Cotcaught merger

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The cotcaught merger (also known as the low back merger or the LOT–THOUGHT merger) is a phonemic merger, occurring in some dialects of the English language, between the phonemes that are conventionally represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /ɔː/ (which is usually spelled with au, aw, al or ough as in caught and hawk) and /ɒ/ (which is usually spelled with o as in cot and hock). In varieties in which the merger has taken place, including a few in the British Isles and many in North America, what were historically two separate phonemes have fallen together into a single sound, so that caught and cot are pronounced identically.


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 cot–caught merger is completed in the following dialects:

Homophonous pairs
/ɒ/ or /ɑː/ (written a, o, ol) /ɔː/ (written au, aw, al, ough) IPA (using [ɒ] for the merged vowel) Notes
ah awe ɒː With father-bother merger.
bobble bauble ˈbɒbəl
bock balk ˈbɒk
body bawdy ˈbɒdi
bon bawn ˈbɒn
bot bought ˈbɒt
box balks ˈbɒks
chock chalk ˈtʃɒk
clod Claude ˈklɒd
clod clawed ˈklɒd
cock caulk ˈkɒk
cod cawed ˈkɒd
coddle caudle ˈkɒdəl
collar caller ˈkɒlə(r)
cot caught ˈkɒt
doddle dawdle ˈdɒdəl
dog dawg ˈdɒɡ dawg is a dialectal word arising from dog.
don dawn, Dawn ˈdɒn
dotter daughter ˈdɒtə(r)
fond fawned ˈfɒnd
fox Fawkes ˈfɒks
frot fraught ˈfrɒt
god gaud ˈɡɒd
god gawd ˈɡɒd gawd is a dialectal word arising from god.
hock hawk ˈhɒk
holler hauler ˈhɒlə(r)
hottie haughty ˈhɒti
hough hawk ˈhɒk
knot naught ˈnɒt
knot nought ˈnɒt
knotty naughty ˈnɒti
la law ˈlɑː With father-bother merger.
mod Maud, Maude ˈmɒd
Moll mall ˈmɒl
Moll maul ˈmɒl
nod gnawed ˈnɒd
not naught ˈnɒt
not nought ˈnɒt
odd awed ˈɒd
on awn ˈɒn Without lot-cloth split.
Otto auto ˈɒto
Oz awes ˈɒz
Pa paw ˈpɑː With father-bother merger.
Pa's pause ˈpɑːz With father-bother merger.
Pa's paws ˈpɑːz With father-bother merger.
pod pawed ˈpɒd
pol Paul ˈpɒl
pol pall ˈpɒl
pol pawl ˈpɒl
Poll Paul ˈpɒl
Poll pall ˈpɒl
Poll pawl ˈpɒl
Polly Paulie, Pauly ˈpɒli
poly Paulie, Pauly ˈpɒli
pond pawned ˈpɒnd
popper pauper ˈpɒpə(r)
poz pause ˈpɒz
poz paws ˈpɒz
respond respawned rɪˈspɒnd
Rolly Raleigh ˈrɒli
rot wrought ˈrɒt
shah shaw ˈʃɑː With father-bother merger.
shone Sean ˈʃɒn In American English, former may be pronounced as ʃoʊn
shone Shawn ˈʃɒn In American English, former may be pronounced as ʃoʊn
slotter slaughter ˈslɒtə(r)
sod sawed ˈsɒd
Sol Saul ˈsɒl
squalor squaller ˈskwɒlə(r)
stock stalk ˈstɒk
tock talk ˈtɒk
tot taught ˈtɒt
tot taut ˈtɒt
tox talks ˈtɒks
von Vaughan ˈvɒn
wok walk ˈwɒk
yon yawn ˈjɒn

North American English

On this map of English-speaking North America, 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. Based on the work of Labov, Ash and Boberg.[8]

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), younger speakers in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas exhibit the merger while speakers older than 40 typically do not.[9][10] 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 approximately 60% of American English speakers preserve the contrast, while approximately 40% make the merger. Further complicating matters are speakers who partially make the merger, whether by perception or production, or make the merger when the words are spoken unstressed or casually but not when they're stressed.

Speakers with the merger in northeastern New England still maintain a phonemic distinction between a fronted and unrounded /aː/ and a back and usually rounded /ɒː/, because in northeastern New England (unlike in Canada and the Western United States), the cot–caught merger occurred without the father–bother merger. Thus, although northeastern New Englanders pronounce both cot and caught as [kʰɒːt], they pronounce cart as [kʰäːt].

Labov et al. also reveal that, for about 15% of respondents, a specific /ɒ//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 cot–caught merger for all speakers who have indeed completed the cot–caught merger) is taking place, identified as the Don–dawn merger.[11]


According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg,[12] the merger in North America is most strongly resisted in three regions:

In these areas, sociolinguists have studied three techniques that speakers use to preserve the contrast. The first was fronting of /ɒ/ found in the Inland North. In this technique, speakers advance the LOT vowel /ɒ/ as far as the cardinal [a] (the open front unrounded vowel). This is also met with the raising of the TRAP vowel /æ/ to [eə] in all instances.[13] (Which vowel triggered which is other vowel still debated.)

The second technique of resistance to the merger is the raising of the THOUGHT vowel /ɔː/ found in the New York City and the mid-Atlantic region's accents. In areas that don't use this technique, sometimes /ɔː/ is pronounced closer to [ɔ̝ː]. On the contrary, in this technique, either /ɔ/ retains its historical high (raised) value [ɔː], or it is raised even higher to [ɔə⁓oə], or (in the extreme case) even [ʊə].[13]

The third technique is found in the South. This is the result of vowel breaking in Southern American English, where /ɔ/ is broken to [ɒʊ], keeping it distinct from the LOT vowel.[13] Many Southerners, however, are beginning to embrace the merger, particularly Southerners who are younger or urban.


Theories of the origin of the merger exist, with two competing scenarios. One group of scholars argues for an independent North American development, while others argue for contact-induced language change via Scottish immigrants (e.g. Dollinger 2010),[14] in which a role is afforded to Canadian English, where the spread from East to West was completed more quickly than in the US. Others consider the issue unresolved (Boberg 2010: 199?).[15]


In London's Cockney accent, a cot–caught merger is possible only in rapid speech. The THOUGHT vowel has two phonemically distinct variants: closer /oː/ (phonetically [ ~ oʊ ~ ɔo]) and more open /ɔə/ (phonetically [ɔə ~ ɔwə ~ ɔː]). The more open variant is sometimes neutralized in rapid speech with the LOT vowel /ɒ/ (phonetically [ɒ ~ ɔ]) in utterances such as [sˈfɔðɛn] (phonemically /ɑɪ wəz ˈfɔə ðen/) for I was four then. Otherwise /ɔə/ is still readily distinguished from /ɒ/ by length.[16]


Outside North America, another dialect where the merger is pronounced is Scottish English. Like in New England English, the cot–caught merger occurred without the father–bother merger. Therefore, speakers still retain the distinction between /a/ and /ɔ/.

See also


  1. ^ a b Wells 1982, p. ?
  2. ^ a b Heggarty, Paul et al, eds. (2013). "Accents of English from Around the World". University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  3. ^ a b c Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 60-1
  4. ^ Gagnon, C. L. (1999). Language attitudes in Pittsburgh: 'Pittsburghese' vs. standard English. Master's thesis. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh.
  5. ^ Dubois, Sylvia; Horvath, Barbara (2004). "Cajun Vernacular English: phonology". In Kortmann, Bernd; Schneider, Edgar W. A Handbook of Varieties of English: A Multimedia Reference Tool. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 409–10.
  6. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 218
  7. ^ "Singapore English" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  8. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 122
  9. ^ Gordon (2005)
  10. ^ "Map 1". Retrieved 2016-12-12.
  11. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 217
  12. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 56-65
  13. ^ a b c Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 11
  14. ^ Dollinger, Stefan (2010). "Written sources of Canadian English: phonetic reconstruction and the low-back vowel merger". Retrieved 2016-03-19.
  15. ^ Boberg, Charles (2010). The English language in Canada. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 199?.
  16. ^ Wells 1982, pp. 305, 310, 318–319


  • Barber, Charles Laurence (1997). Early modern English (second ed.). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0-7486-0835-4.
  • Gordon, Matthew J. (2005), "The Midwest Accent", American Varieties, PBS, retrieved August 29, 2010
  • Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology, and Sound Change: a Multimedia Reference Tool. Berlin ; New York: Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8.
  • Wells, John C. (1982), Accents of English, Volume 2: The British Isles (pp. i–xx, 279–466), Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-52128540-2 

External links

  • Map of the cot–caught merger from the 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey
  • Map of the cot–caught merger from Labov's 1996 telephone survey
  • Description of the cot–caught merger in the Phonological Atlas
  • Map of the cot–caught merger before /n/ and /t/
  • Chapter 13 of the Atlas of North American English, which discusses the "short-o" configuration of various American accents
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