Test your Vowel Power
How well do you understand what you hear?
The Truth About Change
It starts subtly in the middle class, and women often lead the way
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 Full Essay.
Consider these linguistic puzzles:
The situations suggested by these examples illustrate some of the many changes shaping American English. Often these linguistic developments are quite dramatic and can lead to misunderstandings like those cited above.
The Smiths’ experience highlights a dialect difference between the western states and much of the East. In the parents’ Philadelphia dialect, the names Don and Dawn are pronounced with different vowel sounds. (When saying Dawn the lips are slightly rounded; when saying Don, they are more open.) In California, where the kids learned to speak, Don and Dawn are pronounced the same, as are similar pairs such as caught ~ cot and Pauley ~ Polly. The twins’ speech illustrates a process called “merger,” in which two sounds become one. That merger of Don-and-Dawn’s “o” and “aw” sounds has become widespread throughout the West. The Smiths’ case shows that people with the merger not only don’t distinguish between the vowels in their own pronunciation but also don’t hear the difference in the speech of others.
Ian’s story illustrates another vowel shift in American English. In the Great Lakes region including Michigan, the short a sound of bat and had is often pronounced like the ea of idea; thus, bat sounds like “beeyut” and had like “heeyud.”
When Ian introduced himself, Michiganders thought he said Ann, which they pronounce “ee-yun.” This change is part of a phenomenon known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. This pattern also affects the vowels of box, bought, but, bet and bit. The pattern is especially common in urban areas such as Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo; hence the Northern Cities label.
These changes are among several that are spreading across vast parts of the United States. Linguists who study such changes try to identify the factors that drive them. Understanding the process of change can shed new light on the history of American English — and can help predict future developments. This area of linguistic research also has practical applications, such as in the area of computer voice recognition.
Linguists who study vowel shifts
increasingly focus on how social factors influence the linguistic
landscape. For example, researchers note that the changes illustrated
above are taking place without social awareness. Unlike “warsh” for wash
etc., the pronunciations described here do not attract comment. They
are even heard in the broadcast media. This lack of awareness is a key
factor in their spread and suggests that such pronunciations will help
to shape the future sound of American English. Learn More
William and Flora Hewlett
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