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 that has taken place in some varieties of English, between the phonemes which are conventionally represented in the IPA as /ɔː/ (as in caught and thought) and /ɒ/ (as in cot and lot). 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:

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, although in a more recent interview, Labov stated that "Half of this country has a merger of the word classes, cot, caught, don, dawn, hock, hawk."[11]

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,[citation needed] 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.[12]


According to Labov, Ash, and Boberg,[13] the merger is more strongly resisted in the southern United States (with exceptions), along most of the American side of the Great Lakes region, or in the "Northeast Corridor" extended metropolitan region from Providence, Rhode Island to Baltimore.

In these areas, they found 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 /ɒ/ as far as [a̟] (advanced /a/). This is also met with the raising of /æ/ to [eə] in all instances.[14] (What triggered what is still uncertain.)

The second technique is the raised/raising of /ɔː/ found in the New York City and the mid-Atlantic 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].[14]

The third technique is found in the South. This is the result of a Southern drawl, where /ɔ/ is broken to [ɒʊ].[14]


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),[15] 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?).[16]

British Isles

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. ^ Siegel, Robert (2006-02-16). "American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift". NPR. Retrieved 2016-12-12. 
  12. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 217
  13. ^ Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), pp. 56-65
  14. ^ a b c Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), chpt. 11
  15. ^ Dollinger, Stefan (2010). "Written sources of Canadian English: phonetic reconstruction and the low-back vowel merger". Retrieved 2016-03-19. 
  16. ^ Boberg, Charles (2010). The English language in Canada. Cambridge: Cambridge. pp. 199?. 


  • 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. 
  • Watt, Dominic; Allen, William (2003), "Tyneside English", Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 33 (2): 267–271, doi:10.1017/S0025100303001397 
  • Wells, J.C. (1982). "Accents of English 2: The British Isles". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24224-X. 

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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