Catching Cots

Catching Cots


Over time, languages change. All most everyone
knows this, even if they aren’t that interested in linguistics. It’s the reason people in
Spain and Italy don’t both still speak Latin, it’s the reason Americans sound different
from British people, and it’s the reason high school students get so frustrated with Shakespeare.
And yet, when you look at the speed that these changes would have to have taken place at,
it can seem a little weird sometimes, at least to me. Like, around 600AD whatever people
in the former roman empire spoke was still probably similar enough to Latin that they
could at least understand classical latin texts, but in 813AD the catholic church ordered
priests to preach in whatever the vernacular was, mostly because they realized that no
one could understand latin anymore. Assuming an average generation length of, I don’t know,
25 years, that means that in just nine generations people’s speech changed enough to make a formerly
intelligible language unintelligible, and that on average during this period people’s
speech was one ninth as different from their parents’ speech as 600s vulgar latin was from
800s proto-french. I mean, I guess that seems kind of reasonable, I mean it’s not a that
fast a change, but I don’t know about you guys but I tend to perceive my speech as being
identical to that of my parents. I mean, I know there’s this stereotype of teenagers
speaking differentially from their parents, but when I listen to adults in my area and
fellow teenagers in my area I don’t notice a big difference, or, most of the time, any
difference at all. Because of this, I had always assumed that right here, right now,
language just isn’t changing. However, that worldview ended as soon as I started learning
about something called the caught-cot merger, and realized there’s actually sound shift
currently in transition in American English right now, which I think it can teach us a
lot about how people who participate in the natural evolution of language perceive what’s
going on. OK, so first of all, what exactly is the caught-cot
merger? Well, as the name implies, all it is is a sound change where you pronounce the
vowel in “caught” as in the past-tense of “to catch,” the same as the vowel in “cot”
as in something you sleep in. And not just in these two words, the vowel in talk, small,
fall, tall and any other other word with that vowel is pronounce with exactly the same as
the vowel the vowel in rock, doll, clock, bomb, etcetera. As you might have noticed
by now, my speech exhibits the merger, and if you’re thinking to yourself “what the hell
are you talking about, all of those words are normally pronounced with the same vowel,”
congratulations, you have the merger to. The merger is mostly a US and Canada thing,
although it also occurs in some dialects of British English. Originally, no one had the
merger, cot and caught were pronounced differently, which is why they’re spelled differently,
but over time people started pronouncing the two vowels the same. It actually started in
three different places in the US completely independently of each other: in the Western
US, in north-eastern New England and in western Pennsylvania. It’s unclear when exactly it
started, but today it’s spread to cover a lot of the US. Pretty much anywhere west of
Iowa will probably have the vowels fully merged, and the merger in western Pennsylvania has
spread through West Virginia and into Eastern Kentucky. However, most of the Midwest, most
of the mid-atlantic states and almost all of the Southern US still pronounce the two
vowels differently. Now, when I first learned about this it was
the first example of different dialects of English having different inventories of vowels,
and I thought it was really cool, so I started to tell my parents about it, but I decided
that first, I’d test them to see if they had the merger too. Their speech sounds exactly
like mine, so I was confident they’d also have the merger, but to by bafflement, both
of them had the sounds fully unmerged!!! But, you know, maybe I was just weird, so I went
and tested my sister, but then she had them fully merged like I do! All this time I had
been talking to my parents, thinking that I learned how to speak from them and therefor
my speech would be exactly the same, when it turns out the way I talk is actually part
of a new change in the evolution of English! Naturally, I started wondering whether I picked
up this merger from tv and movies and such or from my friends, and I was also wondering
what the status of the merger was in my Home town of Nederland Colorado, so I decided to
conduct a survey of people at my school to see how people pronounce it, and the results
ended up being really interesting. Sooo, considering this is the first of my
videos where I’ve shared original research of my own with you guys, I feel the need to
include the following disclaimer. Disclaimer
I have no formal education in linguistics. I have no experience at all conducting linguistic
surveys. This was not a randomly chosen sample, it was an arbitrarily chosen sample. I probably
did not follow good procedure in conducting this survey. I have no freaking idea what
I’m doing and no one should ever, ever, ever take me seriously. Ever. Alright, got that out of my system. Moving
on, I surveyed a total of 18 students and 11 teachers, and the first thing that should
be talked about is that there is a lot of variation from person to person. The way I
conducted the survey was I recorded people saying these words, asked them to tell me
if they pronounce some of the vowels differently from others and, if so, which ones are which,
and then I asked them to say cot and caught and tell me if the two words are pronounced
the same. I thought most people would either say all the vowels the same and say that all
the vowels are pronounced the same, or they would correctly identify which are pronounced
which way. What wound up happening was 11 people had the two vowels fully merged and
6 people had them fully unmerged, but 10 people did something where I couldn’t really classify
them as either. Some people said that all the words had the same vowel except one word,
which was pronounced differently, some people said there was a difference between how the
vowels were pronounced but got completely wrong which were which when I asked them or
just refused to even try to figure which were which, complaining that they couldn’t tell.
Some people pronounced all the vowels in the first set of word the same, but then went
and pronounced cot and caught differently, and some people did the exact opposite, correctly
identifying which words were pronounced which way but saying cot and caught the same. Two
people I asked were adamant that all of these vowels were pronounced the same, but when
I listened to them read them I heard an extremely distinct difference. Also, I thought it might
be the case that students tend to say them the same while teachers say them differently,
and that did end up being true to an extent, but I also asked people where they came from
and exhibiting the merger is much more closely correlated to growing up here in Nederland
than it is to being a student, so the fact that teachers tend to have the vowels unmerged
while students tend to have them merged is probably just because teachers are much more
likely to have grown up in some other state. A lot of modern research on the merger shows
that this kind of variation is really common. I’ve read that some people to have merged
the vowels in some word but not others, and also that some people say them differently
but think they’re saying them the same, or vice versa: saying them the same while thinking
that they’re saying them differently. And yet, all across the US, all most no one even
knows this merger exists. Even when you say the vowels differently, you probably say them
so similarly that you don’t even notice when other people say them the same, and as such
people who say them the same don’t notice that you say them differently. The merger
is becoming more and more common in American television and media, and some people predict
that eventually the entire US will say the two vowels the same, meanwhile none of us
even realize that it’s happening. This, right here, is probably how most sound changes in
the world happen: slowly, with enormous variation from person to person, and subtly enough that
no one even realizes that it’s going on. Sometimes we don’t need to look back at historical records
to figure out how language changes and evolves, sometimes we just need to look around. What
about you guys, do you pronounce cot and caught the same? Let me know in the comments, and
come back next time when I talk about one of the post famous sound changes of all time:
Grimm’s Law.

100 Comments on "Catching Cots"


  1. If you're curious how they sound unmerged, check this video out:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RB3NHCJDq7M

    Reply

  2. I naturally have the merger, mostly because I was taught that those two vowels are the same, and any time I hear "caught" and "taught" and such pronounced without the merger, it just sounds like the speaker is exaggerating the au as "aw" or even more like "ua" instead of the "ah" I'm used to. Either way, more recently, I have begun consiously pronouncing homophones subtly differently from one another based on their spelling. E.G., "You're" with the U very slightly stressed compared to "Your." As for Cot/Caught, Whenever I'm thinking about how I'm speaking, "Cot" is still "Caht" but I nudge "Caught" ever so slightly in the direction of "Cat," which feels more correct to me than "Cawt/Cuat"

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  3. My mom is from South Africa and can speak in practically fluent Afrikaans. But the cool part is, she can also understand Dutch but she can’t speak it. This is because the Dutch settles in Southern Africa and some people called Boers.(Americans are to Britons as Boers are to Netherlanders) made their own language which was based off of 18th century Dutch.

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  4. I live in the south and I'm just now realizing that the younger generation doesn't really talk in a southern accent and it's really only prominent in older people.

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  5. The only thing I know for sure is that my brain goes bananas every time I have to pronouce any English word with "r" in it. It pretty much explodes when I have to do it publicly. I have no idea why that happens and it's the only sound I have a problem with.

    Oh, and that change can occur just because people had trouble pronouncing something from the start. My brother has trouble saying the hard r and one of the girls from my previous school just sounds "French". You know what I mean.

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  6. In your map you showed Connecticut as having gone through the merger, but I personally have only infrequently heard people merge the two.

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  7. English is my third language, but I dare say I speak it as well as many natives and just a couple of months ago I was arguing with an American friend of mine about this topic. I was probably more influenced by British English since I learned a lot of the language from British Rock bands from 60s and 70s and English comedy, so I've always pronounced these two differently (even though my native language is very uniform in vowels and seems to prefer consonants), whereas my friend did not see the difference between them and insisted they are supposed to be pronounced the same way.

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  8. 3:37 Excuse me WHAT!?
    After googling: ow, oke so it is a thing…huh interesting
    I am from the netherlands, so it was quite jarring to hear that the nederlands was a town in colorado

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  9. I have them fully merged and it took more effort than i expected to get myself to pronounce them differently so i could understand the difference.
    It's frustrating how little control i have over my pronunciation

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  10. Is this just me or do people have different pronunciation and or vocab depending on who they are talking to?
    With my English teacher mother I found myself saying the two differently but then with my friends they were merged.

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  11. 3:52 I'll play this every single time I seat at the table to have lunch with my family before I start to tell them about weird languages from Mars

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  12. I always thought one ought to say caught like cot, but I gave it a lot more thought, and I fought, and I fought, and I thought caught ought not sound like cot.

    I discussed it with my friend, and he had this to say:

    "Where would we be if we got cot up in the thought that caught ought not sound a lot like cot, thot? Such a discussion would be all for naught, now please, you ought to let me retire to my caught an-… er… Okay, I get your point."

    Reply

  13. Do a video on the dropped 't' sounds in english! I'm from Connecticut (I say it like Connedicih') and it seems like people from elsewhere have a hard time understanding me when I drop 't's and turn them into glottal stops. especially the word "can't." I say it like " ca' " ('ca' like the 'ca' in can, but then I turn the 'n' and 't' into a glottal stop. The 'n' almost becomes a sort of 'ng' sound but not quite.

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  14. I've just defaulted to a general American accent because no others had the time to actually stick. I was born in Arizona(which doesnt really have that distinct of an accent), my mom's from San Diego, my dad's from Maryland and I grew up in Eastern Massachusetts(where you can hear the boston accent, sometimes). So basically I got my accent from TV.

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  15. I'm german but used to live in Bournemouth, my english is very influenced by cockney so for example I'd say bo'oh instead of bottle and wo'a instead of water. Anyway when I say caught it sounds just like short or sport . When I say cot though I say it like got stop and lot. Caught has a "ohh" sound but cot is more like a "A~O" kind of thing. Also a small english lesson for you Americans: it's lorry rubbish coach trainers colour roundabout CHIPS AND CRISPS

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  16. When carefully reading them, I pronounce them differently. However, in everyday speech, they end up being the same.

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  17. Well, I am a foreigner speaking and using English for around 30 years every day and I never noticed the caught – cot merger. To me those two vowels differ in length and quality. I think historically the vowel in "caught" has to be long because the "gh" got vowel quality. "gh" was probably a devoiced vowel like in most varieties of Southern German. There are a lot of samples of vowel lenghtening when the "ch" is abandoned like in "loo" , "boo" , "mou" etc. which are older versions of what younger people pronounce "loch", "boch", "moog" or "moch". Also "ii" is pronounced long while "ich" has a short vowel.

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  18. I didn't even realize that I didn't have the merger until I said both out loud. I legitimately though that I said them the same way, but I guess not

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  19. Odd. Since I'm not native and I learned English mostly from the Internet I was certain I'd have the merger, but at least when I'm consciously pronouncing them I'm totally unmerged.

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  20. Where I live in Britain you can start pitched battles by asking people to pronounce book, took or look because a pronunciation split runs right through the middle of my county and for some reason people are really passionate about whether words ending -ook have the vowel from foot ʊ or the one from moon uː

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  21. i tested my family with it and neither of my parents have the merger but both me and my little sister do. also something weird i noticed was both me and my sister drop the t at the end of caught/cot so its just like "caugh" but neither of our parents do. we do that with other words too, like boat

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  22. I pronounce them differently.
    Fact is, I'm french so I've learned Brittish English at school, mostly from actual Brittish teachers.
    Fact is, that's not just a sole sound change, but a diphtong merging, and that changes the word rythm. That's a very important thing in french providing we don't have any stress, we need to know where the word starts and end, and we can even divide stems within a word with micropauses. So a double, long sound becoming a very short one is too disturbing to happen. Even worse providing my dialect has more sound distinctions than standard french (like, we have half-opened and super-closed vowels in addition where standard french has only opened and closed vowels, and southern french only has opened ones).

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  23. I have them unmerged and with doll in the caught category like ekviktarius. I sometimes hear a sort of pin-pen merger where they're both said /ɜ/ and people in my area humorously spell words like 'kid' > 'khed' lol

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  24. Cot-Caught merger was always interesting to me. The way I found out about was when I pronounced "walrus" as you would without the merger, but my friends that were born and raised on the West Coast were pretty adamant about it being… I guess "woll-russ," which just sounds clunky to me. IDK how I would transliterate how I pronounce it to someone without the merger though because they've effectively lost this sound.

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  25. I thought this was common knowledge, I thought this was just considered a part of the general American accent

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  26. When I tried saying "I caught a cot," it brought out two similar-sounding but still distinct vowels. I've been lying to myself the whole time, I don't have the merger.

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  27. to me, I'm saying them the same but I asked my brother and he said that I'm saying them differently

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  28. I'm Italian and I don't have the cot-caught merger, neither merry-marry-mary merger nor wine-whine merger, I like keeping my sounds as distinct as possible

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  29. I have a thing where only 'talk' in your set of chosen words was different. However, I said caught as how I say the 'a' in 'talk'.

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  30. I speak a southern variant of General American English. Here's how I pronounced them:
    caught [kɔt]
    cot [kɑt]
    talk [tɔlk]
    rock [rɑk]
    small [smɑl]
    doll [dɔl]

    So I actually don't think I merge them. They are very subtly different vowels.

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  31. I’m British and you just sound really weird caught rhymes with court and cot rhymes with rock

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  32. I'm a Belgian, so I say "ving" and "kinderbedje". Great video, but the name of your home town mildly enrages me. 😉 "Nederland" is also the Dutch name of my dad's home country (the Netherlands). There are many Belgian and Dutch places that had their name "stolen" by an American town. Something we like making fun of in our English classes. 😜

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  33. Here in southern Michigan it seems like we dont have the latest update of English yet….. Yeah we do not have the merger yet

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  34. I learned Pitman Shorthand, which was invented in England in 1837. It has a system of dots and dashes and other marks for vowels — but it distinguishes some vowels where a difference does not exist in North America. Since Pitman is a phonetic system where you must write down the sounds you are hearing, there are cases in North America where the thickness of your written stroke will not matter over here.

    The Caught-Cot distinction in England are vowels written as a "first-position" heavy dash and a "first-position" light dash, but the distinction no longer exists in much of the U.S. See my web-page on Pitman shorthand where I bring up this point with an asterisk.

    https://pitmanshorthand.homestead.com/BasicsofPitman.html

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  35. Was going to say i have no clue what you are talking about and then you said the mid west doesnt do it, so i guess it would not be common around me

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  36. I've never seen the word cot used before, I would probably read it as [kʰɑt] if I was asked to read it, but I pronounce caught as something like [kʰɒt]

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  37. I always thought me and my dad were crazy for hearing the difference and how my mother and sisters say the sounds the same. Me and my father hear the differences in other words too but my mother and sisters cannot, an example is the different forms of there, they're, their. My father and i say each word slightly different, however my mother and sisters say them exactly the same. They say each for the way my father and i say "there", it's really interesting. I always wondered why the difference was there.

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  38. In NJ we put a lot of effort on the “au” in the word caught or any other word with that sound. Think of that lady from “my cousin Vinny” saying it.

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  39. Definitely an American thing but listening to this video sounds annoying to me cause we use the original pronouciations

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  40. Me'm frequently dismayed by the apparent Death of Distinction between the English pronouns he and him, and I and me. Even educated speakers uses they incorrectly. Or maybe this are just another simplification of the language. [Him and me are going to the movies. Us is going to the movies. It are me. It am I.] My kids say, "but dad, that's how people talk." Me'm probably just about the only one who notices, or who thinks this things sound wrong, and since me is 75 years old, me'll probably are dead soon. And then nobody is care. Maybe you has a video about this? Maybe someone could let I know?

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  41. From the midwest (between Chicago and Rockford) and I definitely do not display the merger. Caught sounds like cohwt like the vowel in sought, whereas cot sounds like caht, like the vowel in yacht

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  42. I pronounce them /kɑt/ and /kɒt/
    words using ɒ: caught, bought, talk, fought, (my own last name), aunt
    words using ɑ: tall, fall, small, bomb, doll
    words using a: rock, clock,
    The merger for me is more between /a/ and /ɑ/. /ɒ/ is very clearly distinct.
    There is another merger between /əɪ/ and /aɪ/ (fight and might vs high and bye)
    /eə/ and /æ/ have split depending on how you pronounce "ant"

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  43. I wish you'd do a video on the misuse of I/me and he/him. Methinks it could show how English pronouns is changing – maybe eliminating another kind of "case" from the language. Or something. Same Disclaimer!

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  44. In South Africa I’ve never heard anyone merge these. Everyone says /kɔːt/ (caught) and /kɑt/ (cot)

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  45. When you find out that a youtuber you like lives in the same state as you. Lol. Unless I’m actually thinking about it, I pronounce them the same. So do both my parents. They grew up in San Diego and I grew up here in CO.
    The fact that these sounds are different in many dialects of English yet in our dialect, they’ve become the same is probably one of many reasons Americans have issues with imitating RP, Australian, or any other accent in the Anglophonic World.

    Reply

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