Father-Bother distinction

Lo   Sat Nov 17, 2007 11:11 pm GMT
Hey I have this question about the father-bother distinction, in Eastern New England there is such distinction apparently but at the same time the region has the low back merger. So the distinction is made so father sounds with /A/ while bother sounds with /Q/ but then /A/ and /Q/ merge into /Q/, therefore father sounds with /Q/?
If that's the case, there's no father-bother distinction now is there?
I tried to hear the difference but I just can't, I have an Eastern New England accent but I don't hear any difference, maybe I'm just not trained enough or pay enough attention.
Josh Lalonde   Sat Nov 17, 2007 11:19 pm GMT
No, you have the order wrong. In the ancestor of North American English (and in modern RP), there were three low back vowels: /Q/ in LOT, /A:/ in PALM, and /O:/ in THOUGHT (though it was probably phonetically [Q:] when the US was settled). In most of North America, the vowel of LOT became unrounded, while at the same time the length distinction was lost, so LOT merged with PALM, while THOUGHT was distinct. In New England, the unrounding didn't happen, and LOT merged with THOUGHT instead. There are really two different cot-caught mergers in North America: the one in New England where LOT merged with THOUGHT, leave PALM distinct, and the one in Canada and the Western US where an already-merged LOT/PALM vowel merged with THOUGHT, leaving a single low back vowel.
To test whether you have the merger think of rhymes and minimal pairs. Do 'Mach' and 'mock' sound the same to you? Do 'lock' and 'Bach' rhyme? Are 'balm' and 'bomb' the same?
Jim H.   Sat Nov 17, 2007 11:49 pm GMT
<<Are 'balm' and 'bomb' the same?>>

Not for me, and I rhyme "father" and "bother". "balm" is /bAlm/ and "bomb" is /bAm/. Isn't it kind of weird to pronounce "balm" and "bomb" the same considering that they do opposite things?
Lazar   Sun Nov 18, 2007 12:09 am GMT
Lo: I am a real Eastern New Englander (from the Worcester area), and I second Josh's excellent explanation. In this area there is a "cot-caught" merger - just as in General American there's a "father-bother" merger - but there is not a low back merger. "Cot" and "caught" merged a long time ago with /Q:/, while "father" has always remained distinct with /A:/.

Basically, the opening of /O:/ to [Q:] in American English meant that the historical phoneme /Q/ of "cot" had to merge with something else. In General American, /Q/ merged with /A:/, giving us:

father ["fA:D@`]
bother ["bA:D@`]

cot ["k_hA:t]
caught ["k_hQ:t]

Whereas in my dialect, /Q/ was merged with /O:/, giving us:

father ["fA:D@`]
bother ["bQ:D@`]

cot ["k_hQ:t]
caught ["k_hQ:t]

So Eastern New England doesn't have any more of a low-back merger than General American; it's just that they've dealt with historical /Q/ in different ways.
Guest   Sun Nov 18, 2007 12:44 am GMT
All areas have a father-bother distinction. How possible could they be pronounced the same way when the consonants are different? How about about call it the "broad a-short o distinction" instead? I think it would be better to use that as "father-bother distinction" has a kind of substandard sound.
Lazar   Sun Nov 18, 2007 1:06 am GMT
"Father-bother distinction" doesn't have a substandard sound - if I'm not mistaken, it's the most commonly used term, and it's the one that I'm most familiar with. Even if you used JC Wells' lexical sets, it would still be the "LOT PALM merger". Regardless, in discussions of English dialects, I have never known anyone to have any trouble understanding the meaning of the term. It's a distinction, and it involves the stressed vowels in "father" and "bother", and without it, those words rhyme.

<<How about about call it the "broad a-short o distinction" instead?>>

Possible, but awkward; and it would be very difficult to apply lay linguistic terms like these to the entire phonology of the language.
Lazar   Sun Nov 18, 2007 1:21 am GMT
By the way, if anybody would like to hear my father-bother distinction, here's a recording that I did for a thread on Unilang: http://media.putfile.com/Dialect-58 . It's me saying "Mary, merry marry; serious, Sirius; hurry, furry; Tory, torrent; father, bother; cot, caught; bite, bide; lout, loud; cart, card".
Marc   Sun Nov 18, 2007 4:30 pm GMT
Hey, Lazar, do you think you can record yourself speaking with a Boston Brahmin accent? It doesn't have to be perfect, but it would be interesting to hear. Since you live back East, you would be much more familiar with how it sounds than I am.
Uriel   Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:26 pm GMT
<<All areas have a father-bother distinction. How possible could they be pronounced the same way when the consonants are different?>>

Don't know about you, but they have the exact same vowel for me, and rhyme perfectly.
Marc   Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:33 pm GMT
>> <<All areas have a father-bother distinction. How possible could they be pronounced the same way when the consonants are different?>>

Don't know about you, but they have the exact same vowel for me, and rhyme perfectly <<

I think Guest was trying to sarcastically say that there is no dialect that pronounces the words "father" and "bother" the same (except for those that merge Smith and Jones), as the *consonants* in those words are different. As opposed to: Mach-mock, which sound the same, or bomb-balm for some--as some people don't pronounce the <l> in "balm". Actually until I visited this forum I had never heard of pronouncing "balm" and "bomb" the same. I have the same vowel in both of them, but I do have an "l" in "balm", as well as in "palm", "psalm", "calm", and "almond". But I guess l-dropping is quite common in those words in certain areas.
Paul   Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:34 pm GMT
<<In this area there is a "cot-caught" merger - just as in General American there's a "father-bother" merger - but there is not a low back merger.>>

"low back merger" is just another name for the "cot-caught merger", so yes Eastern New England does have the low back merger. According to what you say, us NCVS speakers would have the low back merger without having the cot-caught merger as we only have one low back vowel, yet no cot-caught merger. Of course, we don't have it, as that's just another name for "cot-caught merger".
Jim H.   Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:38 pm GMT
<<I have the same vowel in both of them, but I do have an "l" in "balm", as well as in "palm", "psalm", "calm", and "almond".>>

I have an /l/ in "balm", but not the other words.
Lazar   Sun Nov 18, 2007 5:55 pm GMT
<<Hey, Lazar, do you think you can record yourself speaking with a Boston Brahmin accent? It doesn't have to be perfect, but it would be interesting to hear. Since you live back East, you would be much more familiar with how it sounds than I am.>>

Sorry to disappoint, but I don't really have much experience with the Boston Brahmin accent - I don't think I've ever heard it in real life, just in some old media (like John Kerry's testimony from the 1970s). Nowadays, I think that accent is basically extinct. But I could do several variations on a traditional Eastern New England or Southeastern New England working-class dialect.
Lazar   Sun Nov 18, 2007 6:36 pm GMT
<<"low back merger" is just another name for the "cot-caught merger", so yes Eastern New England does have the low back merger.>>

No, not as I'm using the term. I'll concede that Wikipedia and some other sources do seem to use the term in that more restrictive way - referring only to a merger of historical /Q/ and /O:/, regardless of what happens to historical /A:/ - but I think that this usage doesn't make sense and isn't useful. I will appeal to your own common sense: Eastern New England has two low-back vowel phonemes (and I use the term low-back in a conventional phonemic way, to refer to the continuum of the three historical vowel phonemes /A:/, /Q/ and /O:/, even if they may range phonetically from open front to mid back) - it has the two low-back vowel phonemes /A:/, realized as [a:] or [A:], and /Q:/, realized as [Q:]. An ENE speaker could quite conceivably have two phonemes that are phonetically *identical* to those of an Chicago speaker, both with /A:/=[a:] and /Q:/=[Q:]. The two speakers would differ only in the lexical distribution of those phonemes: for the ENE speaker, historical /Q/ has been assigned to modern /Q:/, and for the Chicago speaker, historical /Q/ has been assigned (mostly) to modern /A:/. How is the ENE speaker more low back merged than the Chicago speaker? How is the merger of /Q/ and /O:/ more of a low back merger than the merger of /Q/ and /A:/? Don't just appeal to some sources that treat "low back merger" as if it meant, precisely, "cot caught merger", but tell me *how* this usage of theirs makes sense. My argument is that it doesn't, and that ENE is not more fundamentally merged than a Chicago dialect. There is a distinct merger that occurs in Canada and the Western US, and is found neither in ENE nor in Chicago, that merges /A:/ and /Q:/ (i.e. historical /A:/, /Q/ and /O:/) into one phoneme, and it needs a name. Does it make sense that in order to refer to this phenomenon unambiguously, we must use some awkward term like "father-bother-cot-caught merger", while we reserve the term "low back merger" - with no logic whatsoever - for only *one* of the two mergers that it includes? My argument is that there is a fundamental phonological similarity between an ENE speaker and a Chicago speaker that is not shared by the Western US or Canadian speaker.

<<According to what you say, us NCVS speakers would have the low back merger without having the cot-caught merger as we only have one low back vowel, yet no cot-caught merger.>>

No, that's not what I said - although I could have made myself clearer. As I've just indicated, I use the term "low back merger" to refer to the merger of /A:/, /Q/ and /O:/. So according to what you think I said, the low back merger depends on the phonetic quality of the vowels? If one speaker has two vowels [A:] and [Q:], he doesn't have the low back merger, but if [A:] is fronted to [a:] - even while preserving the same phonemic distribution - he suddenly has it? No, that makes no sense. If that's the case - that the term conflates phonemics and phonetics - then it should be abandoned because it's useless to us in any discussion of dialects. Indeed, you've certainly misunderstood me, because even though I use [A:] and [Q:] in my General-American influenced idiolect, my fellow New Englanders with a more traditional accent would use [a:] and [Q:] for the phonemes in question. They have the merger, but I don't, just on account of a slight difference of fronting? No, if that's what I thought the term meant, I wouldn't have used it.
Guest   Sun Nov 18, 2007 9:08 pm GMT
So does that mean that you'd spell "cot" and "caught" as "cawt", and "father" as "fahther"?