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Do American English speakers who pronounce cot and caught as [kʰɑt] pronounce all, tall, Paul, etc. with the same vowel quality?

If my subjective experience is anything to go by, I feel like I've heard Americans say [ɑ] (similar or identical to the vowel of palm, with no lip rounding) more in cot, caught, don, dawn, stock, stalk, etc., yet [ɔ~ɒ] (with rounding, similar to AmE north but with no R and to RP thought) more in all, tall, Paul, etc.

If this is true, it can be construed that either

  • (a) the so-called cot–caught merger is incomplete before tautosyllabic /l/, just like with /ɹ/ (compare thought and north), i.e.

    ɔ → ɑ / _ [-liquid]

    (If this is true, doll has to be pronounced differently from all because it has /dɒl/ in RP.)

  • (b) there is a conditioned allophone of /ɑ/ that occurs before tautosyllabic /l/, i.e.

    ɑ → ɔ / _ [+lateral]

Note that dictionaries are most likely of no help, because, in phonemic transcription, whether the vowel is transcribed as /ɑ/ or /ɔ/ is a rather arbitrary choice, unless there is a minimal pair of /ɑl/ and /ɔl/ (which there isn't AFAIK).

Am I right in my assumption, or maybe I'm mishearing the velarization of /l/ as rounding or something?

  • Sounds like Massachusetts to me, and yes, that sounds correct. – anongoodnurse Aug 6 '17 at 14:06
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    There is a minimal pair for /ɑl/ and /ɔl/ in the U.S.: collar and caller. I really don't see how this helps you at all, though. They'd be pronounced the same in case (b) but not in case (a). – Peter Shor Aug 6 '17 at 14:14
  • To clarify on my previous comment, the minimal pair isn't going to help because the dictionaries give the non-merged pronunciation. – Peter Shor Aug 6 '17 at 14:29
  • @PeterShor Thanks, that's a good example. However, collar and caller still differ in syllabification, and it is usually coda non-prevocalic /l/ that behaves differently from /l/ in other environments (e.g. velarization/vocalization). So as much as I wrote "tautosyllabic /l/", "coda non-prevocalic /l/" might have been more appropriate. I certainly have heard /ɑ/ more in follow, dollar, etc. – Nardog Aug 6 '17 at 21:50
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I don't know of any good summary of this, but I do recall heard accounts from specific speakers who say that they use something like [ɔ] before /l/ as a conditioned allophone of /ɑ/.

I would be very surprised if any speaker had a merger that applied in all environments except before /l/. It seems hard to prove that nobody has this, but I'm not familiar with any speaker who says they have this.

One thing that may be relevant is that even in accents that maintain a phonemic distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/, British English /ɒl/ actually often corresponds to American English /ɔl/. I don't know of any good description of the exact contexts that conditioned this, but my impression is that for many non-cot-caught-merged American English speakers, /ɑl/ has a restricted distribution, occuring mainly or only before vowels. Judging from dictionary transcriptions, /ɔl/ is more-or-less standard (depending somewhat on the particular word) for non-cot-caught-merged American English speakers when "ol" is followed by a consonant or the end of a word (or in other words, in situations where the "l" is unambiguously a coda consonant). See my list of examples in What source explains the different pronunciations of "hol" in "alcohol" and "hollow"?

There is also a word spelled with "aul" where British English speakers all have short /ɒ/, but American English speakers may have either /ɔl/ or /ɑl/: cauliflower. Also, many British English speakers have /ɒl/ in words like vault, fault, false, spelled with "aul" or "al" followed by a voiceless consonant, but as far as I know non-cot-caught-merged American English speakers only have /ɔl/ in these words.

To sum up, I think your option (b) is more likely to be correct. It's true that speakers who don't distinguish caught and cot do maintain a distinction between north and start, but I don't think this is really analogous to a hypothetical merger of caught-cot with maintenance of a distinction between caller and collar (Peter Shor's example of a minimal pair). Rather, I would expect the pre-l context to be one of the first places where complete merger occurs, but it is quite likely that the merged vowel in this position will be realized as [ɔ], since even for non-merged speakers there is a tendency to use the phoneme /ɔ/ rather than /ɑ/ before /l/ in some contexts.

  • So you're saying, in other words, even in accents with the cot–caught merger, the unrounding and lowering of the merged vowel (father–bother merger) is resisted before /l/? I partly based my assumption (a) on the fact that the fronting of /ʌ/ is typically resisted before (coda non-prevocalic) /l/, thinking /l/ might have the capacity to prevent the preceding vowel from changing (which /ɹ/ seems to do & they're often grouped as liquid). But if it was the father–bother, not cot–caught, that was resisted before /l/, then that would explain well, especially if doll rhymed with all. – Nardog Aug 6 '17 at 22:07
  • @Nardog: Well, it's not universal. I have the cot-caught merger, and my perception is that "cot" and "call" have the same vowel, which sounds to me like [ɑ], not [ɔ]. Since I don't have a phoneme /ɔ/, I got my idea of what this sound is mainly from referencing my vowel in words like "core", listening to British accents, and listening to French. If I take my pronunciation of "core", try to remove the "r"/rhoticization, and add an "l", what I get sounds like my pronunciation of "coal" rather than my pronunciation of "call". – sumelic Aug 6 '17 at 22:14
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    And conversely, British English "ɒ" and "ɔː" are apparently for many speakers actually closer in terms of phonetic value to /ɔ/ and /oː/ respectively. So there's a weird situation where a British English vowel conventionally transcribed as /ɒ/ could actually be pronounced with as much or more vowel height as an American English vowel conventionally transcribed as /ɔ/. – sumelic Aug 6 '17 at 22:19
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    @sumelic Trying to reproduce /kɔl/ based on /kɔɹ/ and sounding like /kol/ makes sense. These charts tell that /ɔ(ɹ)/ and /o(w)/ are pretty close. In fact /ɔɹ/ in GenAm is analyzed as /o/ + /ɹ/ when it doesn't distinguish north and force (Wells 1982). – Nardog Aug 6 '17 at 22:36
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    I'm sort of partially merged (I hear a difference, but I'm not sure others listening to me would hear it). My kids are pretty much fully merged, except that they still make a distinction between ah and aw (I know folks who merge those, as well). For all of us, ball and bawl are a minimal pair, with the vowel in ball equating to (our) vowel in ah and bawl equating to aw, which also more-or-less map to my cot/caught. Again, I don't know whether others would actually hear this distinction in our pronunciation (my daughter says she can't hear it when my son says it). – 1006a Aug 6 '17 at 23:31
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Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary uses /ɑ/ in words like ALL, PAUL/POL, CALLER/COLLAR...

Rounding of /ɑ/ in some cot-caught merged speakers can be due to:

a) dark L-influence, but other vowels are affected too, the STRUT VOWEL for example can sound rounded (in words like culture, pulse, wolf, bull)
b) Californian/Canadian vowel shift, it is not uncommon to hear a rounded stressed vowel in words like MOM, POLITICS, DONNA, DOLPHIN, HONEST and these are all LOT-vowel-words.

Many cot-caught merged people (especially those from the Mountain West states, Vermont and Newfoundland) prefer the unrounded pronunciation of PAUL/POL, CALLER/COLLAR pairs...

/ɑ/ in ALL can be heard even in some cot-caught unmerged people from the South, and of course in Northern Cities (as a result of the NCVS).

ALL in various accents> http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/research/gsound/Eng/Database/Phonetics/Englishes/ByWord/Word_001_all.htm

Some sound samples> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzyxZgccQSk&list=UUxWp_H6QUHf4Qx3clP_jYQg

  • I wonder if there's study on this. I've checked Wells (1982:473–476) and Labov et al. (2006:58–65), but they never mention an allophonic variant before dark /l/. – Nardog Aug 12 '17 at 12:29
  • Your description on the STRUT vowel matches my experience as well. But /ʌ/ before /l/ is usually described as "remaining" in the cardinal [ʌ] region (as opposed to the modern realization near [ɐ]), and I've never seen /ʌ/ before /l/ being described as "rounded," though empirically true in my book. – Nardog Aug 12 '17 at 12:29

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