I have noticed the changing of proununciations of words with -au and -aw by TV presenters which is spilling over into everyday speech. For example “dotter” for daughter, “otto” for auto, “jah” for jaw, “cahfe” for coffee, “don” for dawn, “lahn” for lawn, “wotter” for water. Are these pronunciations correct or are merely affectations in speech to sound more sophisticated or educated or possibly to distinguish themselves from having New Yawk area accent?

I was listening to a broadcast and the presenter said

Next we will hear from Don.

The next segment was presented by a woman whose name was Dawn.

Any insight will be appreciated.

  • Are you referring to American TV, or British TV? – kiamlaluno Feb 5 '11 at 0:41
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    Where are you from? – Kosmonaut Feb 5 '11 at 1:25
  • @Kosmonaut: I would assume he is from somewhere near New York, given the reference. Not a given, granted, but likely. – Orbling Feb 5 '11 at 1:48
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    So I'm from Washington state and have never heard any of the asker's words pronounced any differently from how she described. Can somebody tell me how in the world one pronounces "daughter," if not as "dotter?" Do you say "doubter?" Or "dafter" or "datter" or what? – user54536 Oct 20 '13 at 16:41
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    In my part of the UK I'd pronounce it "dawter", matching "jaw" or "war". – Tynam Oct 20 '13 at 17:24

This is the cot-caught merger, where the sounds /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ are merged—that is, people with this merger pronounce the words cot and caught the same. This merger is quite widespread—it is more common than not all over the western United States and Canada, and has made inroads in the east as well.

Map of the cot-caught merger

Map of the cot-caught merger, from the TELSUR Project.

Most people who have this merger aren’t even aware that the words cot and caught could be pronounced differently. I know this personally as I have this merger natively, and had no idea until I took a course in Linguistics in college. So, I don’t think it’s an affectation in that most people who talk this way have no idea there is a different way to pronounce the sounds.

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    And here in England, I imagine a great many people would be equally surprised that anybody would think these two entirely distinct vowel sounds could be pronounced the same... – Brian Nixon Feb 5 '11 at 4:47
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    @Brian just as we here in the U.S. would be surprised that anybody would think the two entirely distinct vowel sounds in court and caught could be pronounced the same... – nohat Feb 5 '11 at 5:10
  • I'm surprised to see the the blue dots on Houston. – Dan Feb 5 '11 at 6:43
  • Wait, what? I spend a lot of time in the USA (NYC / Boston), and I have never noticed that "caught" and "court" are pronounced differently. What's the geographic spread of this, and what are the two sounds? – Marcin Apr 17 '11 at 15:29
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    "court" is pronounced with an R sound before the T sound. "caught" has no R sound. Everywhere where there are rhotic accents will have this distinction; i.e. everywhere in the U.S. except parts of New England, New York City, and some isolated parts of the South. – nohat Apr 18 '11 at 1:30

Sounds like the cot-caught merger.

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