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It's my understanding that in U.S. dialects that don't have a tense-/&[/nq]^/ versus lax-/& / distinction, /&/ is usually tense in all
contexts for Northern Cities speakers, and tense before nasals and ... context I mean 'closer to ([email protected]) or ([email protected]) than Emotion: dog'.

What would you mean by "tense" and "lax" in general? There's nothing intrinsically "lax" about the IPA symbol Emotion: dog, is ... /r/) have, which I think might be some sort of "tenseness". But I'm really not sure about this. Any idea?

I'm not entirely sure, and I gather that there's some sort of uncertainty among phonologists about what exactly "tense" means in phonetic/ articulatory terms. But the tense /&^/ seems to have a couple of the features that are typically associated with the well-known tense vowels /i/, /e/, and so on: it's higher and more "peripheral" than its lax counterpart (i.e., fronter if front, backer if back); it tends to be phonetically long; it may even have that elusive feature of Advanced Tongue Root which has been put forward sometimes as The feature of tenseness.

-Aaron J. Dinkin
Dr. Whom