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Some speakers, mainly middle-aged and older males, sometimes pronounce ねえ as [ne:], i.e. with a more closed variant of the usual /e/-sound, let's call it [ɛ]. There are also speakers for the same approximate group who sometimes pronounce そう as [sɔ:], i.e. with a more open variant of the usual /o/ sound, let's call it [o], usually when going そうそうそうそう.

Usually this just strikes me as slightly amusing, and it seems to have the same effect on other speakers of my approximate age group (early thirties).

However, on further thought, this is actually interesting. Some of these speakers otherwise speak standard Japanese and don't use (as far as I can tell) these vowel variants in other words.

So my questions are:

  • Do these vowel variants appear in other words that I am missing?
  • What is the history of these vowel variants (if any)? Are they by any chance remnants from historical phonemic mergers, or are they just one-off phenomena?
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1 Answer

I have not particularly noticed this [ɛ] or [ɔ:]. So I cannot comment on them.

What is the history of these vowel variants (if any)? Are they by any chance remnants from historical phonemic mergers, or are they just one-off phenomena?

In Middle Japanese, there were both [ɔː] and [oː]. The former derive from /au/ or /eu/ (-->Note), while the latter from /ou/ and /oo/. While kana does a poor job of distinguishing them, the Portuguese in the 15-16 century regularly distinguished them in their works on Japanese language.

During Early Modern Japanese, [ɔː] further reduces to [oː], and are no longer distinguished. Perhaps what you are hearing is a remnant of this. Note that そう was originally さう, so it would have developed as sau > sɔː > soː.

Note: While /eu/ results in an long vowel, it is prefixed with an initial approximant: [joː].

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Thanks! Yes, I was aware of the sɔː > soː for そう, which is why I wondered if my observation could have anything to do with this phonemic merger. –  dainichi Nov 11 '12 at 5:06
    
The thing from MJ could be in fact influencing this, especially considering that the OP mentioned that generally older people slightly change the vowels. –  user54609 Feb 2 '13 at 3:10
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