Sound Change in Prɔgress

In my English, water and daughter are not exact rhymes. I have /wɑtɚ/ and /dɔtɚ/ with a rounded vowel in the latter but not the former. The thing is, I didn’t REALIZE they were inexact rhymes until I thought about it. I am so used to seeing them used as rhymes in poetry that I didn’t even notice the actual difference in the vowel nuclei. And I am someone who pays an obsessive amount of attention to speech sounds.

Lesson for historical phonologists and philologists: words don’t have to have identical vowels to be considered and experienced as full rhymes. The question of what is and isn’t a good rhyme, just like the question of what isn’t and isn’t metrical language, is a matter of what is in your head and not just what is in your mouth. And there is a good deal more in your head than how you actually talk.

Now, /wɑtɚ/ is the form for people who have the cot-caught merger. I don't have that merger. I distinguish cot/caught, body/bawdy and other such minimal pairs as kɑt/kɔt, bɑdi/bɔdi. But my pronunciation of "water" seems to have been taken over from speakers who do have the merger. Ditto my pronunciation of "walk" (which I merge with "wok") but not of "talk" (which I have distinct from "tock").

This is what sound-change in progress looks like in real time. Variation in individual lexical items. Until it is complete, a sound-change in progress will appear lexically determined: more common in some lexical items than others. A sound change does not usually instantaneously occur in all terms in which it is possible. It begins in some words and spreads gradually. My English is in the very early stages of the cot-caught merger.

The change may stop before it is completed, and fail to affect all lexical items. English has a lot of cases of such "arrested development." The three different vowels in modern English flood, good and mood (from Old English flōd, gōd, mōd) are the result of successive sound changes that failed to affect all possible lexical items. Some time in the early sixteenth century, they were all three /flu:d gu:d mu:d/. Then a shortening hit flood and turned it into /flʊd/ but didn't hit good or mood. In the seventeenth century, after /ʊ/ was unrounded to /ʌ/ and turned /flʊd/ into /flʌd/, the change hit  good and turned it into /gʊd/ which was now distinct from flood /flʌd/. But it never spread to mood. 

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