Cot-Caught Merger

 
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Say the word COT.

Now say the word CAUGHT.

Do you hear the same vowel sound in these words, or is it slightly different?

What about the following sets of words:

bot
cot
rot
tot

bought
caught
wrought
taught

When you say them, do they have the same vowel sound—like this:

 

…or are you hearing two totally different sounds?

 

Both of the above options highlight a fun feature of the General American accent called the “Cot-Caught Merger.” This basically means that in some parts of the country these two sounds will be pronounced differently, while in other parts, they sound exactly the same (the two sounds have merged together).


So what parts of the country merge the two sounds (and what parts keep them separate)? Take a look at this “Cot-Caught Merger” map! The green dots indicate a merger, and the dark blue dots indicate a separation.


Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether your area is represented by a green dot, or a dark blue dot—both pronunciations are correct! What DOES matter is that you understand and know this feature of your own speech. When YOU say COT and CAUGHT, do they sound similar, or different? Knowing how you naturally speak will only help more as you start to explore features of other accents!

EXERCISE

1) Ask your students to find a clip of someone who speaks with the “Cot-Caught Merger.”

2) Ask your students to find a clip of someone who does NOT speak with the “Cot-Caught Merger.”

3) Encourage your students to make a list of words that sound like (or rhyme with) COT, and a list of words that sound like (or rhyme with) CAUGHT

Know Thy Accent!

 
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According to the Linguistic Society of America, an accent is the way a person sounds when they speak. "When they speak" are the key words. We all speak, and therefore we ALL have an accent--no matter where we're from. So before diving into a new accent, I think it's really helpful to know the features of our OWN accents! Why?...

Let’s start with inflection! Here are some examples:

With a General American accent, phrases typically end on a downward inflection:

 

With an Australian accent, phrases might often end on an upward inflection!
Listen to Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski say:
“It’s one of the best characters I’ve ever played in my life.”

 
 

EXERCISE

Here’s an exercise to use with your students: ask them to choose up to 5 characters in any of the TV shows they’re currently watching, and observe the inflection patterns of those characters.

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Questions for them to ask:

  1. Do most of the sentences end on an upward or downward note?

  2. Do the YES/NO questions end on an upward or downward note?

  3. Is there a time when the character uses an inflection in a way that sounds either different or unique?

  4. Are there any additional inflection patterns?

By having a solid understanding of our everyday inflections, it’s much easier to model inflections of other accents to our students!

Inflection is just ONE feature of accents… stay tuned to future blog updates for more!

Accents In Dialogue

 
 

VERY often in scripts, we’ll see unusually-spelled words such as:

“perfick” (perfect)—The 39 Steps
”erster” (oyster)—Newsies
”gettin” (getting)—West Side Story

I like to think that the writer is communicating accent notes directly to us! The writer is telling us that some sort of accent belongs here. We might also be able to piece together the following information:

1) Details about the rhythm, melody, or music of the character’s accent
2) The overall flavor of the character’s speech patterns
3) Some hints about the character’s culture, background, or society

Personally, I love seeing “accent clues” in scripts. The more information the better! But we do have to be careful. Sometimes in scripts, you’ll see some very interesting spellings. For example, take a look at this French accent word:

“sair” (sir)

This is what is known as a spelling approximation. A spelling approximation is an attempt to describe a specific pronunciation of a word using a traditional written alphabet. The problem with spelling approximations is that the written letters of English can only do so much to communicate the true accent sound.  (Be on the lookout for more about this in an upcoming blog post!) The writer is giving us her/his interpretation of the sound, rather than the authentic sound itself. So it’s always an excellent idea to cross-reference accent notes in scripts with audio examples of authentic speakers (primary resources). Let the spellings in the script inform you of the presence of accent, and THEN let authentic clips and examples reinforce the accent!