The cotcaught merger, also known as the LOT–THOUGHT merger or low back merger, is a sound change present in some dialects of English where speakers do not distinguish the vowel phonemes in words like cot versus caught. Cot and caught (along with bot and bought, pond and pawned, etc.) is an example of a minimal pair that is lost as a result of this sound change. The phonemes involved in the cotcaught merger, the low back vowels, are typically represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /ɒ/ and /ɔ/, respectively (or, in North America, when co-occurring with the fatherbother merger, as /ɑ/ and /ɔ/). The merger is typical of most Canadian and Scottish English dialects as well as some Irish and U.S. English dialects.

An additional vowel merger, the fatherbother merger, which spread through North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, has resulted today in a three-way merger in which most Canadian and many U.S. accents have no vowel difference in words like PALM /ɑ/, LOT /ɒ/, and THOUGHT /ɔ/. However, /ɔr/ as in NORTH participates in a separate phenomenon in most North American English: the NORTH–FORCE merger, in which this vowel before /r/ can be phonemicized as the GOAT vowel,[1] transcribed together variously thus as /or/[2] or /oʊr/.[3]

Overview edit

The shift causes the vowel sound in words like cot, nod and stock and the vowel sound in words like caught, gnawed and stalk to merge into a single phoneme; therefore the pairs cot and caught, stock and stalk, nod and gnawed become perfect homophones, and shock and talk, for example, become perfect rhymes. The cotcaught merger is completed in the following dialects:

Examples of homophonous pairs
/ɑ/ or /ɒ/ (written a, o, ol) /ɔ/ (written au, aw, al, ough) IPA (using ɒ for the merged vowel)
bobble bauble ˈbɒbəl
body bawdy ˈbɒdi
bot bought ˈbɒt
box balks ˈbɒks
chock chalk ˈtʃɒk
clod clawed ˈklɒd
cock caulk ˈkɒk
cod cawed ˈkɒd
collar caller ˈkɒlə(r)
cot caught ˈkɒt
don dawn ˈdɒn
fond fawned ˈfɒnd
hock hawk ˈhɒk
holler hauler ˈhɒlə(r)
hottie haughty ˈhɒti
knot nought ˈnɒt
knotty naughty ˈnɒti
nod gnawed ˈnɒd
not nought ˈnɒt
odd awed ˈɒd
pod pawed ˈpɒd
pond pawned ˈpɒnd
rot wrought ˈrɒt
sod sawed ˈsɒd
sot sought ˈsɒt
stock stalk ˈstɒk
tot taught ˈtɒt
wok walk ˈwɒk

North American English edit

On this map of English-speaking North America, based on data from the 2006 Atlas of North American English, the green dots represent speakers who have completely merged the vowels of cot and caught. The dark blue dots represent speakers who have completely resisted the merger. The medium blue dots represent speakers with a partial merger (either production or perception but not both), and the yellow dots represent speakers with the merger in transition.[13]

Nowhere is the shift more complex than in North American English. The presence of the merger and its absence are both found in many different regions of the North American continent, where it has been studied in greatest depth, and in both urban and rural environments. The symbols traditionally used to transcribe the vowels in the words cot and caught as spoken in American English are ɑ and ɔ, respectively, although their precise phonetic values may vary, as does the phonetic value of the merged vowel in the regions where the merger occurs.

Even without taking into account the mobility of the American population, the distribution of the merger is still complex; there are pockets of speakers with the merger in areas that lack it, and vice versa. There are areas where the merger has only partially occurred, or is in a state of transition. For example, based on research directed by William Labov (using telephone surveys) in the 1990s, younger speakers in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas exhibited the merger while speakers older than 40 typically did not.[14][15] The 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, in which subjects did not necessarily grow up in the place they identified as the source of their dialect features, indicates that there are speakers of both merging and contrast-preserving accents throughout the country, though the basic isoglosses are almost identical to those revealed by Labov's 1996 telephone survey. Both surveys indicate that, as of the 1990s, approximately 60% of American English speakers preserved the contrast, while approximately 40% merged the phonemes. Further complicating matters are speakers who merge the phonemes in some contexts but not others, or merge them when the words are spoken unstressed or casually but not when they are stressed.

Speakers with the merger in northeastern New England still maintain a phonemic distinction between a fronted and unrounded /ɑ/ (phonetically [ä]) and a back and usually rounded /ɔ/ (phonetically [ɒ]), because in northeastern New England (unlike in Canada and the Western United States), the cotcaught merger occurred without the fatherbother merger. Thus, although northeastern New Englanders pronounce both cot and caught as [kɒt], they pronounce cart as [kät].

Labov et al. also reveal that, for about 15% of respondents, a specific /ɑ//ɔ/ merger before /n/ but not before /t/ (or other consonants) is in effect, so that Don and dawn are homophonous, but cot and caught are not. In this case, a distinct vowel shift (which overlaps with the cotcaught merger for all speakers who have indeed completed the cotcaught merger) is taking place, identified as the Dondawn merger.[16]

Resistance edit

According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg,[17] the merger in North America is most strongly resisted in three regions:

In the three American regions above, sociolinguists have studied three phonetic shifts that can explain their resistance to the merger. The first is the fronting of /ɑ/ found in the Inland North; speakers advance the LOT vowel /ɑ/ as far as the cardinal [a] (the open front unrounded vowel), thus allowing the THOUGHT vowel /ɔ/ to lower into the phonetic environment of [ɑ] without any merger taking place.[18] The second situation is the raising of the THOUGHT vowel /ɔ/ found in the New York City, Philadelphia and Baltimore accents, in which the vowel is raised and diphthongized to [ɔə⁓oə], or, less commonly, [ʊə], thus keeping that vowel notably distinct from the LOT vowel /ɑ/.[18] The third situation occurs in the South, in which vowel breaking results in /ɔ/ being pronounced as upgliding [ɒʊ], keeping it distinct from /ɑ/.[18] None of these three phonetic shifts, however, is certain to preserve the contrast for all speakers in these regions. Some speakers in all three regions, particularly younger ones, are beginning to exhibit the merger despite the fact that each region's phonetics should theoretically block it.[19][20][21]

African American Vernacular English accents have traditionally resisted the cotcaught merger, with LOT pronounced [ɑ̈] and THOUGHT traditionally pronounced [ɒɔ], though now often [ɒ~ɔə]. Early 2000s research has shown that this resistance may continue to be reinforced by the fronting of LOT, linked through a chain shift of vowels to the raising of the TRAP, DRESS, and perhaps KIT vowels. This chain shift is called the "African American Shift".[22] However, there is still evidence of AAVE speakers picking up the cotcaught merger in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,[23] in Charleston, South Carolina,[24] Florida and Georgia,[25] and in parts of California.[25]

Origin edit

In North America, the first evidence of the merger (or its initial conditions) comes from western Pennsylvania as far back as the data shows.[26] From there, it entered Upper Canada (what is now Ontario). In the mid-19th century, the merger also independently began in eastern New England,[27] possibly influencing the Canadian Maritimes, though the merger is in evidence as early as the 1830s in both regions of Canada: Ontario and the Maritimes.[28] Fifty years later, the merger "was already more established in Canada" than in its two U.S. places of origin.[28] In Canadian English, further westward spread was completed more quickly than in English of the United States.

Two traditional theories of the merger's origins have been longstanding in linguistics: one group of scholars argues for an independent North American development, while others argue for contact-induced language change via Scots-Irish or Scottish immigrants to North America. In fact, both theories may be true but for different regions. The merger's appearance in western Pennsylvania is better explained as an effect of Scots-Irish settlement,[29] but in eastern New England,[27] and perhaps the American West,[30] as an internal structural development. Canadian linguist Charles Boberg considers the issue unresolved.[31] A third theory has been used to explain the merger's appearance specifically in northeastern Pennsylvania: an influx of Polish- and other Slavic-language speakers whose learner English failed to maintain the distinction.[32]

Scotland edit

Outside North America, another dialect featuring the merger is Scottish English, where the merged vowel has a quality around [ɔ̞].[33] Like in New England English, the cotcaught merger occurred without the fatherbother merger. Therefore, speakers still retain the distinction between /a/ in PALM and /ɔ/ in LOT–THOUGHT.[34]

India edit

The merger is also quite prevalent in Indian English, possibly due to contact with Scottish English. In particular, the LOT vowel may be lengthened to merge with the THOUGHT vowel /ɒː/.[35] However, there are also speakers who maintain a distinction in length and/or quality.[36] Like in Scottish English, this vowel is not usually merged with PALM /ɑː/ in General Indian English.

See also edit

Notes edit

References edit

  1. ^ Wells (1982), p. 479.
  2. ^ Kenyon, John S.; Thomas A. Knott (1949) [1943]. A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English. Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam. ISBN 0-87779-047-7.
  3. ^ "ore". Unabridged (Online). 2023.
  4. ^ a b Wells 1982, p. ?
  5. ^ Heggarty, Paul; et al., eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  6. ^ Wells 1982, p. 438
  7. ^ a b c Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 60–1
  8. ^ Gagnon, C. L. (1999). Language attitudes in Pittsburgh: 'Pittsburghese' vs. standard English. Master's thesis. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.
  9. ^ Dubois, Sylvia; Horvath, Barbara (2004). "Cajun Vernacular English: phonology". In Kortmann, Bernd; Schneider, Edgar W. (eds.). A Handbook of Varieties of English: A Multimedia Reference Tool. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 409–10.
  10. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 218
  11. ^ Wells 1982, p. 626
  12. ^ "Singapore English" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  13. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 122
  14. ^ Gordon (2005)
  15. ^ "Map 1". Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  16. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 217
  17. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 56–65
  18. ^ a b c Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 11
  19. ^ Irons, Terry Lynn (April 25, 2007). "On the status of low back vowels in Kentucky English: More evidence of merger". Language Variation and Change. 19 (2): 137–180. doi:10.1017/S0954394507070056. ISSN 1469-8021.
  20. ^ Fox, Michael J. (2016). "The Structural Antagonism and Apparent-time Change of the Northern Cities Shift and the Low Back Vowel Merger in Northwestern Wisconsin". New Ways of Analyzing Variation.
  21. ^ Haddican, Bill; Johnson, Daniel Ezra; Newman, Michael; Kim, Faith (2016). "The Diffusion of the Low Back Merger in New York City" (PDF).
  22. ^ Thomas, Erik R. (September 2007). "Phonological and Phonetic Characteristics of African American Vernacular English: Phonological and Phonetic Characteristics of AAVE". Language and Linguistics Compass. 1 (5): 450–475. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818X.2007.00029.x.
  23. ^ Eberhardt (2008).
  24. ^ Baranowski (2013).
  25. ^ a b Jones (2020), p. 165.
  26. ^ Johnson, D. E., Durian, D., & Hickey, R. (2017). New England. Listening to the Past: Audio Records of Accents of English, 234.
  27. ^ a b Johnson, Daniel Ezra (2010). "Low Vowels of New England: History and Development". Publication of the American Dialect Society 95 (1): 13–41. doi:10.1215/-95-1-13. p. 40.
  28. ^ a b Dollinger, Stefan (2010). "Written sources of Canadian English: phonetic reconstruction and the low-back vowel merger". Retrieved 2016-03-19.
  29. ^ Evanini, Keelan (2009). "The permeability of dialect boundaries: A case study of the region surrounding Erie, Pennsylvania". University of Pennsylvania; dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3405374. pp. 254-255.
  30. ^ Grama, James; Kennedy, Robert (2019). "2. Dimensions of Variance and Contrast in the Low Back Merger and the Low-Back-Merger Shift". The Publication of the American Dialect Society. 104, p. 47.
  31. ^ Boberg, Charles (2010). The English language in Canada. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 199?.
  32. ^ Herold, Ruth. (1990). "Mechanisms of merger: The implementation and distribution of the low back merger in eastern Pennsylvania". Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.
  33. ^ Jane Stuart-Smith (2004). Bernd Kortmann and Edgar W. Schneider (ed.). A Handbook of Varieties of English Volume 1: Phonology. De Gruyter. pp. 53–54.
  34. ^ Wells (1982), p. 399.
  35. ^ Domange, Raphaël (2023). "The Vowels of Delhi English: Three studies in sociophonetics" (PDF).
  36. ^ Fuchs, Robert (2015). The Phonology of Indian English I: Overview. University of Münster.

Bibliography edit

Further reading edit

External links edit