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December 14, 2020

Santa Claus or Santa Closs?

The Holiday Season is fast approaching, so let's have some seasonal fun! If you're an American, odds are you're familiar with the song "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town." The vaguely ominous song forewarns of the jolly, big-bellied toymaker who only distributes gifts to sufficiently moral children.

The earliest known recording of the song dates back to 1934. The song has since become a Christmas standard having been covered multiple times and played yearly during the "Christmas Freeze" on radio. The song has three different unique words that can be subjected to the COT-CAUGHT merger: 'Claus', 'naughty', and 'all' in some versions. This, combined with the song's enduring popularity for decades, means we can compare how the COT-CAUGHT merger has spread throughout the decades.

Tom Stacks's version: Released 1934.

Born 1899, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Stacks clearly has an [o] in 'naughty' and 'Claus', and even in 'gonna.'

  • "He's making a list, checkin' it twice. G[o]nna find out who's n[o]ghty and nice! Santa Cl[o]s is comin' to town."

Bing Crosby's version: Released 1944.

Born 1903, Tacoma, Washington.

Bing uses different vowels in these words. His first 'Claus' sounds more like the German name 'Klaus', with an [aw] diphthong.

  • "You'd better not pout, I'm telling you why (why?) - Santa Cl[aw]s is comin' to town."

But his 'naughty' has [ɑ]:

  • "He's gonna find out who's n[ɑ]ghty and nice."

If you want to compare with other songs, his "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" has [ɑ] in "dolls that will w[ɑ]k".

  • "D[ɑ]lls that will t[ɑ]lk and will go for a w[ɑ]lk is the hope of Janice and Jen."

The Andrews sisters noticeably have an [o] in 'watch'. All three sisters were born and raised in Mound, Minnesota. Listen to the upper harmony:

  • "You'd better w[o]tch out, you'd better not cry."

Frank Sinatra's version: Released 1948.

1915, Hoboken, New Jersey.

Frank has what seems to be a [ɒ] - not as clear as Tom Stack, but distinct from the [ɑ] in "watch."

  • "You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I'm tellin' you why - Santa Claus is coming to town."
  • "Gonna find out who's n[ɒ]ghty and nice."

Ross Bagdasarian, Sr. Released 1958.

Born 1919, Fresno, California.

Ross Bagdasarian Sr. is best known for creating the characters "Alvin and the Chipmunks," anthropomorphic chipmunks with sped-up human voices. Though Bagdasarian's vowel in 'naughty' isn't clear, the vowel in 'Claus' is [ɑ]. Despite only being born four years later, Bagdasarian is more merged than Sinatra. Multiple factors may come into play here - he was born in California, which appears to be an early spot for the COT-CAUGHT merger. He is also a child of Armenian immigrants. One preliminary study shows that children of immigrants seem more likely to pick up on vowel systems with the COT-CAUGHT merger than ones without.

  • "You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry, you'd better not pout, I'm telling you why - Santa Cl[ɑ]s is comin'..."

The Crystals, released 1963.

Dolores "La La" Brooks, born 1947, New York City, New York.

Dolores Brooks sang lead on this Phil Spector-produced version of the song. She has an introductory monologue on the song, where she produces a very clear [o] in 'called'.

  • "I stocked up at the North pole to spend the holiday. I c[o]lled on old dear Santa Claus..."

She keeps this clear [o] sound in 'Claus' and 'naughty'. Brooks is Black, but she does not use a diphthongized [ɑɒ] as is typical of African American English. The [o] she uses is more typical of New York City English - it's quite similar to the [o] used by Stacks!

  • "You'd better watch out, you'd better not pout, you'd better not cry I'm telling you why, Santa Cl[o]s is coming to town."
  • "Gonna find out who's n[o]ghty and nice."

Michael Jackson, released 1970.

Born 1958, Gary, Indiana.

Stacks, Sinatra, and Bagdasarian were all born within a 20 year period of each other, and all were white. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, was Black and born in 1958 - the same year Bagdasarian released his version of "Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town."

In the literature, you'll see people say that African American Vernacular English usually avoids the merger by having the CAUGHT sound be [ɑɒ]. However, Jackson doesn't use a diphthong in 'naughty' or 'Claus'. The difference between his COT and CAUGHT vowel seems to be that his COT is more [a] and CAUGHT is [ɑ].

  • "You better w[a]tch out, you better not cry - Santa Claus is coming to town."
  • "Gonna find out who's n[ɑ]ghty and nice."

It is possible that Jackson kept the two vowels distinct when pronouncing them, but still have considered them the two vowels to be shades of the same sound. In other words, he may have kept a distinction in production but not in perception. This is a stage in the spread of a merger.

If you want to hear a young Michael Jackson use the [ɑ] sound in another CAUGHT word, listen to the song "Maria," where "calling" clearly has [ɑ].

  • "Maria, don't you hear me c[ɑ]lling, Maria?"


In the 20th century, the COT-CAUGHT merger was already spreading to different locales. Bing Crosby, born 1903 in Washington, is the earliest of this list to have the merger. He is from a Western state, so that should not be surprising. What is notable is just how early that is. Ross Bagdasarian is another Westerner who was born 16 years after Bing, and has a merged vowel in some locations. I suspect that the merger may have even begun before the twentieth century.

The clarity of the CAUGHT vowel is also in flux. Tom Stacks and Dolores Brooks use very obvious o-like vowels. Sinatra's CAUGHT vowel is more ambiguous, and harder to tell apart from his COT vowel.

The topic of race also shows variability. Dolores Brooks is from New York City, which is a region that preserves a strong COT-CAUGHT distinction. She does not use the diphthongized [ɑɒ] vowel that appears in most descriptions of African American English, but a vowel that is closer to what other New Yorkers use. Michael Jackson also does not use this diphthongized vowel, and appears to have a system that is also partially merged.

Are there any other standards or songs you'd like to see examined over time for language change?

Finally, a version of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town in the minor key. Really brings out the creepy undertones in the original song.


  1. Hi! Great post! I enjoyed this, and it's interesting to see how the merger has progressed over time...

    In terms of another old song that shows how sound change has progressed over time, I suggest 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' The song shows the loss of the long monophthong [o:] once characteristic of the south in GOAT words, the progression of the merger of MARRY into MARY/MERRY, happy-tensing, and the loss of the 'flapped' r.

    Here is the initial version, sung in 1909 by students at an HBCU in Tennessee. The pronunciation of 'carry' and 'chariot' seems to show a very, very archaic [a] before the r. There is also no happy-tensing in the song and the pronunciation of 'low' has a long monophthong [o:]. Finally, in the word 'carry', it sounds as though the 'r' is tapped, or maybe even rolled gently.

    Many years later we can look at the Johnny Cash’s version (Arkansas pronunciation):

    Cash has no trace of the 'tapped' R, and his vowel in 'carry' and 'chariot' approaches the [ɛ] sound of MERRY, but maybe has a slight tilt toward [æ]. I can't decide if he's fully merged, but he certainly is far from the original version’s [a]. Nonetheless, Cash maintains an almost monophthongal [o:], though maybe it's more of an [o:u]. Happy is weakly tensed...

    Dolly Parton, of East Tennessee, had a version around the same time. In her version, carry is usually pronounced with the [æ] sound, but sometimes approaches the vowel of MERRY when sung fast. Notably, her GOAT vowel is heavily fronted, a far cry from the long monophthongal [o:] still common in her state at the beginning of the 1900s.

    Finally, Loretta Lynn, of Kentucky has a version:

    Lynn consistently pronounces carry with the un-merged [æ] vowel, and her GOAT vowel sounds closer to today's general American, maybe being a slightly fronted [ou].

    I haven't found a current version I would like to analyze yet, but my guess is that most people singing this song who are from the south would no longer have the un-merged vowel in carry, and regardless of race, would be unlike to have the [o:] monophthong once characteristic of GOAT vowels.

  2. Would Michael Jackson's pronunciation of the vowels as [a] for COT and [ɑ] for CAUGHT not be typical of someone with a cot-caught distinction and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift?

    He grew up in the Chicago suburbs, prime NCVS territory. I'd be very surprised if he didn't have a distinction in both production and perception as that is the norm there even for younger speakers today.

    [ɑ] for the CAUGHT vowel is not in itself evidence of a cot-caught merger as that is the norm in the Great Lakes Vowel-Shifted region, where [a] for COT and a cot-caught distinction in production and perception are still the norm even for younger speakers today.

    1. It could be possible that he does really have a consistent distinction between COT and CAUGHT. One would have to look at more of his songs or speech to be sure. I mention that this could be a stage in the merger because Labov said something to that effect in "Principles of Language Change Volume 1." Might be worth exploring Jackson more in the future.