Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Hi guys. It’s Rolf Weimar here, creator of Silly Linguistics. I have been working hard on language podcasts, comics and articles. But I would like to expand the language offering on this site. So with that in mind, I put out a call for contributors and I got many responses. Thank you to all who responded.

One person stood above the rest though. They showed enthusiasm and a desire to bring interesting language stuff to a greater audience. I would like to introduce Patience Kelly who will be writing a weekly article for this website. Here is Patience’s article. I hope you enjoy 🙂

Northern Cities Vowel Shift

I’ve lived in Chicago my entire life, and whenever I go anywhere else in the U.S. I always get asked “you’re from Chicago, aren’t you?” If you’ve ever seen a movie like The Blues Brothers or seen that SNL skit about the super fans, you might know why that is. I might not sound exactly as overexaggerated but my ‘Chicago’ is more like ‘ChicAHgo’ and my ‘sausage’ like ‘sAUGHsage’. This may be due to a linguistic phenomenon known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.

From Upstate New York through the Midwest and into Minnesota and the Dakotas, what was originally a simple shift of the tongue forward and up moved ‘man’ towards ‘men’ which started a domino effect on the rest of our vowel sounds. ‘Busses’ becomes ‘bosses’ and so on. This goes to show that firstly people’s accents are not as affected by the media as originally thought but also, people in the boundaries of this vowel shift are becoming more distant, linguistically.

The shift began being documented in the 50’s in Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo, and Rochester adding up to about 34 million people. Most of the country has no distinction between words like ‘cot’ and ‘caught’, or ‘don’ and ‘dawn’ but within the northern cities the ‘wha’ sounds of ‘caught’ and ‘dawn’ are clearly audible. This shift seems drastically similar to the one occurring in the 1400-1600’s transforming middle English to modern English.

One theory linguists have offered as to why this shift stops just south of Cleveland and west of Milwaukee is politics. Linguists such as William Labov offer that you’re more likely to speak like people you can relate to, so while southern Illinoisans tend to have a soft southern drawl, Chicagoans follow the Northern Cities Shift possibly because Chicago is in reality a small liberal diaspora within a vast sea of conservatives.

Another speculation made by Lebov suggests that the Erie Canal brought immigrants east drawing different dialects, as well as accents together. Many in the east (places like Rochester and Buffalo) made a huge leap in population on imports of Midwestern wheat and possibly drew pop (pahp) from where soda had previously been and similarity in blacks (city blocks laid out on a grid pattern) in Chicago and Manhattan were conceived of German stonemasonry so followed a similarity in pronunciation.

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