The Alice Cooper song “Poison” features lyrics rhyming the words hot and caught:
Your mouth, so hot
Your web, I’m caught
Rhyming these words is an example of the cot–caught merger. In linguistics, a merger is when the vowel sounds of two words move together to become the same sound. If you say the words cot and caught the same way, or if hot rhymes with caught, then you have the cot–caught merger. The cot–caught merger is sometimes described as if it’s a yes-or-no phenomenon, but in reality – like in all things in linguistics – it’s more of a continuum.
Alice Cooper doesn’t really pronounce the vowels in hot and caught the exact same way. That could be because Alice Cooper is from Detroit, Michigan, a place which doesn’t have the cot–caught merger. Or maybe the other two writers of “Poison” were taking poetic license with the rhyming of these words. The other writers are Desmond Child, who’s from Gainesville, FL (a place resistant to the cot–caught merger) and John McCurry – but I don’t where he’s from. Either way, the merger is more of a yes-no-maybe-so kind of thing. That means there are speakers with the merger who live in areas where most speakers do not have the merger and vice versa. And there are speakers who have the merger only in certain words or environments, such as before nasal consonants so that the vowels in Don and dawn are merged.
Here’s Alice Cooper singing “Poison” live in 1989 (video starts at the hot/caught lyrics, but rewind it to listen to a flaming guitar solo straight outta the 80s):
You can read more about the cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (some online info here). Wikipedia also has an article on it.
In my review of Joshua Katz’s book Speaking American, I mentioned that a new dialect survey was up. Much of the data in Katz’s book was drawn from an online dialect survey done by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Here’s Ben Zimmer giving credit where credit’s due.
Vaux is now conducting the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes with Marius L. Jøhndal. If you’re interested in world Englishes, head on over to that site, where you can also see the results without taking the survey.
Vaux also has a new survey of American English dialects available at https://www.dialectsofenglish.com/. The survey takes about 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you choose to answer and how long you spend looking at the heat maps it shows you. There are some very fun questions in there.
In my linguistics classes, I ask students to define what a word is. They usually come up with some traditional definitions (more or less what you’re thinking right now). And that’s fine. This is not an easy question. Our department has a course devoted to the topic. But I’m going to start asking them if K is a word.
Consider the following exchange. It could appear on the internet or in texting.
Person 1: Maroon 5 is a great band.
Person 2: K.
Person 2’s response does not mean “OK”. On the contrary, I think K means roughly “I disagree with you but I’m not going to try to argue with you. I’m just going to drop it. My brusqueness, however, points out that your opinion is bad and I have won this battle by barely competing.” I’m not sure if the period is necessary (in written communication) or if it can be spelled in lowercase. But I’m sure these options carry meaning for some people:
Another choice is writing it with a question mark, which I think means “Do you understand? This is not up for discussion”.
Naturally, the linguists over at the Urban Dictionary have this one covered. Proceed with caution to that page though.
And Twitter knows how to use it: