187: 'Fall' and 'autumn'

In the US, it's 'fall;' in the UK, it's 'autumn.'


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 187th episode.

Before I begin, let me remind you that you can find the transcripts for this, and all of our episodes by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Also, I'll link to the free aw sound lesson as well as other free lessons associated with this episode from this episode's transcript page.

I really wanted to do a podcast about the word autumn, since the days have just turned cool and damp here in Seattle, Washington. We can learn a lot from the word autumn, like the aw sound spelled au and the alveolar tap (which probably sounds like a quick d sound to most of you and the silent n in words that end in the letters -mn. All that is is the word autumn and is great stuff. Except a quick bit of research convinced me that most Americans don't use the term autumn for the season that follows summer. Instead, most Americans use the term fall. Well, what to do, what to do?

First, discussing the word fall opens up a place to discuss the a-l-l pronunciation, which is also worth mentioning. Then, we can still learn about the word autumn, since all the topics around that word work for other words as well.

Ready? Let's begin with the pronunciation of the vowel sound in the word fall. That vowel sound is the aw sound (which is also the sound in the word dog). The aw sound is pronounced (aw sound). Can you hear it in the word fall, (aw sound, fall)? Our aw sound lesson lists quite a few possible spellings for the aw sound, including:

  • a-w as in law
  • the letter o as in dog
  • a-u as in author
  • a-u-g-h as in daughter
  • o-u-g-h when it's followed by t, as in brought
  • and the letter a when it follows w, as in the word want

The word fall, however, doesn't fit any of those spelling patterns.

I began wondering how common the aw sound is in words like fall, so I got out my frequency dictionary to see if there was a pattern that I missed. I checked for any word that includes the a-l-l spelling, and I found quite a few words in the top 5000 most-frequent words in American English. The biggest chunk of words used the a-l-l spelling as part of the -ally suffix pattern or were located in an unstressed syllable of a word, and so the letter a was reduced to schwa.

When I looked at only stressed syllables or single-syllable words, two different pronunciations stood out: the aw sound and the short a sound. The short a sound was in the words allegation, alley, ally, ballot, rally, and valley. The rest of the words were all the aw sound, including: all, ball, call, fall, hall, install, mall, recall, small, tall, and wall. There were also compound words that built off of those words in the list as well.

What does this mean? Well, it means that I might add a+ll as a common spelling for the aw sound, with a note that some words that have this spelling are pronounced with a short a sound. What do you think? Should I add this spelling, or are the 6 spellings that currently exist in the lesson enough and adding a seventh would be just too much information?

Now, in case you favor the word autumn over fall, let's touch on that pronunciation as well. First, if you were paying attention a bit ago, you heard a-u as a common spelling for the aw sound. The word autumn fits in perfectly, and is also pronounced with the aw sound. Then, if you're speaking in an American accent, that t in the middle of the word will be pronounced as an alveolar tap and will sound like a quick d sound because the /t/ is between vowel sounds. Then we have that rather uncommon -mn ending on the word. In words that end in -mn, the n is silent and we only have only the m sound. Other words ending in -mn are column, condemn, the curse word damn and the words hymn (h-y-m-n), and solemn. So you can see that there aren't a lot of high-frequency words with this spelling.

If you're interested in more than the free lessons I'll link to from this episode's transcript page, you can also purchase the book, Pronunciation Pages 2, which includes that lesson with all of the aw sound spellings and the word lists that you can use for building your own muscle memory. The book, whether you buy it in physical form or as a download, includes MP3 audio so you can compare your speech to a native speaker's. Find information at www.pronuncian.com/products.

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn. Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.


Resources: Davies, Mark, and Dee Gardner. A Frequency Dictionary of Contemporary American English: Word Sketches, Collocates, and Thematic Lists. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Illustration by Juliejohn1 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons