How about the words “cot” and “caught”?
If your answer to both questions is “they’re the same,” you speak a variety of English in which the vowels /a/ (OLIVE) and /ɔ/ (AUBURN) merge into a single vowel category. This phenomenon, known as the ‘low back merger,’ means that these English speakers will consider words like cot, caught, talk, and father as all featuring the same OLIVE vowel sound. For them, OLIVE and AUBURN in The Color Vowel Chart present a redundancy.
The gray-colored line separating OLIVE and AUBURN on the chart represents the low back vowel merger. Learn more about the merger here.
Now, if you you answered something along the lines of “Different! Completely different!” for cot vs. caught, it may come as a surprise that not all English speakers make a distinction between these vowel sounds. For you, there’s no question when you’re hearing the male name Don as opposed to the female name Dawn.
The key, in both cases, is recognizing that there is more than one ‘right’ way to say a word, so whether you say OLIVE SOCK caught or AUBURN DOG caught, it’s worth knowing that your model is valid either way.
Whether Don and Dawn sound the same or different to you, the Color Vowel Chart is there to support the way you speak (and, therefore, the way you teach!).
Karen Taylor is co-author of The Color Vowel Chart and is a native speaker of the Western U.S. variety of English. She makes no distinction between Don/Dawn, cot/caught, stocker/stalker, and a number of other words, and she gets along just fine in this world even so.
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