Certain sounds are on the move
Do you understand what you hear?
Standard American English
Unaccented varieties are imaginary
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.
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
People are largely unaware of the cot/caught merger
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
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.
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)
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
William and Flora Hewlett
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