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Vowel Shifting
Certain sounds are on the move

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Do you understand what you hear?

Standard American English
Unaccented varieties are imaginary

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American Varieties

The Midwest Accent

A Land without an Accent
Do Midwesterners speak without an accent? Fuhgeddaboudit, they’re as full of linguistic distinction as people in other parts of America. Matthew J. Gordon explodes the myth that Midwesterners are linguistically neutral. (The research cited in this article was first published in 2002.)

Regional stereotypes abound in the U.S. Most Americans can readily imitate Southerners (y’all), New Yorkers (fuhgedda-boudit), and Californians (yo dude) although these caricatures are usually as inaccurate as they are unflattering.

But if you ask someone to imitate the speech of Midwesterners, you will probably be greeted with silence—even Midwesterners think they speak without an accent.

As a native of eastern Nebraska, I grew up believing that the way I spoke was the norm, not just in my region but for the entire country. Where I lived, teachers did not correct students’ everyday pronunciation, and speech therapists did not offer accent-reduction lessons. We may have wrestled at times with a cultural inferiority complex, viewing New Yorkers as more sophisticated or exciting, but we did not covet their accents.

The Cot/Caught Merger

My linguistic illusions were shattered in college. In an introductory phonetics class I discovered that certain words that I had always pronounced the same way were supposed to be distinct. The words included pairs such as cot and caught and Don and dawn. The vowel sound in the first of these pairs was said to be produced with the tongue low and back in the mouth and with the lips spread open, while the vowel of the second members of each pair was said to involve a slightly higher tongue position and a rounding of the lips. For me, all these words had the same vowel, a sound close to that of the former description (i.e., low, back and unrounded). Imagine my Midwestern embarrassment in learning that I was “missing” a vowel!

A merger occurs when two formerly distinct sounds are merged into a single sound

My vowel system illustrates a phenomenon known as the ‘lower back vowel merger’ or simply as the ‘cot/caught merger.’ A merger is a kind of sound change that involves a loss of phonological contrast as two formerly distinct sounds are merged into a single sound. Mergers have been a fairly common occurrence throughout the history of English, as in other languages. For example, words like meet and meat used to be pronounced with distinct vowels (meet sounded like mate and meat something like met) though today these items have the same sound in most dialects of English.

The cot/caught merger is a fairly recent development in the Midwest. Dialectologists have for some time known it as a feature of western Pennsylvania (especially Pittsburgh) and of eastern New England, though it has a slightly different form there. It is very widespread across Canada and is also heard throughout the western U.S. The latter seems to be the source of its introduction into the Midwest as it appears to be spreading eastward. A recent survey directed by William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that the merger can be found today among younger generations (roughly people under 40) in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. It is also heard across much of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri. Similarly, the merger affects central portions of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, though its appearance in these areas may represent a westward expansion of the change from Pennsylvania.

People are largely unaware of the cot/caught merger

Many language changes attract negative attention particularly when they are associated with young people. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear criticisms of the use of ‘like’ as a discourse marker, a feature common among younger speakers (e.g., “He like just came out of like the store.”). The cot/caught merger, however, seems not to attract any such stigmatization . In fact, people are largely unaware of it. Nevertheless, it does occasionally lead to misunderstandings. One time, I confused a native of Michigan, where the merger does not occur, by directing him to the “copy room” which he heard as “coffee room.” A fellow Nebraskan reports a similar experience in which she was speaking to her grandmother about a friend named Dawn. Apparently interpreting “Dawn” as “Don,” the grandmother wanted to know why Dawn’s parents had given her a boy’s name.

The Northern Cities Shift

slide of northern vowel shift study

In other parts of the “accentless” Midwest another distinctive pronunciation pattern can be heard. This pattern also affects vowel sounds, but unlike the cot/caught merger, it does not involve the loss of any distinctions. Instead the affected vowels come to be pronounced with the tongue positioned in a slightly different place in the mouth. As a result, the vowels appear to be shifting around in articulatory space. Since this pattern occurs principally in the large urban centers of the traditional Northern dialect region, it is known as the “Northern Cities Shift” (NCS).

The NCS involves changes to the six vowels illustrated by the words caught, cot, cat, bit, bet, and but. For people affected by the NCS, the vowel in caught comes to be articulated with a more fronted tongue position and with the lips spread. In this way, caught takes on a vowel similar to that of cot as spoken in other parts of the country. However, these two vowels do not merge into one, as they do with the cot/caught merger. The distinction is preserved because the vowel of cot also shifts, coming forward in the mouth toward the area in which other speakers pronounce the vowel of cat. The cat vowel, in turn, shifts upward from its traditional position in the low, front area of the mouth by raising the tongue. It comes to have a position more like that of bet or even bit. Often it takes on a dipthongal quality, one that combines two vowel sounds and resembles the second syllable of the word idea. For NCS speakers, the vowel of bit shifts away from its high, front position toward the center of the mouth, taking on a quality much like that of the second syllable of roses. A similar tendency is heard with the vowel of bet which can sound more like but.

The bet vowel also sometimes reveals a slightly different tendency toward lowering so that bet comes to sound more like bat. Finally, there is the vowel of but which is traditionally produced with a central tongue position. In the NCS this vowel is shifted backward and may acquire some lip rounding making but sound like bought.

The Northern Cities Shift is spreading beyond the urban centers

The Northern Cities Shift is heard across a broad swath of the Northern U.S. from Upstate New York throughout the Great Lakes region and westward into at least Minnesota. As its name suggests, it is most strongly rooted in large cities including Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago, but it is spreading beyond the urban centers into more rural areas.

For linguists, the NCS represents a significant development. Part of its significance stems from the sounds that are affected. Throughout the history of English, the class of short vowels including those of bit, bet, and bat  has remained relatively stable sounding much as they did over a millennium ago. The NCS appears to challenge this long-standing stability. Even more intriguing is the pattern created by the changing vowels. As the earlier description suggested, the NCS consists of a series of changes by which one vowel shifts into the space of a neighboring vowel. The contrast between the vowels is maintained, however, because that neighboring vowel also shifts. For example, caught  shifts toward cot, but cot shifts toward cat, and cat  shifts toward kit or “keeyat”. In this way, the various components of the NCS appear to be coordinated rather than accidental.

Such coordinated patterns of sound change are known as ‘chain shifts’ because the individual elements appear to be linked together. While not as common an occurrence as merger, chain shifts have been documented in a number of languages. In the history of English the changes that occurred between roughly the 15th and 18th century (known as the Great Vowel Shift) are often cited as an example of chain shifting. This historical change rearranged the system of long vowels causing, for example, low vowels to raise to mid positions and mid vowels to raise to high positions.

Shifted pronunciations are noticeable to people from other parts of the U.S.

While people who have NCS in their own speech are generally unaware of it, the shifted pronunciations are noticeable to people from other parts of the country, and occasionally misunderstandings arise as a result of these shifts. For example, John Lawler of the University of Michigan reports that he is sometimes asked why his son, Ian, has a girl’s name. Apparently, Michiganders hear the name as “Ann” which, following the NCS, they pronounce as “eeyan”.

The fact that the NCS is well established in Michigan is particularly interesting in light of the dominant beliefs about local speech. As research by Dennis Preston has shown, Michiganders believe they are “blessed” with a high degree of linguistic security; when surveyed, they rate their own speech as more correct and more pleasant than that of even their fellow Mid-westerners. By contrast Indianans tend to rate the speech of their state on par with that Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find Michiganders who will claim that the speech of national broadcasters is modeled on their dialect. Even a cursory comparison of the speech of the network news anchors with that of the local news anchors in Detroit will reveal the fallacy of such claims.

Nevertheless, the Michiganders’ faith that they speak an accentless variety is just an extreme version of the general stereotype of Midwestern English. The examples of the cot/caught merger and the Northern Cities Shift serve to contradict the perception that Midwestern speech lacks any distinguishing characteristics. However, both of these developments have been in operation for several decades at least. Why haven’t they entered into popular perceptions about Midwestern speech? Perhaps they will come to be recognized as features of the dialect in the same way that dropping of /r/ serves to mark Boston speech or ungliding of long i  (‘hahd’ or hide) marks Southern speech. But, considering the general stereotypes of the Midwest, it seems more likely that they might never be recognized. One thing about linguistic stereotypes is certain: they have less to do with the actual speech of a region than with popular perceptions of the region’s people. As long as Midwesterners are viewed as average, boring or otherwise nondescript, their speech will be seen through the same prism.

Reprinted courtesy: Language Magazine

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Information about the cot/caught merger, the Northern Cities Shift, and other active sound changes in American English is available from the website of the TELSUR project. The project is directed by William Labov and presents the results of a telephone survey of speech patterns across North America. Labov treats these features as well as historical changes such as the Great Vowel Shift in his Principles of Linguistic Change (1994, Blackwell Publishers). For a study of the Northern Cities Shift in rural Michigan, see Gordon’s Small-Town Values, Big-City Vowels (2001, Duke Univ. Press). Dennis Preston’s research on popular attitudes toward American dialects is reported in his contribution to Language Myths (Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, editors, 1998, Penguin).
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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