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Hey, that's an interesting insight. Indeed, "laugh" and "half" rhyme in all dialects of English that I can think of. (1)

(1) Yes, I know. I've just written the magic words that will cause someone to come up with an exception.

They don't rhyme for me: "laugh" has a short 'a' like "cat", while "half" has a longer one like "barf".

But this doesn't contradict Peter's observation that the two rhymed in all the dialects he could think of. It may inhibit him from so observing in the future.
Apropos of this (more or less), I was chatting yesterday with a recent immigrant from the UK, and she said that, in her experience, many Europeans who do not speak English think Americans sound like ducks when they speak. I suggested that our short "a", as in "cat" and "laugh", might be a contributing element. And she responded, with her mellifluous RP vowels, that that made sense to her.

Just imagine all the "that"s in the preceding paragraph pronounced one after another by an American. If it walks like a duck and "that"s like a duck, it's probably an American tourist.

Bob Lieblich
Quack!
Really? I recognize it, and I went to school here. Of course, I'm different ...

Could it be that the distinction is recognized in Latvian? That would explain a lot.

Different ballgame altogether, but in general, each vowel or a particular vowel combination has its own pronunciation, and it is not influenced by the surrounding letters.
What might come into play for the cot/caught thing is my desire to be clearly understood when speaking.

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Apropos of this (more or less), I was chatting yesterday with a recent immigrant from the UK, and she said ... "laugh", might be a contributing element. And she responded, with her mellifluous RP vowels, that that made sense to her.

That makes sense to me too, but it suggests that these Europeans are only familiar with Midwestern and Western American English accents (and maybe New England accents too). That ([email protected]) does sound rather quack-like.
Just imagine all the "that"s in the preceding paragraph pronounced one after another by an American. If it walks like a duck and "that"s like a duck, it's probably an American tourist.

Now you're being Northern Cities Vowel Shift-specific, I think. Didn't you spend certain formative years in Cleveland (NTTAWWT)?
Hey, that's an interesting insight. Indeed, "laugh" and "half" rhyme in all dialects of English that I can think of. (1)

(1) Yes, I know. I've just written the magic words that will cause someone to come up with an exception.

They don't rhyme for me: "laugh" has a short 'a' like "cat", while "half" has a longer one like "barf".

I distinguish between "have" and "halve".
Apropos of this (more or less), I was chatting yesterday ... her mellifluous RP vowels, that that made sense to her.

That makes sense to me too, but it suggests that these Europeans are only familiar with Midwestern and Western American English accents (and maybe New England accents too). That ([email protected]) does sound rather quack-like.

How do you write your cat, half, chat, that vowel, RF? I mean in your phonetic description?
Don't any New-Yorkers ever say those vowels in the same way as Midwesterners and Westerners?
I must say that I find your ([email protected]), as you use it to describe Chicago-ese, and now to describe Midwestern and Western US short a , to be extreme and confused, not to mention confusing.
I recall mentioning a year ago that I found one of your "a" sounds in your "Mary, merry, marry" audio sample, to be similar to Fran Drescher's "a", in her "The Nanny" characterization. As you use the ([email protected]) for Midwestern short a , et cetera, I must admit I picture and hear Fran Drescher and you, and not a good, clear Midwestern cat, chat sound. In Midwesternese I don't hear a diphthong for the short a , either on the on- or the offglide. (But if the syllable is extended, I might hear an offglide into a schwa).
Just imagine all the "that"s in the preceding paragraph pronounced ... and "that"s like a duck, it's probably an American tourist.

I don't disagree with this, on the face of it, but don't know whether some Brits pronounce quack as in bath, half, etc.
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That makes sense to me too, but it suggests that ... New England accents too). That ([email protected]) does sound rather quack-like.

How do you write your cat, half, chat, that vowel, RF? I mean in your phonetic description?

You'd have to check with Jonathan Jordan or a fallible Praat device, but I think my cat/chat vowel is right about where I hear the Northern Cities "cot" vowel (also known as "Chicago pop"). I don't think it's as low as the Sheffield cat vowel, or the Cheshire cat one FTM. That would put it at a suburban Milwaukee "cot", I'd guess, but I have no illusions about more rustic parts of W'scansin, like where all the dairy farms must be. Baseline Sheffield "cat" is dead (a), I think.
I don't know where that puts the tenser vowels of words like "half", but (&Emotion: smile seems like a decent guess FTTB, unless I have an exaggerated sense of where ([email protected]) actually is.
Don't any New-Yorkers ever say those vowels in the same way as Midwesterners and Westerners?

Yes, but not quite in the same way. New York speakers peculiarly have this lax/tense can-can distinction. Some of them have the tense can vowel as ([email protected]) some of the time. Don't think of PNYPS as typical. But the existence of the lax vowel means that even those speakers aren't going to sound as ducklike as the Western/Midwestern/New England folk. Think of the word "banana". In New York English this gets the lax /&/ in the second syllable.
I must say that I find your ([email protected]), as you use it to describe Chicago-ese,

The Chicago "cat" vowel may go as far as ([email protected]), note. Did you see that Muppets take-off on It's A Wonderful Life ? I only caught a few minutes of it, but Joan Cusack (John's sister), a Chicago native, played the villainess. She has one of the thicker Chicago accents you'll hear this side of Dennis Franz and Dennis Farina. (Oddly, John Cusack doesn't have much of a regional accent at all.) I swear I heard Joan Cusack pronounce "contract" as ([email protected]).
and now to describe Midwestern and Western US short a , to be extreme and confused, not to mention confusing.

I'll grant you that I don't have as good an understanding of the Western "cat" vowel as I'd like. We have Bob Cunningham's recordings, though.
I recall mentioning a year ago that I found one of your "a" sounds in your "Mary, merry, marry" audio sample, to be similar to Fran Drescher's "a", in her "The Nanny" characterization.

Thank you.
As you use the ([email protected]) for Midwestern short a , et cetera, I must admit I picture and hear ... on the on- or the offglide. (But if the syllable is extended, I might hear an offglide into a schwa).

Drescher, in case it's not clear, is not a Prestige speaker. I think this probably shows up in her "tense short a" vowel.
Donald Duck quack-like. Midwest, in my hearing is ea . "Yeah" is ea, but only if it is prolonged: "Oh, yeah?"
How do you write your cat, half, chat, that vowel, RF? I mean inyour phonetic description?

You'd have to check with Jonathan Jordan or a fallible Praat device, but I think my cat/chat vowel is right about where I hear the Northern Cities "cot" vowel (also known as "Chicago pop").

So you are saying that Cat=Cot?
I don't think it's as low as the Sheffield cat vowel, or the Cheshire cat one FTM. That would put ... rustic parts of W'scansin, like where all the dairy farms must be. Baseline Sheffield "cat" is dead (a), I think.

Milwaukee suburban?
Maybe someone can translate your playful references here. (please: above and in the following paragraphs?)

Not to mention, but let me mention it now: your "ea" almost sets up a prerequisite prepositional nasal, as in "nya nya nya nyeh nya nyuh". This is not a standard MW "short a" sound, but might be emitted in a whiny or sometimes a very self-consciously guilty confessional tone to a disapproving authority figure.
I'll grant you that I don't have as good an understanding of the Western "cat" vowel as I'd like. We have Bob Cunningham's recordings, though.

I recall mentioning a year ago that I found one ... be similar to Fran Drescher's "a",in her "The Nanny" characterization.

Thank you.

That's what you said then, too.
As you use the ([email protected]) for Midwestern short a ... is extended, I might hear an offglide into a schwa).

Drescher, in case it's not clear, is not a Prestige speaker. I think this probably shows up in her "tense short a" vowel.

http://www.hpl.hp.com/personal/Evan Kirshenbaum/IPA/english.html

OK, to get somewhere close to a uniform symbology, without going whole-hog IPA, this is what Evan's page has for what I use and hear as a "short a".

/&/ short a.
'mt', 'mp', 'md', 'gg, 'snp', 'ptch'. The IPA symbol is an 'a-e' digraph.
and for the "cot" vowel, as I am CINC:
/A/:
a with diaeresis (two dots) above.
'bther', 'ct', and, with most American speakers, 'fther', 'crt'. The IPA symbol is a script 'a'.
I don't recognize or understand the sound as described below, (being a father/bother/cot person):
/a/:
a with dot above.
'fther' as pronounced by speakers who do not rhyme it with bother.
They don't rhyme for me: "laugh" has a short 'a' like "cat", while "half" has a longer one like "barf".

I distinguish between "have" and "halve".

And so, confusion continues to reign. I'm sure that part of a good English reform would be to standardize correct pronunciation where possible. I'm not saying that my dialect should become the standard, nor am I suggesting that some international board's decisions about standardization would effect the daily speech of most people. I do think that in the long run if the English-speaking community were to decide on standardized international pronunciations it could help future generations to move closer to a better, more coherent system. We will always have our regional variations, and we should appreciate our diversity, but I don't think it follows that this rules out any move toward phoneticizing English spelling, it just makes it more difficult.
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I distinguish between "have" and "halve".

Interesting. I can't even think what distinction might be made (assuming you don't pronounce "halve" lambdically I pronounce the "l" in "palm" but don't know anyone who pronounces it in "halve").
What distinction do you make, exactly?

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