The early 20th-century accent of the Inland North was the basis for the term "General American", though the regional accent has since altered, due to its now-defining chain shift of vowels that began as late as the 1930s. A 1969 study first formally showed lower middle-class women leading the regional population in the first two stages (raising of the short-a vowel and fronting of the short-o vowel) of what, since the 1970s onward, has been documented as the five-stage "Northern cities" vowel shift. However, some recent evidence has suggested a reversal of some of the shift's features in certain locations.
Three isoglosses identifying the NCVS. In the brown areas /ʌ/ is more retracted than /ɑ/. The blue line encloses areas in which /ɛ/ is backed. The red line encloses areas in which /æ/ is diphthongized to [eə] even before oral consonants. The areas enclosed by all three lines may be considered the "core" of the NCVS; it is most consistently present in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago. Adapted from Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006:204).
Linguists identify the "St. Louis Corridor", extending from Chicago down into St. Louis, as a dialectally remarkable area, because young and old speakers alike have a Midland accent, except for a single middle generation born between the 1920s and 1940s, who have an Inland Northern accent diffused into the area from Chicago.
Erie, Pennsylvania, though in the geographic area of the "Inland North," never underwent the Northern Cities Shift and now shares more features with Western Pennsylvania English due to contact with Pittsburghers, particularly with Erie as their choice of city for a summer-vacation destination. Meanwhile, in suburban areas, the dialect may be less pronounced, for example, native-born speakers in Kane, McHenry, Lake, DuPage, and Will Counties in Illinois may sound slightly different from speakers from Cook County and particularly those who grew up in Chicago. Many African-Americans in Detroit and other Northern cities are multidialectal and also or exclusively use African American Vernacular English rather than Inland Northern English, but some do use the Inland Northern dialect, as do almost all people in and around the city of Detroit who are not African Americans.
The dialect's progression across the Midwest has, however, stopped at a general boundary line traveling through central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and then western Wisconsin, on the other sides of which speakers have continued to maintain their Midland and North Central accents. SociolinguistWilliam Labov theorizes that this separation reflects a political divide and a controlled study of his shows that Inland Northern speakers tend to be more associated with liberal politics than those of the other dialects, especially as Americans continue to self-segregate in residence based on ideological concerns. Former Democratic President Barack Obama, for example, has a mild Inland Northern accent.
History of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift
In the middle of the 19th century, according to William Labov, speakers around the Great Lakes began to pronounce the short a sound, /æ/ as in TRAP, as more of a diphthong and with a higher starting point in the mouth, causing the same word to sound more like "tray-ap" or "tray-up". After the Inland North's first vowel change—general /æ/ raising—the dialect remained largely stagnant for about a century, but around the 1960s, the region's speakers began to use the newly opened vowel space (i.e., previously occupied by [æ]) for the short o vowel /ɒ/ (or /ɑː/ in most of the U.S.) as in LOT or PALM, so words like bot, gosh, or lock then came to be pronounced with a tongue extended farther forward, thus making them sound more like how bat, gash, and lack sound in dialects without the shift. This vowel change was first reported in 1967. Contrary to Labov's hypothesis, however, real-time evidence of Chicagoans born between 1890 and 1920 shows that /ɑː/ fronting occurred first, starting by the year 1900 at the latest, and was only later on followed by /æ/ raising sometime in the 1920s.
During the 1960s, several more vowels followed suit in rapid succession, each filling in the space left by the last, including the lowering of /ɔː/ as in THOUGHT, the backing and lowering of /ɛ/ as in DRESS, the backing of /ʌ/ as in STRUT (first reported in 1986), and the backing and lowering of /ɪ/ as in KIT, often but not always in that exact order. Altogether, this constitutes a chain shift of vowels, identified as such in 1972, and known by linguists as the "Northern Cities Vowel Shift" (NCS): the defining pattern of the current Inland Northern accent.
Explanations for the shift
Labov suggests that the general short-a raising was the simplified result of the mixture of diverse and incompatible short-a raising patterns of migrants from all over the Northeastern U.S. who came to the rapidly industrializing Great Lakes area in the decades after the Erie Canal opened in 1825. This huge wave of settlement to the Inland North specifically began around 1830, and Labov posits that the dialect-mixing event that preceded the Northern Cities Shift occurred by about 1860 in Upstate New York.
One theory for which factors initiated the Northern Cities Shift is the inherited pronunciation system of nineteenth-century Western New England English, whose speakers originally settled the Inland North and who today variably show NCS-like TRAP and LOT/PALM. A competing theory, however, is that German-accented English initiated the shift, since German speakers will tend to pronounce the English TRAP vowel as [ɛ] and the LOT/PALM vowel as [äː~aː], and Upstate New York was over 40% German by 1850. Another theory, which is not mutually exclusive, is that the Great Migration of African Americans to the Inland North region intensified white residents' participation in the NCS, in order to differentiate their accents from black ones.
Reversal of the shift
The shift, found throughout the Great Lakes cities, continues to exist today; however, recent evidence suggests a reversal of the shift in at least some of the Inland North, such as in Lansing, Michigan, and Ogdensburg and Syracuse, New York, in particular with regards to /ɑː/ fronting and /æ/ raising (though raising is persisting before nasal consonants, as is the General American norm).
Phonology and phonetics
The monophthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, typical of the Northern cities vowel shift, though not to the extreme. Adapted from Hillenbrand (2003).
The diphthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, adapted from Hillenbrand (2003).
When followed by /r/, the historic /ɒ/ is pronounced entirely differently by Inland North speakers as [ɔː~oː], for example, in the words orange, forest, and torrent. The only exceptions to this are the words tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, borrow and, for some speakers, morrow, which use the sound [aː~äː].
Based on Labov et al.; averaged F1/F2 means for speakers from the Inland North. Note that /æ/ is higher and fronter than /ɛ/, while /ʌ/ is more retracted than /ɑː/.
A Midwestern accent (which may refer to other dialectal accents as well), Chicago accent, or Great Lakes accent are all common names in the United States for the sound quality produced by speakers of this dialect. Many of the characteristics listed here are not necessarily unique to the region and are oftentimes found elsewhere in the Midwest.
The first two sound changes in the shift, with some debate about which one led to the other or came first, are the general raising and lengthening (tensing) of the "short a" (the vowel sound of TRAP), as well as the fronting of /ɑː/ (the "ah" vowel of PALM and also, in most American English, the same as the "short o" sound in LOT), in the direction of [aː]. Inland Northern /æ/ raising was first identified in the 1960s, with /æ/ coming to be articulated so that the tongue starts from a position that is higher and fronter than it used to be, and then often glides back toward the center of the mouth, thus producing a centering diphthong of the type [ɛə] or [eə] or at its most extreme [ɪə]; e.g. naturally/ˈnætʃɹəli/ as [ˈneətʃɹəli]. As for /ɑː/ fronting towards [aː], it may, for advanced speakers, even be close to /æ/—so that pot or sod come to be pronounced how a mainstream American speaker would say pat or sad; e.g. coupon/ˈkuːpɑːn/ as [ˈkuːpaːn].
Lowering of /ɔː/
The fronting of /ɑː/ leaves a blank space in Inland North speakers' pronunciation that is filled by lowering /ɔː/ (the "aw" vowel in THOUGHT), which comes to be pronounced with the tongue in a lower position, closer to [ɑː] or [ɒː]. As a result, for example, people affected by the shift may pronounce caught the way speakers without the shift say cot, with both using the vowel [ɑː]. However, a cot–caught merger is robustly avoided in many parts of Inland North, due to the prior fronting of the /ɑː/. In other words, cot is [kaːt] and caught is [kɒːt]. Even so, however, there is a definite scattering of Inland North speakers who are in a state of transition towards a cot–caught merger; this is particularly evident in northeastern Pennsylvania. Younger speakers reversing the fronting of /ɑː/, for example in Lansing, Michigan, also approach a merger.
Backing or lowering of /ɛ/
The movement of /æ/ to [ɛə], in order to avoid overlap, presumably initiates the further movement of the original /ɛ/ vowel (the "short e" in DRESS) towards either [ɐ], the near-open central vowel, or almost [æ]. As the vowel [ɐ] is pronounced with the tongue farther back and lower in the mouth than in the sound [ɛ], this change is called "lowering and/or backing".
Backing of /ʌ/
The next change is the movement of /ʌ/ toward a very far back position [ɔ]. /ʌ/ is the "short u" vowel in STRUT. People with the shift pronounce bus so that it sounds more like boss to people without the shift.
Lowering and backing of /ɪ/
The final change is lowering and backing of /ɪ/, the "short i" vowel in KIT, to a more central position in the mouth, perhaps [ɘ].
Rhoticity: As in General American, Inland North speech is rhotic, and the r sound is typically the retroflex (or perhaps, more accurately, the bunched or molar) [ɻ].
Mary–marry–merry merger: Words that formerly contained /æ/, /ɛ/, or /eɪ/ before an r and a vowel are all pronounced as [ɛ~eə] followed by r followed by the vowel, so that Mary, marry, and merry all sound the same, and have the same first vowel as Sharon, Sarah, and bearing. This merger is also widespread throughout the Midwest, West, and Canada.
Canadian raising: Two phenomena typically exist, corresponding with identical phenomena in Canadian English, involving tongue-raising in the nuclei (beginning points) of gliding vowels that start in an open front (or central) unrounded position:
The raising of the tongue for the nucleus of the gliding vowel/aɪ/ is found in the Inland North when the vowel sound appears before any voiceless consonant, just like in General American, thus distinguishing, for example, between writer and rider (listen). However, unlike General American, the raising occurs even before certain voiced consonants, including in the words fire,tiger,iron, and spider. When it is not subject to raising, the nucleus of /aɪ/ is pronounced with the tongue further to the front of the mouth than most other American dialect, as [a̟ɪ] or [ae]; however, in the Inland North speech of Pennsylvania, the nucleus is centralized as in General American, thus: [äɪ].
The nucleus of /aʊ/ may be more backed than in other common North American accents (towards [ɐʊ] or [äʊ]).
The nucleus of /oʊ/ (as in go and boat), like /aʊ/, remains a back vowel [oʊ], not undergoing the fronting that is common in the vast American southeastern super-region. Similarly, the traditionally high back vowel /uː/ tends to be conservative and less fronted in the North than in other regions, though it still undergoes some fronting after coronal consonants.
/ɑːr/ (as in bar, sorry, or start) is centralized or fronted for many speakers in this region, resulting in variants like [äːɻ~ɐːɻ].
The "soda/pop line" has been found to run between Western New York State (Buffalo residents say "pop", Syracuse residents who used to say "pop" until sometime in the 1970s now say "soda", and Rochester residents say either. Lollipops are also known as "suckers" in this region. Eastern Wisconsinites around Milwaukee and some Chicagoans are also an exception, using the word soda.)
Yous(e) or youz, in northeastern Pennsylvania around its urban center of Scranton, for you guys; in this sub-region, there is notable self-awareness of the Inland Northern dialect (locally called by various names, including "Coalspeak")
^Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds) (2004). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. xvi.
^Gordon, Matthew J. (2004). "New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities: phonology." Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 297.
^Friedman, Lauren (2015). A Convergence of Dialects in the St. Louis Corridor. Volume 21. Issue 2. Selected Papers from New Ways of Analyzing Variation(NWAV). 43. Article 8. University of Pennsylvania.
^Van Herk, Gerard (2008) "Fear of a Black Phonology: The Northern Cities Shift as Linguistic White Flight," University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Vol. 14 : Iss. 2, Article 19.
Available at: [repository.upenn.edu]
^Salmons, Joseph; Purnell, Thomas (2008 draft). "[bris.ac.uk/german/hison/reading/salmonsandpurnell.pdf Contact and the Development of American English]". Handbook of Language Contact, ed. Ray Hickey. Blackwell.