If you live in New York, you probably pronounce the words caught and cot quite differently. If you live in California, they most likely come out sounding the same.
What Kaitlyn Arctander ’11 (Seacliff, New York) wanted to find out was if Midwesterners, too, were beginning to “merge” these vowel sounds. So last summer, working with linguistics professor Christina Esposito, she did audio recordings of 16 Twin Citians, to determine if those “low-back” vowel sounds are merging here in Minnesota, too.
What she found was that 30 percent of Minnesotans have lost the distinction between the two vowel sounds.
Now Arctander will explore for her honors thesis how Minnesotans perceive those two sounds—whether they believe they sound the same or different—to determine if this is a perceptual as well as an articulatory shift.
Other examples of merging vowel sounds can be found in the words taut and taught and wok and walk, and in the names Dawn and Don. “That one causes the most confusion,” says Arctander, “when you’re talking about a person.”
Arctander, who hails from Long Island, spent much of her first year at Macalester trying to rid herself of that area’s distinctive accent. “Now I’m interested in it again, and talking with my Mom is more pleasant than it used to be,” she says.
The linguistics major/Russian studies minor was the only undergraduate to present research in her session of the Acoustical Society of America’s national meeting last month in San Antonio.
Arctander is hoping to spend the summer teaching English in Siberia rather than continuing the vowel research, but may apply to linguistics graduate schools next year.