by Taneesh Khera
Dictionary.com’s United States of Diversity
You’ve stumbled onto our United States of Diversity series, welcome! If you don’t already know, here we explore a minority language or dialect in the country, and this episode’s no different.
Does your keeat sit an the meeat? Or, maybe you wait for the boss down the black? Do you cal your mam an Sundays?
If you speak with a Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS) accent you might sound this way, and it has our linguist nerds pushing up their glasses with anticipation. This vowel shift is a type of chain shift. English has passed through a few of these shifts before, and we’ve written about one of them (the Great Vowel Shift). But, that was way back in the Middle Ages. NCVS is happening right this moment . . . exciting, idn’it? We sometimes associate the accent with North Dakota/Minnesota, but it’s so much more than that.
Let’s see what’s going an there, shall we?
Where do NCVS speakers live?
NCVS sweeps along the US-Canadian border from the Atlantic coast. True to its name, it started in major cities over the Great Lakes region. It’s widely considered a Western-moving sound change that has also been reaching rural areas. It mainly covers Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo, New York, Ohio from Akron to Cleveland to Toledo (some Cincinnati folks have it, too), and most of Michigan’s mitt (hey there, Detroit). It then skims the top of Indiana, creates a thumb shape in Illinois (hello, Chicago!), includes all of Wisconsin, some of Iowa and Minnesota, and a bit of North and South Dakota. We all remember hearing this accent in the movie Fargo, right? (Well, it’s actually only an “in transition” accent in Fargo, unlike full blown NCVS in Chicago and Detroit, but we’ll get to that later.) If not, download it below to hear:
Anyway, that’s a huge swath of land. So huge, in some regions within the NCVS border, you’ll hear different pronunciations not found in other regions where NCVS is spoken. Put another way, NCVS stretches across many distinct US dialects.
- There, the diphthong [ow] “oh,” sounds more like an extended monophthong [o] “ooh.”
- And “ey” sounds more like a longer “eh” [e].
- So, people weht in line and drive down the rooad in the snoow. Nehbors pooke their head in to say “hi.”
Neither of these sounds are in NCVS.
Not to pick on Minnesota, but it’s also a great example of an area that’s said to be “in transition” of the shift, as opposed to showing “completion.” A study from 2017 at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, showed that only one of the six vowels in the NCVS repertoire has actually found its way into the speech of multiple distinct groups. That’s the [æ] sounding like yeah, the vowel sound in keeat, meeat, beeat (cat, mat, bat to us who aren’t part of the NCVS).
So, before we get into NCVS specifics . . .
What is a chain shift, and how does it work?
A chain shift is a change in pronunciation that then sets off a series of other sound changes. They happen in phases, and can affect either consonants or vowels. Here, though, we focus on vowels.
It begins with one or two vowels sliding out of position. Why? The reasons are largely social and unintentional/subconscious. A common motivation is speakers want to either reduce (or create) social distance between themselves and the hearer. So, they converge with (or diverge from) the other person’s accent. Big cities are hubs for sound changes, where speakers have multiple ties to multiple groups, who all interact with one another. In sociolinguistics, these are said to be dense speech communities, where different dialects meet often and over a long period.
The first vowel (or two) sliding out of position sparks the rest to dislodge. Some vowels then feel crowded and pushed out, or pulled into the empty space left by the one that moved away (i.e., pull chain shift or a push chain shift). Whether push or pull, the goal of vowel movement in a shift is to restore balance in the vowel space. It’s a bit like a slip ‘n’ slide, with the tongue trying to find footing.
Vowel shifts (and consonant shifts), whether it’s a chain shift or a shift to an isolated sound, are also systematic. That means you can predict how a word sounds in a dialect, based on what you’ve heard of other words with a similar sound. Systematic means predictable over a huge pool of distinct, unrelated words.
Now that we know how shifts work . . .
How does NCVS sound?
NCVS is a classic chain shift in action, affecting six short vowels: bit, bet, bat, but, bought, and bot.
A list of the vowels affected by NCVS follows:
Here, bat now sounds like BEE-AT.
- BAT slides from the low-front position (in IPA, /æ/ like in cat) to a diphthong sounding like the -ea in idea or yeah.
- Specifically, there are three variations: [eə] ∼ [Iə] ∼ [iə].
ot, lot, lock, mock, sock, stop, want, and pocket, now sound like cæt, læt, læck, mæck, sæck, stæp, wænt, and, yes, pæcket [pak-it].
- BOT shimmies forward from [ɑ] (like “ah”) to [æ], like BAT.
- And, the systematic law of vowel shifts (remember they’re systematic?) means other words with the same sound are affected.
Astronaut, brawl, brought, caught, crawl, fought, fraught, Paul, and taut, sound more like astronaht, brahl, braht, caht, crahl, faht, fraht, Pahl, and taht.
- BOUGHT (which before was the rounded [ɔ], with lips in an O shape) scurries down and forward to [ɑ] (like “ah”), filling the space where BOT used to be.
ent, led, meant, net, nest, pen, pet, said, and sent, sound more like luhnt, luhd, muhnt, nuht, nuhst, puhn, puht, suhd, and suhnt.
- BET slips back toward [ʌ] (the stressed “uh” like in shut), crowding BUT.
- In some dialects, BET lowers toward [ɑ] (like “ah”, the space where BOUGHT is now).
Bus and strut sound like boss (the supervisor) and strot, and brother and mother sound more like brawther and mawther.
- BUT was unrounded and central, but in NCVS, it falls backward (avoiding BET’s new position) to [ɔ], where BOUGHT used to be.
- The strong “uh” sound relaxes.
Mitt sounds like met, sit like set, pin like pen, and others like them.
- BIT dips down, filling the space where BET used to be.
There’s a lot of sliding going on; it’s like a little dance to preserve balance.
NCVS and its social implications
NCVS is a surprising linguistic phenomenon for a few reasons (of many).
1. In larger cities, NCVS speakers are mostly white, with little to no adoption by black and latino groups. This shows a deep segregation among the three speech communities. There’s no long-term mixing among them, and divisions in identity and language run deep.
2. Women are leading the vowel shift, at least to some extent. It isn’t just with NCVS, either. The trend of women leading sound change has been well studied. (Oh look, we’re trendy.) Dr. William Labov of University of Pennsylvania (the father, so to speak, of variation linguistics, the study of sound change) says in his 1990 paper, “that women are generally the innovators in linguistic change.” While the Macalester study did find that only middle-aged male speakers with high education had full NCVS (a surprising twist in the trend), young women (16–18 years old) showed more advanced NCVS than their male counterparts.
In general, there’s a difference in the way women and men speak. Study after study shows women hedge their statements more, or, use phrases that lighten the impact of what they’re saying. These are phrases like kind of, sort of, sorry but…, like, just.
There’s also a strong bond between language and culture, and socially, women are taught early on to be adaptable and giving. It’s possible women lead sound change because of this adaptability in language, as well. Of course, it’s a generalization, but there is some truth to it. Something worth considering, at least.
To nerd out on English dialects on this side of the pond, go to the Atlas of North American English. It’s Drs. Labov, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg’s pet project, complete with sound bites.