Say "Don." Say "Dawn." Now I know where you live.

How we pronounce words can predict where we live—very precisely. Some of our pronunciation differences are fairly obvious, but most are not. Say, for example, the female name "Dawn" and the male name "Don." Being from Wisconsin, I pronounce these two names very differently. My wife, from Idaho, pronounces them exactly the same. Whether you pronounce Don/Dawn the same or differently depends largely on where you grew up on the map. (See above).

There are people who spend a career studying this stuff, which all seems very fascinating to me. The Dawn-Don difference comes from that the fact that certain Americans have 13 vowels... others lost one--they only have 12! So they use the same vowel for Don and Dawn. (same thing with "cot" and "caught.") There is a most-curious map that covers all this--made by a guy named Rick Aschmann. Rick's an incredibly impressive researcher.... but his map... well, it's hopelessly complex. Rick, you don't have to put everything you ever learned on one map! You can make 2 or 3... or 100.  I took just one line from Rick's map—Cot/Caught—and mapped it (above). Hopefully it's a bit clearer.  Rick's site also has nifty audio of people pronouncing these words. And NPR did a fun story about this recently here.


  1. My wife. who grew up in Connecticut and Colorado is obviously missing a vowel. I pity her! LOL

  2. i from north carolina and i have lived there all my life i say dawn the same as don

  3. I grew up in Iowa, and thought that pronouncing Dawn differently from Don was a British thing.

  4. There is definitely more than just one example of this! I'm sure you can find people with 11 or 10 vowel sounds, or maybe more than 13. There are also people with the same number but different combinations of sounds. For example, I pronounce "Don" and "Dawn" exactly the same, but if there were a word "Daan" I would pronounce it differently from these two. "Rot" and "wrought" are pronounced the same for me, and so are "cot" and "caught," but the A in "latte" would be different from either of these. In the Chicago suburbs, I have always heard people pronounce all of these the way I pronounce "latte," and in Texas they pronounce them all (at least the way I hear it) as my "caught" or "on" (which I know are the same for many people). I have also found many southerners pronouncing "pin" and "pen" the same (which annoys the hell out of me) and I've heard that there are some people who pronounce the "can" as in "I can" differently from the "can" meaning the object (and by this I don't mean simply by eliminating the vowel sound like "I c'n do that").

    I can't seem to think of other examples like "latte" other than some other foreign words (e.g. pasta, Rastafarian, jalapeño) and also when the A is followed by an R (cart, party), in which case I think I'm changing it back to the "aw" or "o" sound in anticipation of the R which forces it kinda back into my throat. But I'm still THINKING of it as the "latte" A sound. When it's followed by an L I actually push it even farther back into my throat than in "caught" or "on," because of that American throaty L sound. I need to pay more attention next time I hear him talk, but I think Obama might have an accent similar to mine.

    I'm not a linguist, but I think this stuff is pretty damn cool.