The Cloth Set

open-mid back rounded vowel symbolI remember the first time I learned about the cloth set. It was a boiling summer day in an un-air-conditioned New York workplace. Feeling the heat, I exclaimed to a co-worker, “Man, this is a hot office!”

At that moment, I realized the vowel I used for “hot” was not the same vowel I used for “office.” This is due to what linguist JC Wells terms the cloth set, a set of “short o” vowel sounds that is mostly found in American English accents.

The cloth set describes words that might be expected to have the “short o” in words like “cot” or “pot,” but which are pronounced instead with the vowel in words like “thought” or “flaw.” So while lot is “laht” (IPA lɑt) in General American English, off and cloth become “awf” and “clawth” (IPA ɔf and klɔθ).

The cloth set is primarily thought of as an American feature, but was once more common in British English. In old-fasioned Received Pronunciation (“U-RP”), for example, off sounded like “orf” (IPA ɔ:f). As with many American accents, U-RP used the “thought” vowel for “short o’s” before voiceless fricatives (i.e. -s, -th, -f).

But the American cloth set is more of a multi-headed beast. My own cloth set features words that end in -g (dog), -ng (long), and two lexical exceptions: the word on (most other -on words are in the LOT set); and the word chocolate.

We generally know how and when the cloth set came about. Beginning in the 1600’s, the o in lot became a long vowel before voiceless fricatives in various English accents. What’s less clear (to me) is how this extended to words like dog, long and chocolate in American English.

It’s reasonable to think that coarticulatory effects* influence some of these pronunciations.  For those of you scratching your heads, let me explain.  Vowels and consonants are often affected by the other vowels and consonants that surround them.  For example, the co-articulatory effect of being sandwiched between two “s” sounds means that most people probably don’t pronounce the t in “Lower East Side.”

In terms of the cloth set,  the fact that the “o” in words like “dog” and “long” precedes a velar consonant (i.e. a consonant pronounced with the rear roof of the mouth) might explain the effect of “o” being retracted and raised to an “aw” sound. For on, the fact that that -n is a nasal consonant, which again entails a degree of velarization, may have a similar effect.  Just one possible explanation: I haven’t the foggiest clue if that has anything to do with it.

The problem here is that Americans aren’t consistent in this regard. Why is on part of the cloth set, but not “upon?” Why is “log” a “cloth” word, but not “cog.”** Why “chocolate” but not “lock?”


*Note to linguists:  I’m using “coarticulation” a bit loosely here.

**In my own personal variant of the cloth set.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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60 Responses to The Cloth Set

  1. dw says:

    In terms of the cloth set, the fact that the “o” in words like “dog” and “long” precedes a velar consonant (i.e. a consonant pronounced with the rear roof of the mouth) might explain the effect of “o” being retracted and raised to an “aw” sound.

    This is rather puzzlings. In other developments in the history of English, the effect of a following velar was to inhibit, not enable, similar changes.

    Example 1: /wa/ became /wɒ/ UNLESS it was followed by a velar. Hence we have “wasp” in the LOT lexical set, but “wax” in the TRAP lexical set: “quality” in LOT but “quack” in TRAP.

    Example 2: Middle-English loanwords from Norman French with /an/ often (though not always) have variants with Middle English /aun/, usually becoming post-GVS /ɑːn/ and thus finding themselves in the BATH lexical set of RP and related accents: e.g. grant, demand, branch, dance. However, there are no such variants when ME /an/ is followed by a velar: e.g. bank (financial institution), flank, angle are all in TRAP.

    So I find it rather puzzling that a following velar seems to promote a development from LOT to CLOTH in the US. It would be more explicable to me if this change could be characterized as a lengthening rather than a quality change, in which case it could be related to the DRESS -> FACE development in some contemporary US accents (e.g. “egg” rhymes with “vague”). This would be possible if the development preceded LOT-unrounding, which would presumably put it quite early in the history of American English.

    In an earlier state of English, being followed by a velar inhibited a similar change (the rounding of /a/ to

    • dw says:

      Sorry: I left in some extraneous matter there 🙁

    • trawicks says:

      I might also add the curious Western North American (both CanE and AmE) development whereby “-ag” words like “bag” and “rag” also move toward the FACE set. And the related phenomenon in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure what the articulatory phonetics are behind pre-velar vowel lengthening, but one thing I find intruiging about my own accent is that I seem more likely to use the CLOTH vowel in the environment of coronal____velar or labial____velar than velar____velar. So “long” is in the “cloth” set, but “Kong” and “gong” only variably, and “cog” not at all. But as Wells suggests, it’s incredibly variable. I know that I’m personally inconsistent: I vary between CLOTH words being in the THOUGHT set and being in the LOT set.

      • dw says:

        There’s also KIT -> FLEECE before /ŋ/ (e.g. “king” sounds like “keeng”).

        Out of interest, what is the main phonetic difference between your LOT and THOUGHT? I usually assume that it’s rounding (for those North Americans who have the distinction): but I suppose it could also be tongue position or length (it’s length for me but I’m originally RP).

        • trawicks says:

          My distinction is almost entirely based on backness. It’s often as minimal as cardinal [ɑ] (cloth) vs. [ɑ+] (lot). But it pretty inconsistent. The CLOTH vowel is only very slightly rounded, if at all.

      • m.m. says:

        One may note the raising in -ag words is confined to the pacific northwest on the west coast right now [and can be found eastward all the way to minnesota.

        • trawicks says:

          Although it seems to extend a bit further eastward in Canada. I’ve heard it in the speech of Torontonians.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Um, isn’t it contradictory to say it’s confined to the Pacific Northwest (even specifying on the coast for good measure) and then say it can be found eastward all the way to Minnesota? I’m confused.

        • m.m. says:

          That was in respect to the “western north american (both CanE and AmE)”, as much of the AmE west is not -ag raising. Suppose it can read a bit fuzzy P:

      • Peter S. says:

        To mention another strange vowel change initiated by the following vowel, my mother and I pronounce bag, bank, bang (and any rhyming words) with a diphthong something like /æɪ/ — it’s not the same sound as long i; the vowel in dagger is somewhere between the vowels of vaguer and tiger. She’s from central Illinois, and I’ve only heard this in people from the Midwest.

        • Peter S. says:

          This puzzled me greatly in elementary school growing up in Washington DC, when my teacher seemed to think the vowels in bag and bat should be pronounced exactly the same.

        • Peter S. says:

          Following consonant. Sorry.

        • dw says:

          Does this also affect your other lax vowels? For example, is “beg” different from “bed”, or “big” different from “bid”?

        • Peter S. says:

          Beg and leg rhyme with vague (/eɪ/), and the vowels in log, dog, Chicago, dogmatic, and so forth become diphthongs –I think the IPA would be /ɒʊ/. This diphthong also turned up in the word “off”, but I don’t think anywhere else that’s not before /g/. The vowels in big and bug are not affected by the “g”.

  2. IVV says:

    Is this related to the Don/Dawn merger? I live in New Jersey, but I’m originally from Northern California (inland). As far as I can tell, I’ve got a full merger–so much so that I and my classmates in grammar school had no idea why there were separate phonetic symbols for the a in “father,” the o in “cot,” and the o in “broad.” They’re all the exact same sound. But I can hear how they’re all different when a New Jerseyan says them.

    Is this a feature that is not present in all American accents?

    • Julie says:

      IVV: My accent must be very much like yours. I’m originally from coastal Northern California, and had the same experience. Helped along by some not-too-bright teachers who didn’t notice that they were asking us to make an impossible distinction. Easterners, especially the ones who rhyme “caught” with “court,” make the distinctions very easy to hear. But some of us have a much more subtle difference.

      My husband is a native Sacramentan, with a family dating back to before the Gold Rush, and has a vowel that I have trouble hearing correctly, and still can’t pronounce. It’s just slightly back from my LOT/CLOTH/THOUGHT vowel, and maybe just a tiny bit rounded. Subtle though it may be, he can easily place words in each set with not much thought. (He puts “cog” in the CLOTH group, along with “log.”) And yes, he distinguishes “Dawn” and “Don.” I think he fronts LOT words a tiny bit when he wants to clarify the distinction.

      • trawicks says:

        I believe Northern California is considered an unusual case. The San Francisco area is famously unmerged or only variably merged (which is not very surprising considering how many transplants moved there).

        William Labov also found an unmerged “valley” stretching from approx. Bakersfield up to Madera. Again not surprising since this area is considered something of a dialect pocket (it actually exhibits American Southern features as well). I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some unmerged older speakers in Sacramento as well.

        • Julie says:

          That’s a remnant of the Dust Bowl migrations. In Northern California, it’s spotty, but in the San Joaquin, yes, I would expect it to be continuous. Even on the North Coast I heard pin-pen mergers occasionally, from kids whose parents had Southern accents. It seems to have stayed mainly within those families.

          Families who predate the Depression do not generally have Southern traits, but occasionally show what I think might be Midwesternisms.

          San Francisco has its own mix, but one part, the “old San Francisco” sound, sounds like an East Coast accent to those of us who only visit The City. My father was born there, and is old enough to have that accent, but he does not seem to. I don’t think younger people have it at all.

        • Julie says:

          Okay, I overstated that. Many working-class Californians have picked up some of the overall sound and rhythm of Southern accents. I may have had a bit of that when I was much younger.

    • AL says:

      Wikipedia also lists this separately from the cot/caught merger. What’s the difference?

      Also, I’m trying to think of whether I have this merger… and I’m not sure! I think I pronounce lot, cloth, dog, chocolate, on… with the same vowel… but the more I think about it the harder it is to tell. >_<

      • Ellen K. says:

        With the Don/Dawn merger, these sounds are only merged before N.

      • m.m. says:

        You could be a transitional merger, the inbetween between being fully merged or fully unmerged.

      • Erica says:

        I think my “hot” and “office” and “Don” “dog” and “coffee” all sound the same, but I know what you mean — I’m wondering if they really do now that I’ve said them about ten times each!

  3. Martienne says:

    My daughter’s violin teacher used to be delighted when my daughter would say ‘dog’ because she pronounces it with a long o sound, as though it were spelled ‘doge’. Then I realized that all my kids say it that way, because I say it that way, and I have no idea why I do. I said your sentence to myself and realized I nearly pronounce ‘hot’ the same way, somewhere between ‘hot’ and ‘hote’. It seems as th0ugh I have taken this merger to an extreme in my idiolect.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    Does this have any relation to the way the side of my family from the Bronx pronounces 1). Saw (past tense of see) and 2). Saw (a tool for cutting wood)?

    1 is pronounces like the English word SORE, while 2 is something like the first syllable in both words Coffee Talk (as pronounced on SNL skit).

    I saw a saw. The two words don’t sound the same.

    • Jeremy says:

      Well, in that particular sentence they would sound different because the first “saw” would have an “intrusive r” (because it’s followed by a vowel in the next word) and the second “saw” wouldn’t. But if you were to say them in isolation, they really should the same.

      • Jeremy says:

        *sound the same

      • trawicks says:

        I’m not sure about “saw” and “saw.” Although seeing as New Yorkers don’t pronounce “can” (the thing that holds beans) and “can” (as in “yes I can!”) the same, you never know.

        However, “sore” and “saw are famously pronounced differently for some speakers. I’m not sure if this applies to sandhi-r as well.

    • IVV says:

      And for me, the two saws are identical, and pronounced “sah”. Here’s a quick list of my sounds:

      Don = Dawn
      cot = caught
      lot = cloth
      bag is not raised–hag is not Hague
      king: I guess it’s keeng, but I’ve never heard it as not keeng, even among those who swear they say Inglish and not Eenglish. (This is crazy. Inglish speakers think everyone says Inglish, and Eenglish speakers think everyone says Eenglish.)

      • IVV says:

        Can’t believe I have more to say here.

        What’s silly to me is that the accepted IPA representation of English is /ˈɪŋglɪʃ / but the first ɪ is a completely different vowel from the second ɪ.

        • trawicks says:

          Yeah, I would classify the second “i” as part of the “raised schwa” subset.

        • Amy Stoller says:

          What’s silly to me is that the accepted IPA representation of English is /ˈɪŋglɪʃ / but the first ɪ is a completely different vowel from the second ɪ.

          In your speech those vowels may differ. In my speech they don’t. (Native and lifelong resident of NYC.) I definitely have ɪ in both syllables of English, in king, ring, thing and so forth, all -ing word endings, both syllables of thinking, and so forth.

          It came as a surprise to me, when my coaching practice expanded, that not all Americans have ɪ before velar nasals; and that not only do some speakers have i in that environment, but that some speakers actually have not velar nasals, but alveolar nasals, in these words. I would not have been terribly surprised had all my clients with this difference been Latino; but many are Anglo, with no notable exposure to Latino speech patterns. (This last cannot be said of my southern Californian clients, of course. But I don’t feel I can safely draw firm conclusions about such Anglo contact with Latino speech patterns. I don’t know enough about it.)

          The longer I stay in this business, the more I learn …

        • trawicks says:

          I’ve noticed this in a good friend of mine from New Mexico. She actually IS Hispanic, but with nothing remotely resembling Chicano English speech patterns. The one exception being her pronunciation of “pink” and “king” as “peenk” and “keeng.” I’ve heard it in the speech of Arizonans as well.

          My impression is that (despite being a common feature in heavily Latino regions) it isn’t influenced by any kind of Spanish-language influence, but is rather part of the vowel shifting common to California and some other Western accents. Exactly how that results in KIT being raised in this context I’m not sure.

        • IVV says:

          I’d say the second “i” is part of the short-i subset. -glish is like fish, dish, fin, hid, rim, etc. The starting E is definitely and clearly not that sound.

        • IVV says:

          Thanks for the background, Amy Stoller.

          For everyone: Here’s the entry for “English”. Listen to the sample pronunciation. Do the E and I have the same or different sounds? For me, they are very different. My pronunciation is very much like this sample.

        • dw says:


          I would have said that the sample on sounds more like the KIT vowel than the FLEECE vowel to me. Just shows how much one’s preconceptions can influence the way one hears things.

      • Ellen K. says:

        In words like “king”, from what I can tell from my reading about it, everyone has a single phoneme, either ih, or ee, and always hears it that way, no matter how it’s said. Some people even say it one way, but think of it the other way and thus hear it that way.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Correction… the vowel can also be somewhere in between the two, but we all think if it as in one phoneme or the other.

        • m.m. says:

          I’d agree that while the production may vary, the perception seems to stick to one or the other.

          I have [i] and perceive to always have it in [ɪŋ] places, even if I may not produce something near [i], and have a hard time perceiving [ɪ] with those who claim to use [ɪŋ].

          A pattern I and others have noticed, is when [ɪŋ] shifts from velar to apical/coronal [ɪn], in speakers who have [iŋ], the shift gives [in]. So the instead of going becoming classic – goin’ – you get – go-een – [sometimes associated with west coast speak].

        • Julie says:

          I learned to change some aspects of my speech during my college years, when I discovered (unexpectedly and painfully) that my small-town upbringing made me a low-class hick. Before then, my casual pronunciation of ‘thinking,’ would have been θɪŋkn, but my stressed pronunciation would have been θɪŋki:n, or something pretty close to it. I don’t believe this ever affected words like ‘king’ and ‘thing’ where the ‘ing’ is part of the root.

    • IVV says:

      Oh, and just to finish my Central Valley certification, let me discuss the word “almond.”

      The Central Valley, which grows most of the world’s almonds, famously(?) pronounces the word differently than most–it’s with a short-A sound, so that it rhymes with salmon. Some people make the distinction between an almond (salmon) on the tree, and an almond (alms) for eating–the phrase is that when you shake it from the tree, you “knock the L out of it.” Or, you know, into it. No one’s really sure.

      Anyway, the short-O almond is still the (merged) unrounded fronted vowel of lot/cot/dawn/water/etc. But if there’s any place where there’s a split in the vowel sound, it’s with the short-O -al-: stock vs. stalk. The vowel in this case shifts toward the back so that the L gets pronounced. It’s still unrounded and the L is definitely there.

      • Ellen K. says:

        For me me, there’s an L in almond, and none in salmon, but you say they rhyme. Is the L dropped from almond? (Along with the N, I assume.)

        • IVV says:

          The L is dropped from the salmon-almond, yes. The N isn’t dropped in either word, and neither is the D in almond in any case. I just use “salmon” because it contains the same “almon” sound used in the Central CA almond. But it’s well known that it’s a localized phenomenon, hence the “knock the L out” phrase.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Oops… I meant the D.

      • dw says:

        If you’re interested, I have the standard (I think) British pattern: the TRAP vowel in salmon and the SPA vowel (not, for me, the same as the “short O” of LOT) in almond. L silent in both words.

      • Julie says:

        I’ve certainly heard that pronunciation, but it was not typical on the Coast. My inland relations use it, though.

    • Peter S. says:

      I was born in New York City, although I moved away when I was 4 and have lost most of the accent. I have noticed that I have two /ɔ/ vowels, one closer to /o/ which I use in words like moth, cough, wash, often, and which New Yorkers would use for sore, and one closer to /ɒ/ which I use in words like saw, caught, awful, and which New Yorkers would use in words like horror, sorry, aura. Possibly your family ended up distinguishing the two saws with these vowels.

  5. Ed says:

    Although ɔ:f has disappeared from BBC English, it has persisted in accents of Eastern England. My uncle (who lived in Essex) had /ɔ:/ in CLOTH, and he was definitely not an RP-speaker. I’d say that it’s found in roughly the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

    It’s funny how a feature can go from being BBC to local-accent in a few generations. I think that a similar thing are in the process for /I/ in happY, which is now seen as an indicator of being from Yorkshire or Lancashire but was once universal amongst BBC-announcers.

    • Ed says:

      ^ “a similar thing is

      This is what happens when I don’t check before posting.

    • trawicks says:

      I believe it’s persisted in some Aussie accents as well, again probably in more conservative varieties. It’s also to be found in some Irish accents (e.g. Dublin), although there the distinction from LOT tends to be mostly one of length rather than quality.

      I also think the LOT-CLOTH merger is on the wane in the US. As I mentioned, I myself only do it variably (I do it more commonly when speaking in formal contexts and with older people, much less so when talking to younger people).

      • dw says:

        You think the LOT-CLOTH merger is on the wane — even in COT-CAUGHT splitters?

        That would be a big surprise to me. I thought that all North American accents have LOT=CLOTH (regardless of whether they have cot=caught). What then would be the source of this change? Exposure to British or southern hemisphere accents on TV??

        • trawicks says:

          In terms of the LOT-CLOTH in COT-CAUGHT merged speakers, I’m unsure about that.
          (CLOTH tokens can be far and few between.) I’m pretty sure the split doesn’t exist in Northeastern New England and Western PA–both accents consistently merge the vowel to [ɒ:], which I’m assuming would inhibit the LOT-CLOTH distinction entirely. Much of the West Coast seems to vary between [ɑ] and [ɒ], however: I’m unclear about the status of LOT-CLOTH there.

          Furthering my confusion is the fluid nature of the CLOTH set. For example, I’ve heard Californians pronounce “song” as [sɑŋ], which would seem to indicate a lack of the split to my ears. But an alternative explanation might be that “-ong” words don’t fall into the CLOTH category for those speakers.

        • IVV says:

          This Californian is definitely a [sɑŋ] speaker, and with the complete cot-caught, don-dawn, father-bother mergers, that’s because they’re all [ɑ], all the time.

          The only place I can think of where I’d use [ɒ] is in front of a dark L–see my discussion of stalk and almond above. However, [ɒ] is never strictly necessary, and can be freely replaced with [ɑ]. I’m not even sure if my use of [ɒ] was naturally learned, or whether it’s present because I personally wanted to increase the pronunciation of L because it’s how the word is spelled. I know plenty of folks who never use [ɒ].

          This has been a great blog post, I’m learning a whole lot about my own dialect! Thanks!

        • dw says:

          What would be a big surprise to me. I thought that all North American accents have LOT=CLOTH

          I’m so sorry. I was mixed up between LOT=CLOTH and THOUGHT=CLOTH. Please ignore my comment — I need more coffee before making such comments in the morning!

        • trawicks says:

          No problem! Although incidentally, your comment made me realize how little has actually been written about this topic: “lot-cloth split” brings up 23 hits on Google Scholar, compared to 214 for “cot-caught merger!”

  6. fmj says:

    I was raised in southwest Missouri, and I always heard and said “dawg” and “lawng” but “chock-lit” for “dog,” “long,” and “chocolate.”

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  8. Nathan Brown says:

    CLOTH is, in my experience, one of the most variable lexical sets in American English. (At least in accents that keep LOT and THOUGHT separate.)

    I think pretty much everyone uses the “aw” vowel before “f,” “th” and “ss.” It’s words with a “g” or “n” where you start to see more variation. Here in Upstate New York, everyone uses “aw” in “dog” but “ah” in most of the other “g” words — hog, log, fog, cog, blog, etc. I hear an “aw” in these words frequently enough on TV though; I always thought it was a Southern thing.

    Then there’s “on,” which is “ahn” in typical Northern speech but “awn” in much of the rest of the country — and in AAVE, and in much white New York City speech for some reason. However, many people from New York City seem to use an “ah” sound in “gone” and “chocolate,” which are THOUGHT words to most other Northerners.

    • Gary says:

      New Yorkers say “ahn”. See the map on p. 189 here (from Prof. William Labov’s website, once again). Philadelphians do say “awn” though.

      • Nathan Brown says:

        Hmmm. Thanks for posting this. It just doesn’t line up with most of my experience though, most New Yorkers I know who have noticeable New York accents saw “on” with an /)@/ or /o@/ type of sound. Since I say it like /An/ or /aN/, it stands out when I hear it. Maybe I need to start listening more closely.