Friday, April 27, 2007

Rock chalk Jayhawk

I'm in Lawrence, Kansas, for the 31st annual Symposium of the Society for German-American Studies. (That's a long story unto itself on various fronts, one I'll tell if time permits later.) KU has a chant, Rock chalk Jayhawk, KU! (Listen to it here.) So, this is a potentially great example of cot/caught merger: For me, the first is an /a/ and the others are /ɔ/. And how salient can an example get: Three words that are used often together in a string around here and either rhyme or don't.

More importantly, the maps of this merger differ considerably, for example with regard to how far it's moved back eastward across the northern tier of the US: Labov et al. have it still out on the Great Plains on at least one map in the Atlas I think (hey, I'm on the road and can't check), while another of theirs shows it sporadic in Minnesota, most other maps put it in Minnesota, while Erica Benson and others are finding it in western Wisconsin today, where it's pretty salient to speakers.

I remembered this area, northeastern Kansas, as a place that should have the merger. So naturally I've been asking students and others what the chant is and I'm getting a real mix, some obviously merged, some in that unnerving gray zone of near-merger, and others clearly distinct, even among people who say they're from this general area (which I haven't defined, working on the fly). The Labov et al. map linked above does indeed show this as clearly within merged territory, while the old Wolfram map (the one with the merged area in crosshatch — it's around on the internet, I think) shows it near the isogloss, where you'd expect variation.

People truly do not seem very attuned to this: When I say 'oh, you say all those vowels the same/not the same?', I haven't gotten any responses like 'what, you think I sound like I'm from out west?' or 'yeah, that's how we talk; man, those Iowa people sound weird, don't they?' A merged speaker who turned out to be from South Dakota seemed to think her merger was somehow distinct (forgive the pun) from local speech. Matthew Gordon has done nice work in this general part of the country (with a recent story floating around many newspapers, see here) and he comments specifically on the low-back merger here, crucially:
Many language changes attract negative attention particularly when they are associated with young people. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear criticisms of the use of ‘like’ as a discourse marker, a feature common among younger speakers (e.g., “He like just came out of like the store.”). The cot/caught merger, however, seems not to attract any such stigmatization. In fact, people are largely unaware of it.
That's how it sure seems to be in Kansas … even when the "internationally famous" school chant exemplifies the pattern.


polyglot conspiracy said...

Yeah. I have this merger (along with Mary/merry/marry and pin/pen), I'm from Missouri, and I've never noticed anyone noticing any of these as interesting. In fact, it was pretty shocking to me when I learned (in my first linguistics class!) that some people said "caught" differently from "cot," and my ear's still not very attuned to the difference - I imagine laypeople's ears are, similarly, not keen to these specific distinctions if they don't have them. I bet this is partly because they aren't variables that have been made a big deal of in the media or pop culture; they're not involved in regional caricatures that I can think of (not like ing/in, cah/car, drink/drank [eye dialect Southern drawl there]), or at least not in a salient way. Which is probably related to the fact that they're in shift, rather than fairly stable dialect features.

Aimee Olafson said...

When we consider the burden of the listener/hearer, those sounds won't raise a flag when the meaning is clear from context. My elderly neighbor who is from WI was telling me about how his brother studied "waterfall" in college and I thought, wow, that's interesting, to study waterfall(s) and then he went on to say how his brother would go to islands in the Great Lakes and track geese, take samples, etc...Then it finally dawned on me, that he originally meant "waterfowl" and not waterfall. Go figure!

Joe said...

Thanks, both.

I guess most other things that are changing quickly in American English aren't terribly stereotyped in a big way, but how bag and other pre-velar /æ/'s get pronounced in this area is getting there. In other languages, I know that changing features definitely do get stereotyped.

The water-fall/-fowl confusion is a nice example -- the one that you most often hear about is Don/Dawn, where people don't know whether a man or woman is being discussed. There aren't THAT many minimal pairs, I guess.

Ellen K. said...

(Yes, I know I'm replying to an old post.)

Hm. I say cot and caught differently, but do rhyme chalk and hawk. I live in Kansas City (and lived in Lawrence for a few years) and grew up near St. Louis, with parents from Chicago. I can think of chalk pronounced differently, with the cot vowel, but I don't pronounce it that way.

I think sometimes there's not a firm distinction between different accents, and variant pronunciations.

pure_mercury said...

Ellen K., what about the fact that "chalk" has an l in it? Hawk and chalk would rhyme for me (native of Philadelphia suburbs, now in Southern California), except that chalk has that l in it. Makes it sound exactly like "all" with ch at the beginning and k at the end. Are you one to pronounce "palm" as "pom" also?

Ellen Kozisek said...

Pure_mercury, no L sound in "chalk". And judging from dictionary pronunciations, no L sound in it is the norm.

Not honestly sure about palm. I can't be sure how I'd say that.

Seems to me rockchalk and jayhawk would rhyme for most people, no cot/caught merger needed, but the cot/caught merger adds and extra rock/chalk rhyme. Though that latter rhyme is not necessary for the chant to work.