1

Why doesn't watch rhyme with catch, batch, latch, patch, and match?

5

Because of the rounded lips of the preceding consonant "w".

Many (but not all) English words with an "a" following "w", "wh" or "qu" have a different vowel from similar words with a different consonant.

So

what vs. that

watch vs. catch

squash, wash, vs. cash

war, warm vs car, arm

The exceptions often have a velar (/k/, /g/, or /ŋ/) or /m/ following the "a":

wag, whack, quack, wangle, swam, wham have the vowel of tag, tack, tangle, tram not the vowel of wad, what, quad, wan.

But there are exceptions to this rule as well:

Quag has the vowel of quad despite its velar; and warm, swarm have the vowel of war, not that of harm.

  • 2
    I think both pronunciations are used for quag and quagmire. – sumelic Feb 8 '16 at 1:39
  • I am not sure this is convincing. Firstly because in my native Yorkshire, watch is often pronounced to rhyme with catch, and secondly because we have words like consider, botch, lost, pot, and mop that lack the rounded lips of a "w" but still have the initial vowel sound of watch. – Roaring Fish Feb 8 '16 at 7:27
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    @RoaringFish: for local pronunciations without rounding: I said that it didn't apply to all such words anyway: you're just saying that the list of exceptions is diffierent in different dialects. For the second list: I didn't say that all instances of /ɒ/ were affected by a preceding /w/; just that many of those where you would expect /æ/ have a preceding /w/. – Colin Fine Feb 8 '16 at 20:19
  • @ColinFine ~ I have no problem with the observation that a word-initial /w/ is often followed by a LOT vowel. My issue is purely with your first sentence that suggests the LOT vowel is because of the /w/ as though it is an ease of articulation situation. I see no reason to believe that a TRAP vowel following a word-initial /w/ is any harder to articulate than a LOT vowel. Similarly, a word-initial consonant of any form can be followed by either TRAP or LOT with equal ease. – Roaring Fish Feb 9 '16 at 6:26
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    @RoaringFish: fair comment: correlation does not imply causation. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a majority of English words where 'a' follows 'w' or 'qu' (and there is no following 'e' or equivalent) have a rounded vowel - the LOT vowel or the WAR vowel where there is an orthographic 'r' following - and few words with 'a' not preceded by 'w' or 'qu' have these vowels. Assuming this is not an arbitrary orthographic convention (which is possible, but I know of no reason why it should be) the obvious assumption is that the preceding rounding has modified the vowel sound. – Colin Fine Feb 9 '16 at 11:08
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They are derived from different Old English words and some of the old pronunciation has lingered on. Batch from a word related to bacan which has to do with baking. Watch comes from waeccende meaning to stay awake.

That being said, words sometimes change pronunciation for no particular reason. On reading John Clifford's comment I should add that regionalism makes a difference as well. Different linguistic groups pronounce words differently. In New York, for instance, the words "Mary", "marry", and "merry" are pronounced quite differently but in most other English-speaking communities they sound the same.

Maybe I should have limited my answer to "just because".

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    No, it's not a lingering old pronunciation. Latch comes from *laeccan," with the same "aecc" sequence as in the ancestor of "watch." It's a relatively new sound change that altered the vowel in "watch." In fact, I believe this change is not even universal to all modern dialects of English. This sound change is not unexplainable; it fairly regularly affected words with the sequence "wa," with some fairly regular classes of exceptions. – sumelic Feb 7 '16 at 23:29

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