How the Northern Cities Shift Is Revolutionizing the English Language

Language and how we use it.
Aug. 22 2012 7:34 AM

Vowel Movement

How Americans near the Great Lakes are radically changing the sound of English.

Still from the classic SNL sketch “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans,” who were speaking in Northern Cities accents.
Still from the classic Saturday Night Live sketch “Bill Swerski’s Super Fans,” whose characters spoke in NCS accents

Courtesy Saturday Night Live/NBC/Hulu.

On July 4, 1960, the Eugene (Ore.) Register-Guard rang in Independence Day with a dire Associated Press report by one Norma Gauhn headlined “American Dialects Disappearing.” The problem, according to “speech experts,” was the homogenizing effect of “mass communications, compulsory education, [and] the mobility of restless Americans.” These conformist pressures have only intensified in the half-century since the AP warned “that within four generations virtually all regional U.S. speech differences will be gone.” And so as we enter the predicted twilight of regional American English, it’s no surprise that publications as venerable as the Economist now confirm what our collective intuition tells us: “Television and the Internet are definitely doing something to our regional accents: A Boston accent that would have seemed weak in the John F. Kennedy years now sounds thick by comparison.”

Before you start weeping into your chowdah, though, I have some news: All these people are wrong. Not about the Boston accent, necessarily; that one might really be receding. But American linguistic diversity as a whole isn’t dying—it’s thriving. Despite our gut-level hunch about the direction of the language; despite the fact that 70-cent, three-minute, off-peak, coast-to-coast long-distance calls that cost four inflation-adjusted dollars in 1970 are now free; despite cheap travel, YouTube, and the globalization of film and television, American dialects are actually diverging.

There are multiple examples of such divergence. But none is as dramatic, as baffling to linguists, and as mysteriously under the collective radar as what’s happening in the cities that ring the Great Lakes. From Syracuse, N.Y., in the east to Milwaukee in the west, 34 million Americans are revolutionizing the sound of English. Linguists first noted aspects of the change in the late 1960s. In 1972, three linguists, led by William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania, christened the phenomenon the Northern Cities Vowel Shift or, more simply, the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). What they observed may be the most important change in English pronunciation in centuries.

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All of us speak a dialect: a collection of words, sounds, and grammatical patterns that, taken in combination, mark us as members of a particular linguistic tribe. The Atlas of North American English divides the United States into roughly a dozen broad dialect regions. With few exceptions—African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE, being the most prominent—U.S. dialects vary relatively little from each other in grammar and vocabulary. It is phonological differences—accents, in layman’s terms—that distinguish the Western dialect spoken in California from the Midland dialect of Nebraska and the Eastern New England dialect of Maine, to cite just a few.

And when it comes to accents, nothing divides English dialects more efficiently than vowel pronunciation. Consider the three-letter words that begin with b and end in t: bat, bet, bit, bot, and but. All five of those words contain short vowel sounds. Their long-vowel equivalents—bate, beet, bite, boat, boot, and bout—arrived at their modern pronunciations as a result of the Great Vowel Shift that began around 1400 and established the basic contours of today’s English. But those short vowels have remained pretty much constant since the eighth century—in other words, for more than a thousand years. Until now.

Some linguists believe that the NCS began with a simple change to the short a sound. When using words with that sound, speakers in the region began moving their tongues forward and up. This “tensing,” as linguists call it, produces a nasal-like sound that is the hallmark of the NCS dialect. Many speakers tense their short a so much that monosyllabic words like cat nearly take on a second syllable. The a sound begins to resemble the word yeah or the final two syllables of the word idea. “If that were the end of it,” Labov explains, “it wouldn’t be a problem, but a language is a set of connected items.” And so, he says, all the vowel sounds start to move around in “something like a game of musical chairs.”

This is called a chain shift, and it stems from a fundamental problem with short vowel sounds: Too many of them occupy too little phonological space, so they constantly jostle to defend their linguistic turf. As a result, a change in one vowel sound can force the rotation of some—or even all—of the others. That’s exactly what’s happening in the northern cities—with a twist. There’s a phenomenon in North American English that linguists refer to as the cot-caught merger. In some North American dialect regions—including Boston, the Western United States, and Canada—the two vowel phonemes in these and similar words are pronounced identically. But the Inland North dialect region, which includes the northern cities, maintains a distinction between them. Caught preserves a wha sound that differs noticeably from the short o of cot. And why not? Distancing the short o in cot from the wha of caught gives many English dialects an extra short vowel sound.

In the NCS region, that extra vowel sound is an integral part of the big shift. The tensing of the short a starts a domino effect. First, the short o rotates into the newly created short-a void. People in Detroit have a jab, not a job. (Or don’t have one, as the case these days may sadly be.) NCS speakers then slide the wha sound into the slot formerly occupied by short o. They now pronounce caught like people from Boston do, but they pronounce cot the way other people say cat. One link down the chain, but tilts toward bought, and further down the short e in words like bet starts to sound like but. The final link in this chain may be the short i of bit elbowing its way in the direction of bet, though its course isn’t entirely clear just yet.

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