Don, or Dawn?

September 13, 2012 by admin

Do the names “Don” and “Dawn” sound different to you, or the same?

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.

3 thoughts on “Don, or Dawn?

  1. RSW says:

    This has been a particularly salient issue for my colleagues and students here in Panama. Some people feel a little overwhelmed by the quantity of English vowels, and confused by their orthographic irregularity. They are generally thrilled to discover and use the CVC to help them organize themselves, but they still face a mighty undertaking. I have found that replacing olive and auburn with orange makes their task just a little bit easier, especially because auburn is not part of the dialect of English spoken here.

    Combining olive and auburn and replacing them with orange has raised the question in classes of whether we couldn’t also combine wood and blue, or just get rid of silver entirely, thus simplifying that pesky tense/lax issue. When it has come up in class, I have given reasons why we can’t just change the English vowel system to make English Language Learners’ lives easier, but I also promised to ask the CVC authors, just in case there was some wiggle room.

    When I asked Karen about it, she recommended focusing on the diphthongization of the tense vowels, and the movement towards /y/ or /w/ when saying green, blue, gray, rose, white, or turquoise words. As usual, I found this to be sound advice (pun intended), and my students were able to move forward with the task of pronouncing English vowels without trying to reorganize the chart.

    So, though I will be ordering the “orange” version of the CVC for my Central American students and colleagues from now on, I am glad to have had the issue of combinations and substitutions come up in class because it has made me a better informed and prepared teacher.

  2. James Dewane says:

    “Bruce is cute.” If you are satisfied with characterizing the vowel sounds in bruce and cute as equivalent, don’t you run into problems? How about distinguishing “cute” and “coot”? “Coot” is not common, but it seems like another category would help. review/revoo few/foo puke/pook fuel/fool accumulate/accoomoolate. Or do you just note the diphthong and say that the major vowel sound in it is blue?

  3. This is a great question, James.

    Words like cute, music, usual, unusual, review, etc. feature a y-link on the front side of the stressed BLUE vowel sound. Rather than being a true diphthong, the /y/ heard at the beginning is actually a consonant /y/, not unlike the /y/ linking sound used in vowel-to-vowel linking (within words like “variation”—variYation—and in phrases like “see it”—seeYit).

    I wait for students to notice y-linking in BLUE words. (See our example of BLUE words at ) Then, we go through the words and identify those that take the y-link. You can indicate the y-link by inserting a superscript “y” just before the BLUE vowel it precedes. I find that this technique satisfies the learner and allows them to practice the word accurately.

    But again, this is not something I “teach” up front—I allow students to spend time with BLUE words and, in time, make this special observation for themselves. In this way, I know when they’re ready to talk about this relatively subtle feature of spoken English.

    It’s also interesting to note that y-linking before BLUE stressed syllables varies to some extent by regional variety/dialect. The words “Tuesday” and “newspaper” are pronounced by some with a y-link (tYuesday, nYewspaper), while others say those words with no y-link.

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