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Phonological history of English low back vowels

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Father-bother merger

The father-bother merger is a merger of the Early Modern English vowels /ɑː/ and /ɒ/ that occurs in almost all varieties of North American English (exceptions are accents in northeastern New England, such as the Boston accent, and New York-New Jersey English).[1][2][3] In those accents with the merger father and bother rhyme, and Kahn and con are homophonous as [kɑn]. Unrounding of EME /ɒ/ is found also in Norwich, the West Country and in Hiberno-English, but apparently with no phonemic merger.[2]

Lot-cloth split

The lot-cloth split is the result of a late seventeenth-century sound change that lengthened /ɒ/ to [ɒː] before voiceless fricatives, and also before /n/ in the word gone. In some accents, the lengthened [ɒː] was raised, merging with the /ɔː/ of words like thought. Words that entered the language later, or words that were used more in writing than speech, were often exempt from the lengthening, so that joss and Goth still have the short vowel.

As a result of the lengthening and raising, in the above-mentioned accents cross rhymes with sauce, and soft and cloth also have the vowel [ɔː]. Accents affected by this change include American English and, originally, RP, although today words of this group almost always have short [ɒ] in RP.

The lengthening and raising generally happened before the fricatives /f/, /θ/ and /s/. In American English the raising was extended to the environment before [ŋ] and in a few words to the environment before [k, g] as well, giving pronunciations like /lɔŋ/ for long, /tʃɔklət/ for chocolate, and /dɔg/ for dog. Obviously, in accents of American English that are subject to the cot-caught merger, there is no difference between words that did and those that did not undergo the change.

In the varieties of American English that have the lot-cloth split, many words vary as to whether or not they have the cloth vowel. For example, words that end in -og like frog, hog, fog, log, bog etc. have the cloth vowel in some accents with the lot-cloth split and the lot vowel in other accents with the split.

The word gone usually has the cloth vowel in accents with the lot-cloth split, but has the lot vowel in accents of New York and New Jersey which have the split.

The word on is usually pronounce with the lot vowel, but has the cloth vowel in the Midland, Mid-Atlantic and South.

Cot-caught merger

On this map of 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 pale 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.
On this map of 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 pale 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.[3]

The cot-caught merger (also known as the low back merger) is a phonemic merger, a sound change, that occurs in some varieties of English. The merger occurs in some accents of Scottish English [2] and to some extent in Mid Ulster English [2] but is best known as a phenomenon of many varieties of North American English.

The sound change causes the vowel in words like cot, rock, and doll to be pronounced the same as the vowel in the words caught, talk, law, and small, so that for example cot and caught become homophones, and the two vowel classes become merged as a single phoneme. This sound change appears to have begun at some time in the nineteenth century. One possible etymology of the expression O.K. is that it stands for oll korrect, a joke misspelling of all correct. This suggests that the merger may have begun to take root in North America by the 1830s, when this explanation for the expression was first attested. The presence of the merger and its absence are both found in many different regions of the continent, 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] open back unrounded vowel and [ɔ] open-mid back rounded vowel, respectively, but recent sociolinguistic phonetics research has shown that for many American English speakers, the vowels are actually closer to the cardinal vowels [a] open central unrounded vowel and [ɒ] open back rounded vowel. The precise phonetic value of the merged vowel varies from region to region, as do the phonetic values of the unmerged vowel in regions where the merger has not occurred.

According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg,[3] the merger does not generally occur in the southern United States, along the American side of the Great Lakes region, or in the "Northeast Corridor" extended metropolitan region from New York City to Baltimore. It occurs in most forms of Canadian English, in the Boston, Massachusetts area (see Boston accent) and northeastern New England , and in the eastern Ohio River valley. From the Great Plains westward, except San Francisco, the merger is usual. The distribution of the merger is complex, even without taking into account the mobility of the American population; 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. Labov et al.'s research is based on telephone surveys with subjects who grew up in the city where they lived at the time of the interview. The 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey,[4] 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.

For merged speakers in Canada and most of the United States, the two sounds [ɑ] and [ɔ] are allophones; they often do not perceive differences in their usage, hear neither of them as a separate phoneme, and hear the distinct vowels used by speakers whose dialects do distinguish them as variations on the same vowel. They hear the broad A of British Received Pronunciation as the same, single vowel sound. But in Received Pronunciation, there are three sounds distinguished: the long /ɑː/ of cart, the long /ɔː/ of caught, and the short rounded /ɒ/ of cot.

It should be noted that cot-caught merged speakers in northeastern New England still maintain a phonemic distinction between unrounded /aː/ and 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 [kɒːt], they pronounce cart as [kaːt].

Labov et al. also reveal that about 15% of respondents have the merger before [n] but not before [t], so that Don and Dawn are homophonous, but cot and caught are not. A much smaller group (about 4%) has the reverse situation: cot and caught are homophonous but Don and Dawn are distinct.

Psalm-sum merger

The psalm-sum merger is a phenomenon occurring in Singaporean English where the phonemes /ɑ/ and /ʌ/ are both pronounced /ɑ/. As a result, pairs like "psalm" and "sum" are homophones.[5]

Bud-bird merger

The bud-bird merger is a merger of /ɜ/ and /ʌ/ occurring for some speakers of Jamaican English making "bud" and "bird" homonyms as /bʌd/.[2]

See also

  • Phonological history of the English language
  • Phonological history of English vowels


  1. ^ Merriam Webster Pronunciation Guide
  2. ^ a b c d e Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22919-7 (vol. 1), ISBN 0-521-24224-X (vol. 2), ISBN 0-521-24225-8 (vol. 3). , pp. 136–37, 203–6, 234, 245–47, 339–40, 400, 419, 443, 576
  3. ^ a b c Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  4. ^ The 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey
  5. ^ Hung, Tony T.N. (2004). English as a Global Language: Implications for Teaching (HTML). Language Centre, Hong Kong Baptist University. Retrieved on 2006-11-05.

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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