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The Standard Lexical Sets for English introduced by John C. Wells in Accents of English are in wide usage. Wells defined each lexical set on the basis of the pronunciation of words in two reference accents, which he calls RP and GenAm.
Wells classifies words of the English language into 24 lexical sets on the basis of the pronunciation of the vowel of their stressed syllable in the two reference accents. Each lexical set is named after a representative keyword. Wells also describes three sets of words based on word-final unstressed vowels, which, though not included in the standard 24 lexical sets (the final three sets listed in the chart below) "have indexical and diagnostic value in distinguishing accents".
|KIT||ɪ||ɪ||ship, sick, bridge, milk, myth, busy|
|DRESS||e||ɛ||step, neck, edge, shelf, friend, ready|
|TRAP||æ||æ||tap, back, badge, scalp, hand, cancel|
|LOT||ɒ||ɑ||stop, sock, dodge, romp, possible, quality|
|STRUT||ʌ||ʌ||cup, suck, budge, pulse, trunk, blood|
|FOOT||ʊ||ʊ||put, bush, full, good, look, wolf|
|BATH||ɑː||æ||staff, brass, ask, dance, sample, calf|
|CLOTH||ɒ||ɔ||cough, broth, cross, long, Boston|
|NURSE||ɜː||ɜr||hurt, lurk, urge, burst, jerk, term|
|FLEECE||iː||i||creep, speak, leave, feel, key, people|
|FACE||eɪ||eɪ||tape, cake, raid, veil, steak, day|
|PALM||ɑː||ɑ||psalm, father, bra, spa, lager|
|THOUGHT||ɔː||ɔ||taught, sauce, hawk, jaw, broad|
|GOAT||əʊ||o||soap, joke, home, know, so, roll|
|GOOSE||uː||u||loop, shoot, tomb, mute, huge, view|
|PRICE||aɪ||aɪ||ripe, write, arrive, high, try, buy|
|CHOICE||ɔɪ||ɔɪ||adroit, noise, join, toy, royal|
|MOUTH||aʊ||aʊ||out, house, loud, count, crowd, cow|
|NEAR||ɪə||ɪr||beer, sincere, fear, beard, serum|
|SQUARE||ɛə||ɛr||care, fair, pear, where, scarce, vary|
|START||ɑː||ɑr||far, sharp, bark, carve, farm, heart|
|NORTH||ɔː||ɔr||for, war, short, scorch, born, warm|
|FORCE||ɔː||or||four, wore, sport, porch, borne, story|
|CURE||ʊə||ʊr||poor, tourist, pure, plural, jury|
|happY||i||i||copy, scampi, taxi, sortie, committee, hockey, Chelsea|
|lettER||ə||ər||paper, metre, calendar, stupor, succo(u)r, martyr, figure|
|commA||ə||ə||catalpa, quota, vodka|
For example, the word rod is pronounced /rɒd/ in RP and /rɑd/ in GenAm. It therefore belongs in the LOT lexical set. Weary is pronounced /ˈwɪərɪ/ in RP and /ˈwɪri/ in GenAm, and thus belongs in the NEAR lexical set.
Some words of the English language do not belong to any lexical set. For example, the a in the stressed syllable of tomato is pronounced /ɑː/ in RP, and /eɪ/ in GenAm, a combination which is very unusual, and is not covered by any of the 24 lexical sets above.
Wells explains his choice of keywords ("kit", "fleece", etc.) as follows:
"The keywords have been chosen in such a way that clarity is maximized: whatever accent of English they are spoken in, they can hardly be mistaken for other words. Although fleece is not the commonest of words, it cannot be mistaken for a word with some other vowel; whereas beat, say, if we had chosen it instead, would have been subject to the drawback that one man's pronunciation of beat may sound like another's pronunciation of bait or bit.
The Standard Lexical Sets of Wells are widely used to discuss the phonological and phonetic systems of different accents of English in a clear and concise manner. Although based solely on RP and GenAm, the Standard Lexical Sets have proven useful in describing many other accents of English. This is true because, in many dialects, the words in all or most of the sets are pronounced with similar or identical stressed vowels. Wells himself uses the Lexical Sets most prominently to give "tables of lexical incidence" for all the various accents he discusses in his work. For example, here is the table of lexical incidence he gives for Newfoundland English:
The table indicates that, for example, Newfoundland English uses the /ɪ/ phoneme for words in the KIT lexical set, and that the NORTH, FORCE and CURE sets are all pronounced with the same vowel /ɔ̈r/. Note that some lexical sets, such as FACE, are given with more than one pronunciation: this indicates that not all words in the FACE lexical set are pronounced similarly (in this case because Newfoundland English has not fully undergone the pane–pain merger). /ɔ̈/ is a back vowel [ɔ]; Wells uses the symbol ⟨ɔ̈⟩ so that the reader does not confuse it with the THOUGHT vowel (which, in case of many other accents, he writes with ⟨ɔ⟩ or ⟨ɔː⟩).
Wells also uses the Standard Lexical Sets to refer to "the vowel sound used for the standard lexical set in question in the accent under discussion": Thus, for example, in describing the Newfoundland accent, Wells writes that "KIT and DRESS are reportedly often merged as [ɪ]", meaning that the stressed syllables of words in the KIT lexical set and words in the DRESS lexical set are reportedly often pronounced identically with the vowel [ɪ].
Lexical sets may also be used to describe splits and mergers. For example, RP, along with most non-rhotic accents, pronounces words such as "father" and "farther" identically. This can be described more economically as the merger of the PALM and START lexical sets. Most North American accents make "father" rhyme with "bother". This can be described as the merger of the PALM and LOT lexical sets.
In a 2010 blog post, Wells wrote:
I sometimes think that a century from now my lexical sets will be the one thing I shall be remembered for. Yet I dreamt them up over a weekend, frustrated with the incoherent mess of symbols used in such contemporary publications as Weinreich's "Is a structural dialectology possible?".
He also wrote that he claimed no copyright in the Standard Lexical Sets, and that everyone was "free to make whatever use of them they wish".
Some varieties of English make distinctions in stressed vowels that are not captured by the 24 lexical sets. For example, some Irish and Scottish accents that have not undergone the fern–fir–fur merger split the NURSE lexical set into multiple subsets. For such accents, the 24 Wells lexical sets may be inadequate. Because of this, a work devoted to Irish English may split the Wells NURSE set into two subsets, a new, smaller NURSE set and a TERM set.
Some writers on English accents have introduced a GOAL set to refer to a set of words that have the GOAT vowel in standard accents but may have a different vowel in Sheffield or in south-east London. Wells has stated that he didn't include a GOAL set because this should be interpreted as an allophone of GOAT that is sensitive to the morpheme boundary, which he illustrates by comparing the London pronunciations of goalie and slowly.
Schneider et al. (2004), which documents the phonologies of varieties of English around the world like Wells (1982), employs Wells Standard Lexical Sets as well as the following supplementary lexical sets, as needed to illustrate finer details of the variety in discussion: