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Language Change

Vowel Shifting

The Sounds, They Are A Shiftin’
Certain vowel sounds are on the move. Matthew Gordon looks at where the sounds of American speech are headed and explains how linguists can put that knowledge to use.  Read Summary.

When we read the works of Shakespeare or other authors from centuries past, we are often struck by the peculiar ring of their language. It is undeniably English, yet quite removed from the English we speak today. Clearly, the language has changed in the 400 hundred plus years since Shakespeare’s day. Less obvious is the fact that English continues to change. Like all living languages, English is continually changing as new words, pronunciations and grammatical structures arise and eventually supplement or replace old ones.

ANOTHER SET OF “EARS”…

The study of changes in pronunciation has been aided tremendously by technical innovations over the last few decades. Researchers used to gather information on pronunciation by conducting interviews in which they would ask about a particular word, listen to the response, and quickly jot down the way it was said.

The availability of high-quality, portable tape recorders has freed the researcher from needing to document pronunciations on the spot. Also, the great fidelity of the recordings and the ability to listen to a sample repeatedly has allowed linguists to document more subtle distinctions of sound. An even greater level of detail has been opened to researchers through the use of computerized spectrographic analysis.

Spectrography permits very fine- grained measurements of various parts of an acoustic signal. It allows, for example, a researcher interested in the positioning of vowels to document very slight shifts that might not be easily detected by the ear.

In American English, pronunciation is the most active arena for language change. Researchers have identified dozens of pronunciation changes underway in various parts of the country. To the casual observer it might be surprising todiscover that different changes are happening within different regions. Surprising because this counters a common assumption that Americans are growing more similar in their speech as a result of greater mobility, easier communication and increased access to the mass media.

While it is true that some pronunciations associated with particular areas or dialects have been lost to larger trends, (for example, the speech of formerly isolated communities such as Ocracoke Island, N.C., is losing some of it uniqueness), new pronunciation trends are also rising up, and continue to contribute to the diversity in American speech.

A sampling of modern American pronunciation trends includes:

The Low-Back Merger

A “merger” describes what happens when a distinction between two (or more) sounds is lost. The sounds essentially merge into a single sound. The Low-Back Merger blends two vowel sounds that are pronounced with the tongue positioned low and back in the mouth. The vowels are the “o” sound of cot (box, lot, job, Don, etc.) and the “au” sound of caught (fought, bought, off, dawn, etc.). Many Americans use the same vowel in all of these words, so for them cot and caught as well as Don and dawn, stock and stalk, and other pairs are homophones.

This merger is well established in western Pennsylvania and in eastern New England (and also interestingly, across most of Canada and Scotland) and has been in evidence for several generations. More recently, the merger has come to characterize the speech of the West; researchers identified it as a linguistic trend among young Californians some 30 years ago. Since then it has spread well beyond the Golden State and is heard almost everywhere west of the Mississippi in the speech of people under the age of 35. This suggests that the trend will continue — and that maintaining distinct vowel sounds in cot and caught, Don and dawn, etc. will eventually become a rarity in many parts of the U.S.

A merger describes what happens when a distinction between two (or more) sounds is lost

The Northern Cities Shift

When a vowel sound moves into another vowel’s territory, the result may be a merger —as when the sound of caught comes to be pronounced with the tongue in the same region of the mouth as for cot. In a different pattern, the movement of one vowel spurs a reactive movement in a neighboring vowel. As with strangers in an elevator, one vowel shifts to keep its distance when another enters the space.

These coordinated movements are heard in the Northern Cities Shift, which affects six different vowels, those appearing in caught, cot, cat, bit, bet and but. In this change, caught takes on a vowel similar to that originally used for cot. The cot vowel also shifts, becoming more like the vowel of cat. The vowel of cat takes a position closer to that ordinarily heard with bit and sometimes sounds like the “ea” in idea. Words like bit are pronounced with a vowel nearer to bet or even but whereas bet words have a vowel similar to that in cat or but, and the vowel but words comes to sound more like that of caught. When these changes are plotted according to the positioning of the tongue, the connections among them are clear and the shift resembles a clockwise rotation of the vowels in the mouth.

The Northern Cities Shift: These guide words are positioned to represent where in the mouth the tongue is placed for those vowel sounds. The arrows indicate the directions of change affecting the sounds.

The Northern Cities Shift gets its name from its association with the urban centers around the Great Lakes including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Buffalo. But pronunciations related to the shift are by no means restricted to city dwellers. The shift can be heard across a broad swath of the North from Upstate New York throughout the Great Lakes region and westward into Minnesota and the Dakotas. It’s not clear when the shift got its start.

While it did not begin to attract the attention of linguists until the late 1960s, it seems to have been active at least since the 1930s, possibly spreading westward from New York. Whatever its origins, the shift today seems to be actively spreading and should continue to add a distinctive flavor to the speech of the region.

The Southern Shift

A very different but equally complicated pattern of vowel changes is found in the South. Dubbed the Southern Shift, these changes affect seven vowels. Probably the best known is the pronunciation of the “long i” sound as “ah,” so that sighed sounds like sod, time like Tom, etc. Another element of the Southern Shift affects the vowel of tame, which comes to sound like that of time, and the apparently related change of the team vowel to resemble that of tame. The vowels of sit and set are also affected, becoming more like see it and say it. The other pieces in the Southern shift change the vowels of boot and boat. These vowels are traditionally pronounced with the tongue placed in the back of the mouth, but here they are made with the tongue more toward the front.

The Southern Shift

Elements of the Southern Shift can be heard in an area stretching from Virginia to northern Florida, westward across much of Texas, and northward to roughly the Ohio River. The evidence suggests the changes arose in the decades after the Civil War and became widespread during the 20th century. The shift now appears to be stable and may even be receding in use in some areas, especially in large cities. The shift’s future is unclear: It may eventually be lost from Southern speech although it seems more likely to survive especially if it comes to be more broadly associated with “true” Southern identity.

The California Shift

 California is the home base of another vowel shift that bears some resemblance to both the Southern Shift and the Northern Cities Shift. In California, as in the South, the vowels of boot and boat are shifting forward in their articulation. This trend is extremely widespread in American English and is heard throughout the Midwest and West as well as the South. The California Shift resembles the Northern Cities Shift in the way that the vowel of bit comes to sound like bet while the vowel of bet sounds like bat. Not to be outdone, the vowel of bat takes on a “broad a” quality and sounds like the “a” of father.

These changes appear to be recent innovations in California speech; they came to the attention of researchers in the 1980s and today are heard primarily from younger speakers. It’s hard to know whether they will have staying power, but the linguistic facts suggest that they will spread in and beyond California. The changes affecting bit, bet, and bat appear to be a coordinated shift among vowel neighbors: bat moves out and bet moves into the position vacated by bat which leads bit to move into the position vacated by bet. The initiating step, the moving of bat, is made possible by a change discussed above, the Low-Back Merger. That merger opens some space next door to bat by collapsing the vowels of cot and caught.

The California Shift

It seems likely, then, that the bat-bet-bit chain reaction will eventually take place wherever the Low-Back Merger is found. Some support for this prediction is found in the fact that the bat-bet-bit changes are also heard in Canadian English, another dialect that has undergone the Low-Back Merger.

Betting/Batting/Bitting on the Future

Predicting whether a particular pronunciation change will endure is risky because these trends may be influenced by a wide range of social and linguistic factors. Nevertheless, the vowel shifts seem to have important factors working in their favor. First, they involve general categories of sound rather than individual words. All words with the same vowel as cot (box, lot, job, Don) are pronounced with a vowel closer to that of cat in the Northern Cities Shift, and all words with the vowel of tame (bake, late, Jane, day) take on a pronunciation closer to the vowel of time in the Southern Shift. In this sense these changes differ from cases limited to particular words such as the replacement of “Missour-uh” with “Missour-ee.”

It also bodes well for the future that for the most part these changes operate without attracting any special regional attention. The people whose speech is affected typically are unaware of the peculiarities in their pronunciation. Also, whereas pronunciations that deviate from national norms often acquire social stigma, as with “warsh” and “crick,” it’s not so for these vowel shifts. Many of them, especially the Low Back Merger and the Northern Cities Shift, can be heard in the broadcast media. The acceptability, or at least lack of stigma, related to these new pronunciation trends suggests that they will continue to spread.

Most of the action in the changing sound of American English is heard with vowels

As these examples reveal, most of the action in the changing sound of American English is heard with vowels. This reflects a general pattern in the history of the language: the consonants have been relatively stable, while the vowels have undergone great changes. One of the few major consonant changes affecting American English relates to r. American dialects have long differed over this consonant. In parts of the Northeast and the South, the r has traditionally been not fully articulated in words like art and door. This tendency is being reversed as some areas appear to be joining with the rest of r-pronouncing America. (New York City and the South seem to be moving in an{link dysa foughtj_rful_essay}Rful{/link}direction, while Boston seems to want to hold onto its traditional Rless style).

Over the last few decades, technical innovations such computerized spectrographic analysis (see box) have greatly aided the study of changes in pronunciation.

Studying ongoing changes can help us learn more about how English developed in the past and predict how it is likely to evolve in the future. Throughout its history, English has undergone changes similar to those heard today, but until recently linguists have been limited to the evidence of the written record in trying to understand the dynamics of the process. The methods used now expand our perspective on how and why English changes.

The detailed examination of differences in speech also has applications outside the field of linguistics. The ability of computers to recognize and understand natural human speech can be greatly enhanced by a fuller account of the rich variety of accents across the country.

Interpersonal connections that promote new pronunciations also influence other social behaviors

The study of pronunciation changes also can provide insight into how innovations of various types are spread. The networks of influence involved in the diffusion of, say, the Northern Cities Shift may also serve as conduits for other innovations such as new technology. Similarly, the interpersonal connections that promote new pronunciations also influence other social behaviors. An improved understanding of these connections might be useful to, for example, public health officials in disseminating information about disease, child safety, etc.

Changes such as those described here have had and will continue to have a significant impact on the sound of American English. For linguists studying such changes, this is an exciting time. Research into these developments brings a greater understanding of how language functions and the vital role it plays in our dynamic and diverse society

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • The Telsur Project The Telsur Project is a survey of linguistic changes in progress in North American English
  • The North Carolina Language and Life Project The North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP) is an umbrella organization whose mission is to carry out research and support educational programs in representative speech communities.
  • Metcalf, Allan. How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
  • Wolfram, Walt and Natalie Schilling-Estes. American English: Dialects and Variation.  Blackwell, 1998.
  • American Speech, the quarterly journal of the American Dialect Society includes many articles that would be accessible to non-specialist readers.

Matthew J. Gordon is assistant professor of English at the University of Missouri - Columbia. He has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Michigan. His research specializes in sociolinguistics and American dialectology. His book Small-Town Values, Big-City Vowels (Duke University Press, 2001) is a study of the Northern Cities Shift in Michigan. He is also co-author with Lesley Milroy of Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation (Blackwell, 2003), a book that presents an overview of current practices in the field of sociolinguistics. He is currently studying sound changes in the state of Missouri.

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National Endowment
for the Humanities

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Ford
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Rosalind P.
Walter

Arthur Vining
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Carnegie
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