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American Varieties

Pacific Northwest

Dialects in the Mist Contrary to linguistic myth, people living west of the Mississippi use distinctive dialects, right down to residents of Portland, Oregon. Pacific Northwest native Jeff Conn finds himself “cot” in the vowel shifts and rising intonations of a coalescing dialect.

Like many people from Portland, Oregon, I grew up thinking that an accent was something that other people had. It wasn’t until I began studying linguistics that I realized that my “General American” accent was, in fact, not. The first shock came in an introductory phonetics class, where I was determined to produce all the sounds of the world’s languages. Much to my dismay, I did not have a distinct pronunciation for the word caught, but pronounced it the same as cot. Not only was my accent deficient of a vowel, but I was also unable to produce or perceive the difference between this phantom vowel and the vowel of cot. This merger of the vowels in cot and caught was the first sign of my accented speech.

Since then, I have been able to identify other characteristics of my accent. However, my narcissistic search for a description of my own dialect has led to the realization that there are practically no descriptions of this dialect. Furthermore, the reliable Linguistic Atlas projects, a series of exploratory projects designed to investigate North American dialects, did not collect data from Oregon before the project was prematurely abandoned. Like other dialect areas of the American West, descriptions are lacking, contributing to the myth that there are no distinctive dialects in the United States west of the Mississippi River.

Sociolinguistics organizes North American dialects based on changes in pronunciation of vowel phonemes

There has been a lot of work on various North American dialects, both in traditional dialectology as well as in contemporary sociolinguistics. The traditional dialectology approach uses word choices as a primary way to categorize dialects, while the sociolinguistic approach typically organizes North American dialects based on changes in pronunciation of vowel phonemes. The dialects of the Pacific Northwest, however, have been virtually ignored in both lines of research.

Besides the Linguistic Atlas projects, another traditional dialect project that investigates North American varieties of English is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The analysis of the data from DARE suggests that there is a unique dialect region in the Pacific Northwest, and Portland may be the center of it. Culturally, Portland and Seattle continue to grow as independent urban centers, while at the same time, they are bound together, creating a larger Northwestern identity. Dialect-wise, this may indicate subtle dialect differences emerging from a common variety of English.

Dialects are grouped by speakers’ participation in a handful of identified vowel shifts

In a sociolinguistic approach, Portland is considered part of the West. This large dialect area stretches from the Pacific Coast states east, and includes Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. One project adopting this framework is the Atlas of North American English (ANAE), a survey of North American English pronunciation conducted by William Labov, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg at the University of Pennsylvania. In order to understand this project’s organization of dialects, including Portland as part of the West, it is necessary to briefly outline their approach to describing dialects. While traditional dialect studies examine different words used by different communities for the same thing, i.e. bucket vs. pail, and characterize dialects by these vocabulary differences, modern dialectology and sociolinguistics organizes North American English dialects by pronunciation of vowels using a language change approach. Dialects are grouped by speakers’ participation in a handful of identified vowel shifts. These shifts indicate a change in pronunciation of vowels, using a historical organization of these vowels as a starting point. This historically based phonemic inventory represents the pronunciation of Modern English vowels in North America circa the seventeenth century. From this set of vowels, historical word classes are established, which group words together that contained the same vowel.

For example, the short-a word class includes words such as dad, bat, pan. This framework was established in order to preserve original contrasts in vowel production between two sets of historical word classes that may have lost the distinction and merged. An example of a merger for many North Americans is what is known as the horse~hoarse merger, where the vowels in both word classes are identically produced for many, but not all, speakers.

Over time, the way a vowel is produced can change, which in turn may cause a chain reaction of modifications in other vowel pronunciations. One of the prominent vowel chain shifts is the Northern Cities Shift, so called because it was first discovered in the inland metropolitan areas of the United States, i.e., Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, etc. The diagram below shows how a change in vowel production of one vowel can trigger changes in other vowels in order to maintain distinctions between them and in order to fill voids in phonetic space – the space located in a speaker’s mouth where the tongue changes position in order to produce vocalic sounds.

According to the Northern Cities Shift, a speaker from Detroit says cat like kee-at and cot more like cat. Some advanced speakers of the Northern Cities Shift produce vowels in bet that sound to many speakers like but. Dialects follow different shifts over time and become distinct, which is why American English differs from British and Australian English for example. Although different dialects can share some of the same vowel changes, it is a combination of different changes that make a dialect unique. For example, Southern British English, Southern American English, and Australian and New Zealand English all have front pronunciations of the vowels in boot and boat (sounding like biwt and bewt), as well as low and more central pronunciation of the vowels in key and bay (sounding like Kay and buy), but the pronunciation of the front short vowels (bit, bet and bat) is what makes each dialect unique. Therefore, a dialect is defined by its participation in a combination of vowel changes.

The inland North region and American South follow different vowel changes

The inland North region of the United States is following one series of vowel changes, while the American South is following a different one. In addition to these two large dialect areas, there are smaller dialects that can be identified by a combination of vowel changes that may or may not be organized into a comprehensive vowel shift. While ANAE describes in detail much of the English spoken in North America, the dialect area classified as the West is still largely undefined. One characteristic of this area is the cot~caught merger. This merger is the identical production of the vowel in the words cot, Don, collar and the vowel in caught, Dawn, caller. This merger is not limited to the West, and is a characteristic of many other dialects, such as Pittsburgh, parts of New England and the Midwest, as well as Canada. In addition to this merger, Canadian English is participating in the Canadian Shift, which is the lowering and centralization of the front short vowels bit and bet (sounding something like bet and bat), similar to the Northern Cities Shift shown above. However, unlike the raising of the vowel in bat in the Northern Cities Shift (to bee-at), Canadians are lowering and centralizing (retracting) this vowel (sounding something like bot or baht). This shift is also reported to be operating in Californian English, and is stereotyped in the speech of Valley Girls, as in “gahg me to the mahx.” Another aspect of Californian English is the fronting of the back vowels in the words boot, book, and boat, similar to Southern American English. This can be heard in the words totally and dude (sounding like teowtally and diwd). Since Portland, Oregon is located half way between California and Canada, it is not surprising that a Portland dialect would contain some of these features.

With regard to a Portland dialect, it seems unlikely for two people to meet and for one of them to say to the other, “You have such a strong Portland accent.” This may be due to the very young age of the West in general. The dialect has not had time to unify, emerge and become recognized as either a unique dialect, or part of a larger dialect. Similar to findings in California, the Portland dialect is a rather diffuse dialect in older speakers, but seems to be becoming a more unified and focused dialect with the younger speakers. Furthermore, a small group of researchers at Portland State University have begun to describe characteristics of the dialect and data collected so far have shown that Portlanders are beginning to participate in a shift similar to its neighbors to the north and south.

The cot~caught merger

One of the characteristics that Portland shares with Canada and other Western cities is the cot~caught merger discussed above. Nearly all Portland speakers, especially under the age of 60, have a merged low back vowel. This merger, however, is not present in some older speakers (over 80), which indicates the relative young age of this merger in Portland.

Portlanders pronounce Anne like Ian

The cat vowel

While Canada and California seem to be a bit more advanced in the backing of this vowel toward the vowel of cot, the speech of younger Portlanders suggests that Portland is also changing. Before nasal consonants, however, this backing does not happen and Portlanders produce a higher vowel in this environment. So, Anne does not sound identical to add, but closer to Ian. Another Portland pronunciation is in words with this vowel before g’s, such as bag, tag, gag, etc. Instead of a simple bat sound, many speakers produce a vowel with a y-like glide. In addition, a similar glide quality is produced in bet words before g, making beg and bag sound nearly identical, and sounding like the vowel in bake. Although this has not quite reached a merged stage, there is an increase in these productions in younger speakers. Another Canadian/Californian quality is a more open and lower realization of the vowel in bet words, sounding almost like bat. This lowering is evident in few Portland speakers, and this may be a change that Portland will participate in the near future.

Back vowel fronting

In addition to the front short vowels, Portlanders share another characteristic with Californians. This is the fronting of the back vowels boot, book and boat. This change, although not characteristic of the inland north, is characteristic of many other North American dialects. The fronting of the boot and book vowels is more common, and Portlanders, like their Californian neighbors, are producing very fronted boot vowels, where boot and beet differ mostly by the glide part of the vowel (sounding like bi-wt and bi-yt). While the book vowel is not quite as front, many young speakers can be heard saying gid for good, and are often misunderstood when saying look, sounding to others like lick. The fronting of the boat vowel is not as common, and is one measure that the Atlas of North American English uses to categorize dialects. Therefore, boat fronting is an important quality to identify in order to accurately describe and classify a dialect. Younger Portlanders can be heard saying boat vowels with a fairly central nucleus, sounding like the vowel in but. The more extreme examples sound almost like ge-ow for go, but these extremes are not the most common, although Portlanders will probably continue to front this vowel over time. In addition, research also shows that fronting is strongly disfavored in the production of the boot and boat vowels before /l/ (as in pool and pole). Also, there is some evidence that pool and pole vowels are moving towards a merger in the future. Another characteristic of the back vowels is the boat vowel before nasal sounds, like home and bone, where some speakers produce words such as home, with a vowel closer to a cot/caught vowel than a boat vowel.

The use of a rising question intonation on a declarative sentence is known as “up-speak”

Intonation patterns

Another aspect of the Portland dialect that may be noticed is the use of a particular intonation pattern. This intonation pattern is known as “up-speak”, or high rising terminal contours. Basically, this is the use of a rising question intonation on a declarative sentence, so that a statement like, “Then we went to the store,” may sound like a question rather than a statement. While this intonation pattern has been found in many different dialects (Australian English, for example), it is usually associated with teenage girls. This is the case in Portland, but research also shows that the use of this intonation contour is not limited to women, and not limited to teenagers. The functions behind the use of this intonation contour are still under investigation, but its use may become more and more a part of the Portland dialect as it spreads outside the teenage female realm.


Though there are many other aspects of the Portland dialect that remain to be investigated, Portlanders show signs that they are following a similar pattern that is found in Canada and California. The distinctiveness of a Portland dialect may remain in its way of life, where granola is more than a breakfast food, it’s an appropriate adjective to describe clothing, beliefs and attitudes. Or in lexical choices, terms such as full on and rad indicate coolness. As Portlanders continue to front their back vowels, they will continue to go to the coast (geow to the ceowst), not the beach or the shore, as well as to microbrews, used clothing stores (where the clothes are not too spendy (expensive), bookstores (bik-stores) and coffee shops (both words pronounced with the same vowel). Also, the existence of buckaroos (Oregonian cowboys) may continue a Southern connection that may play out linguistically. What lies in store for the Portland dialect is the emergence of a dialect from the mist, (or the rain, or the drizzle, or the spitting, or the pouring, etc.). Dialect regions of the Pacific Northwest may just be emerging, but it is clear that they now are carving out a unique niche among the varieties of American English.

Jeff Conn is a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is studying the emergence of the Portland dialect along with his general study of sociolinguistics.

Reprinted courtesy: Language Magazine

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Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Information about the Atlas of North American English and more information about the principles of language change can be found in Labov’s two volumes Principles of Linguistic Change (1994, 2001). For more Information about DARE and a dialectology approach to American dialects, see Craig Carver’s 1987 book American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography or visit the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) web page. For more information about the Linguistic Atlas projects. A special thank you to Dr. G. Tucker Childs, Rebecca Wolff and Mike Ward for all their work on the Portland Dialect Study at Portland State University.
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