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The /ɔ/ sounds (as in “caught”/“bought”) in RP and GA sound very distinct to me. The one in GA sounds more like /ɒ/ to me. Why isn’t it transcribed to /ɒ/ in the dictionary? And I wonder what the narrow transcription of “caught” in standard American English is.

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    See cot–caught merger. Sep 2, 2023 at 8:01
  • It’s not about cot-caught merger in Californian accent. I’m talking about General American English
    – Robin
    Sep 2, 2023 at 9:41
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    @Robin cot-caught is standard in GA these days; there definitely are still examples without it, but they're the minority now
    – Tristan
    Sep 2, 2023 at 9:43
  • Ooh, interesting. Is it a recent thing?
    – Robin
    Sep 2, 2023 at 9:47
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    @GrahamH. That’s a later edit – the original version was less specific and asked about the vowels more generally. Sep 2, 2023 at 22:32

3 Answers 3

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Some American dialects merge the vowels of "cot" and "caught", however this is only marginally a geographic feature, instead it is generational x geographical. I don't make the distinction, yet relatives of mine (same geographical background) and random individuals whom I have asked do make the distinction. It is a much more common distinction in the Midwest, but even then in the course of 25 years, I observed a decrease in the frequency of the distinction in Ohio.

The choice of vowel in phonemic representations of this dialect is somewhat arbitrary, since it doesn't exactly match any of the performance standards for the IPA. It is extremely different from [ɒ], and quite different from [ɑ]. It is in between the vowels of caught and cot as pronounced by Midwest English speakers who make the difference. They are often transcribed as [a] and [ɔ]. Brooklyn speakers who make the distinction produce those two vowels very differently from suburban Chicago speakers, in other words, the actual pronunciation of the vowels cannot be represented with single letters. RP speakers have further differences.

Instead, if you insist on transcribing phonetic differences as opposed to measuring them, then you have to resort to those nudge diacritics that are available to indicate "less round" or "more round", "retracted" or "advanced" etc. You can combine those with elementary vowels such as [a ɑ ɔ ɒ].

I agree that at the phonetic level, [ɑ] would be a more appropriate base symbol (more round and less back). The vowel [ɔ] is found in "pork" and "walk" (="wok"). Then "pasta" is [pastə] except that the vowel is further back (it's not the same as Arabic "a" which is not [æ] and is not [ɑ]. Not everybody who uses IPA symbols is transcribing phonetically (also, not everybody consults the IPA-sponsored samples to calibrate their expectations). Compare how the experts pronounce [ɔ] and [ɒ] – performance-[ɔ] isn't very much like [ɔ] that exists in numerous natural languages.

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  • I apologise for my stupid question: what do you refer to by “it” in the second paragraph? (As in it is extremely different from…)
    – Robin
    Sep 3, 2023 at 1:13
  • "It" would be "the vowels of caught or caught outside of RP", though it could be "they" when referring to the vowels of those words in dialects which pronounce them different.
    – user6726
    Sep 3, 2023 at 1:43
  • When I listen to the phoneticians recordings of [ɑ], [ɒ], and [ɔ], I can hear that my vowel in caught (distinct from my vowel in cot, which is probably between [ɑ] and [ɐ]) is in fact very close to [ɒ], although the rounding may be slightly variable. I’m a teenager from the north side of Chicago, but my accent is not localizable enough to be excluded from General American.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 3, 2023 at 22:19
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The dialect that your dictionary refers to as "General American" has the "cot~caught merger", which means that the RP phonemes /ɔ/ and /ɒ/ are no longer distinguished. As a result, "cot" and "caught" are pronounced the same. (The "father~bother merger" also merges in /ɑ/.)

As a result, most dictionaries will either use whichever phoneme is found in non-merging dialects (to make their dictionary more useful for other dialects), or apply one or the other consistently across the board. As a speaker with the merger, I tend to use ɔ in broad transcriptions, simply because it's easier to type on my IPA keyboard. Or, if I'm also representing the father~bother merger, I'll use ɑ, since it's the most peripheral of these vowels.

As to the exact pronunciation, it'll vary a lot, even within "General American"—a surprising amount of variation can fit under that label! Since there's no longer a distinction there, a certain speaker of a certain word might use something closer to [ɔ], or something closer to [ɒ], without it making a difference.

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  • By what right can you say that General American uniformly lacks a cot-caught distinction? There are a large number of Americans, including young ones, who have never conceived of the idea that those two words could be pronounced the same (me until a year ago). Many of those people, especially in the Midwest, have accents that could not possibly be excluded from GemAm. I’m a teenager from the north side of Chicago, and a majority of the people I know don’t have the merger but don’t have broad, localizable Chicago accents either.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:22
  • @GrahamH. "General American" as a single dialect is, of course, really just a convenient fiction. Unlike with RP, there's not one specific authoritative speaker whose idiolect is the true Platonic GA. But OP seems to be using a dictionary that uses the term "GA" to refer to a particular American dialect with the cot~caught merger, so that's the way I'm using GA in the question.
    – Draconis
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:28
  • @Draconis I feel it’s better to explain why the fantasy is as such rather than submit to it. General American is a collection of probably at least a hundred million pronunciation styles, and many of those distinguish cot from caught, often using a very open vowel like [ɒ] for the latter.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:39
  • @GrahamH. That better?
    – Draconis
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:41
  • I don’t want to be too combative, but if Robin’s dictionary says GenAm uses /ɔ/, then that dictionary clearly isn’t referring to a variety of GenAm that has the merger.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 2, 2023 at 18:44
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The THOUGHT vowels in RP and GA indeed sound distinct, but it's RP that has diverged from the cardinal [ɔ]. The THOUGHT vowel in modern RP (or Standard Southern British or whatever they call it) is close to cardinal [o].

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  • I think both accent group’s THOUGHT vowels have diverged substantially from cardinal 6.
    – Graham H.
    Sep 3, 2023 at 0:03
  • Thank you. But the one in GA doesn’t sound like [ɔ] to me, either. I think it’s more open
    – Robin
    Sep 3, 2023 at 1:03
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    @Robin Couldn't it be that what you think is [ɔ] is actually (or has been influenced by) RP THOUGHT? In American accents that retain the distinction with LOT, THOUGHT still tends to be around cardinal [ɔ] (often accompanied by a centering offglide). In merged accents it tends to be [ɑ~ɒ~ɔ], but note no accent or language really has a dead-on, cardinal-like [ɒ] (modern RP's LOT is closer to [ɔ], and even earlier, /ɔ/ was the more common way to represent LOT in RP).
    – Nardog
    Sep 3, 2023 at 1:51
  • @Nardog I checked out the pronunciation of [ɔ] on the official site of IPA, and to me the GA one obviously sounded more open than that
    – Robin
    Sep 3, 2023 at 2:13
  • What is "the GA one"? How do you know it's not merged?
    – Nardog
    Sep 3, 2023 at 4:57

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