the FORCE and CURE pronunciations have both existed for a long time (and still both are heard in GA), although RP preferred CURE.

  42. Michael Watts said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 3:57 pm

    It may not make sense to you that THOUGHT and FORCE could share a vowel but there are many speakers for which they do

    I don't have a problem with the idea of those sounds merging in other accents. That's not what I was saying wouldn't make sense. It wouldn't make sense for me to write from that perspective, because I can't take that perspective and if I tried I would be nearly guaranteed to make many mistakes.

    I personally would write 'near' as /nir/; it is certainly one syllable and has only one vowel before the r sound, better identified with /i/ than with /ɪ/.

    I don't really agree that 'near' is "certainly one syllable". I remember at least one previous LL post on the difficulty of deciding how many syllables "fire" and its rhymes are — I cited an example I still find interesting, of a song which (to my ear) rhymes "power", "hour", and "shower", while assigning one syllable each to "power" and "hour" but two syllables to "shower" — and I think "near" has the same possibly-more-than-one-syllable quality. (Though I'd also agree that "sear" is not identical to "seer".) If there is only one vowel before the R sound, it is not a monophthong; there is a change in vowel quality.

    There is an interesting contrast with the first syllable of "irrigate", which does have a monophthong before the R. Merriam-Webster suggests the first syllable of "irrigate" is identical to the word "ear", but that is false. (I make this claim about American pronunciation generally; I've checked it on Youglish.)

    You just said that vowels before /r/ are hard to match with others in the American vowel system, so it is true and unsurprising that NEAR (as you observe correctly from spelling, historically FLEECE + /r/) can't be classified unambiguously as corresponding to either FLEECE or KIT.

    That's fair. I don't consider NEAR one of the more unique rhotic vowels, in the same way that I'm uncomfortable classifying "cull" as a standard vowel but comfortable classifying "call" as one… but yes, I agree the rhotics are better just considered to be their own thing.

    This has led me to imagine an experiment that had people produce syllables according to prompts: "Think about the vowel in TEAM, the sound between the T and the M. What would it sound like in K__P? What would it sound like in R__G? What would it sound like in…".

    With a setup like that, you could ask for a vowel followed by an R without being bound to the pronunciation of an existing word. I'd expect that many requests for a non-rhotic vowel followed by R would lead to confusion, but it would be interesting to see how people interpreted them.

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