‘Cot’ Versus ‘Caught’ Tells Us How Texas Language Is Changing

Lady Bird Johnson pronounced the two words very differently, but younger Texans are going the way of Canadians.

By Michael MarksMay 11, 2020 11:16 am,

Texans have a reputation for the distinctive way they speak. To many outsiders, the Texan accent is easily identifiable. Some of that comes down to linguistic trends that have persisted for years.

But Lars Hinrichs, director of the Texas English Linguistics Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, told Texas Standard’s David Brown that one of those trends might be changing.

There used to be a difference in the way Texans pronounced the words “cot” versus “caught.” But now the vowels in those words is starting to become indistinguishable. Hinrichs called it the “cot-caught merger.”

“Many people still distinguish between ‘cot’ and ‘caught’, but most younger people don’t,” he said.

In recordings from 1964 of First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, reading one of her diary entries, she clearly pronounced the vowels in  “cot” and “caught” differently: “Lyndon apparently had caught a cold”; “Something like 37 nights when Lyndon had spent on a cot in the Capitol.”

But in a recording of a younger Texan from Abilene, Texas Standard’s technical director Casey Cheek, he pronounces the vowels exactly the same.

“I don’t think they sound any different,” Cheek said.

Hinrichs said it’s not clear why Texans are starting to merge these two vowel sounds. One theory is that it’s trickling down from Canada. Canadian English is a model for North American English, and many newscasters in the United States who reach millions of Americans every day are Canadian, Hinrichs said. Their way of speaking could be having an affect on our own pronunciation.

“Maybe that’s the source of merging,” Hinrichs said.

But there’s also a rural-urban divide. Hinrichs said Texans living in urban areas tend to merge the vowels more than those in rural areas.

Still, it’s not a uniform trend.

“There are still plenty of people who are unmerged, even in some urban environments,” Hinrichs said.

Listen to the full story in the player above.

Web story by Caroline Covington.


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