25. The tot/taught merger I: It's not just California (with dialect maps)
Note: Make sure that you have the Lucida Sans Unicode font installed in your computer so that the IPA symbols will display correctly.
When we talk about variations in speech among different people, we are entering the subfield of sociolinguistics. These variations may be due to geography, in which case we are usually talking about different dialects of a language. They may also be due to different education levels, social or economic class, ethnic group, religion, neighborhood, circle of friends, age, gender, sexual orientation, mobility history, register (formal, informal, vulgar), or any number of other social variables. All of these factors may cause slight to enormous variations in the speech of an individual, and they all hold potential for fruitful research in sociolinguistics. (Here is a page of links to sociolinguistics resources.) On this page we will concern ourselves mostly with variation due to geography, or dialect variation.
Many North American speakers of English use the same vowel in tot and taught, and similar pairs. This vowel is usually represented as /ɑ/, though it may actually fall somewhere between [ɑ] and [ɔ]. (Keep in mind that the values represented by these symbols are the ones typical for US English, rather than standard British English, in which [ɔ] in particular is quite a different sound.) We've learned from our textbooks that this merger is typical of American English as spoken on the U.S. West Coast, but it is also typical of Canadian English. And it is found in many other parts of the United States besides the West Coast. Here is a sample of [ɔ] -less speech (it's chapter 21 of Book II of Tolstoy's War and Peace, read by Roger Melin; it's a rather large file so be patient; source page). The actual value of the vowel used may vary; it tends toward [ɑ] in Western North America, and toward [ɔ] in the East.
One way to study this kind of dialect variation is to interview speakers from different areas of a country and determine how they perceive and say certain words known to vary in pronunciation. After data is collected for many speakers from different regions, the results for each feature can be displayed, for example, with colored dots on a map, a 'dialect map'. These give a clear picture of the distribution of a particular language feature.
Professor William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania is well known for his excellent work in many areas of sociolinguistics, in particular for his studies of Black English, or 'African-American Vernacular English' ('AAVE'), now sometimes called 'Ebonics'. He has also done extensive work on general American dialects. On his Web site you will find many dialect maps of the kind described above which illustrate the distribution of many different types of variation in U.S. English, including the tot/taught merger. Note that some speakers distinguish the vowels in both their perception and speech, or just perception, or just their speech.
Click on the following link for a map showing the distribution of the tot/taught merger, which Labov here labels 'the o (cot, tot) /oh (caught, taught)' merger (probably to avoid the problems of displaying IPA symbols on a Web page). You can enlarge the map by clicking on the link, and by clicking on points on the larger map you can see data displayed for individual informants in Labov's study.
You can see that the tot/taught merger appears in many parts of the U.S. Here is Map 2, which shows "comparative progress of the /o/ ~ /oh/ merger before /n/ and /t/".
There is a lot of information on this page, especially if you have been following up on all of the links, so maybe you will want to stop here for a while and take a break before continuing on to part II!
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