Fun with the low back vowel merger

On this week’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! (“the NPR news quiz”), a listener-contestant from around NYC had trouble filling in the last word of a limerick read (as usual) by Carl Kassel. You can hear the most relevant 45-second clip here, or you can find the full 5:39-minute segment in the rundown from Wait Wait’s website here (find the August 21 show, and scroll down to find the sixth segment entitled “Limericks”).

The limerick goes like this:

As economies are more distraught
Actors work where the food’s made and brought
Who cares about cooking
When the busboy’s good-looking
Things are bad when the wait staff is…

The intended answer is hot, but the listener-contestant first guesses fraught. Kasell reads the limerick again, and the listener-contestant guesses caught. A third (presumably incorrect) guess is thrown out that I can’t really discern; she’s on the phone and Peter Sagal is talking over her. Finally she gets the answer, after some hints from Sagal and a very-flattering-to-Sagal hint from Paula Poundstone.

I think Kasell was also providing his own hints by pronouncing the italicized rhyming words with [a] (not [ɑ]) instead of [ɔ], both times that he recited the limerick. The central/front unround [a] is more distinct from back round [ɔ] than back unround [ɑ], so I’m thinking this was intended to help the listener-contestant to think of the vowels being merged. (I also presume that Kasell makes the distinction, being from Goldsboro, NC; as far as I know, the vowels are not merged there. I haven’t bothered to confirm this with a sample of his vowels, though.)

The listener-contestant (remember, she’s from around NYC where the distinction is very much alive and well) still does not quite believe the answer, though, and says “Oh, c’mon, guys, you had to have an accent to get that one.” (To which Sagal confusingly replies: “Yeah, that’s true. Imagine a New York accent: more distr[ɔ]t. Oh, h[ɔ]t!” Right.)

10 thoughts on “Fun with the low back vowel merger

  1. Stephen C. Carlson

    The third guess sounds to me like “taut” or “taught.” I would not have guessed “hot” (or “hawt”) as the answer.

  2. Sam Mueller

    “Hot” would have been the very least word that I would have guessed to be the right answer. I can understand that the listender didn´t believe the answer!

  3. Micheal W. Palmer

    You are quite right that in Goldboro, NC, as in most of the South, the vowels are not merged. I grew up in Alabama, and currently live in Chapel Hill, NC. There is no way that I would have guessed “hot.”

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  5. Ellen K.

    I got the right answer. “Good-looking” was a helpful clue, as was seeing the limerick here with knowing that it would probably be for me an inexact rhyme. Seeing it rather than listening may have helped too.

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