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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 Full Essay.

Consider these linguistic puzzles:

  • The Smiths, natives of Philadelphia, have settled in California and are raising twins Dawn and Don. When Mom or Dad calls either child by name, both kids answer. Even though the parents are pronouncing “Dawn” and “Don” distinctly, the children can’t seem to hear any difference. Why not?

  • Ian of Omaha is visiting friends in Michigan, who take him to a neighborhood party. He enjoys the festivities, but something is perplexing. When he introduces himself by saying, “Hi, I’m Ian” (which he pronounces “ee-yun”), many Michiganders look confused. Some ask him why his parents gave him a woman’s name.

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

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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