Language Variation and Change

Research Article

Weakening resistance: Progress toward the low back merger in New York State

Aaron J. Dinkina1

a1 Swarthmore College


This paper examines the status of the low back caught-cot merger in Upstate New York. Most of this region is subject to the Northern Cities Shift (NCS) and therefore, according to Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006), ostensibly “resists” the spread of this merger. It is found that the phonology of this region is indeed trending toward the merger in apparent time, in terms of both phonetic distance between the two phonemes and speakers' explicit judgments. It is argued that the fronting of the cot vowel in the NCS region is not sufficient to withstand the spread of the merger because fronting a low vowel is a “reversible” sound change (Labov, 2010). It is further argued that the expansion of a merger to new communities may take place indirectly, through launching a sound change in the direction of merger rather than causing merger to take place immediately in the new community.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at NWAV (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) 37, Houston, November 2008, and appeared in that conference's proceedings volume, Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 15.2.