One segment of last night’s PBS broadcast on American English particularly struck me: the one devoted to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, prominent in cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo (surprisingly, it seems to be spreading in St. Louis). You can get a description (with chart) here (scroll down to “The Northern Cities Shift”) and hear samples here; it’s one thing to read about it, but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a recording of someone saying (what clearly sounds like) “boss” and discovered that what she was actually saying was “bus.” According to the Wikipedia article:

The shift is more notable in Caucasian speakers and those who identify themselves with the region in which the vowel shift is occurring. Speakers of African American Vernacular English show little to no evidence of adopting the Northern Cities Shift. The NCS also is not being used by Canadian speakers despite the geographic proximity of speakers in the United States and Canada about the Great Lakes region.


  1. Huh. I’m pretty doggone sure I don’t do this. Guess I don’t spend enough time in Chicago.

  2. Are the shifts similar for all Caucasian languages, or is there for example a difference between speakers of Georgian and others?

  3. Heh.

  4. I say the vowel in “bus” pretty standardly, but the vowels in “stalk,” “stock” and “stack” are all affected by this vowel shift. But for some reason, people don’t notice this.
    If you’d like more sound samples, I’d be happy to provide some… 🙂

  5. I can usually spot someone who (like me) is form somewhere between upstate NY and Chicago, but I’ve never seen the vowel shifts explained. J. and I regularly argue about the word “coffee”, which I say like “caw-fee” (as in caw-caw, like a crow), and he says cah-fee (being influenced by MA and CT, although he’d never admit it.) Like Rachel’s “stalk’ and “stack”, another telltale word is “shark”, which in ranges all the way from a midwestern “shaaark” with a very hard “r” to “shock”, if you’re from RI.

  6. Sarah Braun says

    In my first linguistics class, the professor wrote the words caught and cot on the board and said “Some people in the US pronounce these two words differently.” I had only been on the west coast for three or four days, and I had never previously been west of Chicago (born and raised in the Mid-Hudson Valley). It really expanded my mind and sparked a long-lasting interest in dialects and phonetics to think that some people pronounce those two words the same.

  7. I’ve picked this up in Sue’s and my speech on occasion, but we’re sponges for accents and so forth. I haven’t noticed it in St. Louis, but I suppose I’m just not talking to the right people.
    (I’m blogging again, by the way. Back to the religion beat, and hopefully going to grad school soon. 😉

  8. Chris: Glad to hear it!

  9. I had heard of the Northern Cities shift, but not really paid much attention to it, being just, I think, a novice amateur linguist. I’m from what is called “Downstate Illinois,” and more specifically, by some, Western Illinois.
    In Knox County it seemed we had many immigrants from the South, as well as earlier migrations of Anglo-Celtic, German, Swedish, Irish, Italian, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans and Blacks. When I stayed in Chicago in the mid-80’s, “native” Chicagoans told me I sounded Southern.
    Does the Midlands color coded area from the “Do You Talk American?” program need revising? Any linguists of Illinois-Iowa or mid-Mississippi watershed area, what do you think? Anyone else?

  10. So, would it be reasonable to assume that if vowels tend to shift within a population over time, then for an individual at any given time, vowels might be fairly fluid from day to day or depending on context?
    I ask because a) I’ve spent most of my life moving back and forth between the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley regions, b) I’m about 40 years old (the shift being more pronounced in those under 40).
    Right now, if you asked me to say, “My stack of stalks is caught on your cot,” I’m confident each of those vowels would be distinct. But if you were to record me over the course of a week, I don’t think I could guarantee that I don’t rhyme caught with cot, or shift my vowels northerly, or indeed, that I’d pronounce the same word the same way on two different days. I can just about guarantee that my pronounciation would change depending on who I’m talking to, too.
    Which insight I think is significant when, say, discussing the Great Vowel Shift or other significant language changes.
    Pierre–you might be describing what I’ve heard of as “the Hon line”: It’s the boundary south of which waitresses in diners refer to you as “Hon.” Follows the Ohio River out of Pennsylvania to Cincinnati, then cuts north to Indianapolis and follows I-70 (?) across Illinois to Missouri.

  11. Oops. Jean-Pierre. My apologies.

  12. The “Hon” line — what a great idea!
    I’d be curious to know what linguists who study these things think of individual variation in such circumstances; maybe the Lang Log folks will address the subject one of these days.

  13. Fascinating. This is slightly OT, but I was listening to a BBC report yesterday about cigarette health warnings, and heard a woman from Newfoundland explaining how a packet featured a picture of “longs”. (Er, sc long cigarettes??) A few moments later, the context of disease made clear she meant “lungs”. In UK RP there is no possibility of confusion of those two vowel sounds.
    And we Brits don’t say either cah-fee or caw-fee; I guess you Americans, wherever you’re from, just don’t have an equivalent sound for our short “o”.
    You need an IPA for that, assuming you all agree what the signs sound like 🙂

  14. And we Brits don’t say either cah-fee or caw-fee; I guess you Americans, wherever you’re from, just don’t have an equivalent sound for our short “o”.
    Of course, here in Australia we say it as most British do, Anne.
    The question of “o” in American and British (and Australian) interests me. Recently I posted a note on two pronunciations of “Kosovo”: American /KOHsohvoh/ and British /KOsovoh/. Here is a speculation: to Americans, rendering a typical foreign “o” as the American /o/ sound in “top” makes it too much like American /ah/ in “farm”. Since that /ah/ is used to render “a” in foreign words (/pahstah/ for “pasta”, for example), the distinction between foreign “o” and foreign “a” is instead sharpened by using American /oh/ and /ah/ for them. In British (and Australian), there is no pressure to do such a thing, because our /o/ and our /ah/ are sufficiently distinct.
    On the other hand, to the sensitive Australian ear a great deal of British that comes our way is remarkable for rendering foreign “a” as /æ/, the vowel in “bat”. This does not seem forced by the sort of pressure I mention in the case of American, and I think that /pæst[schwa]/ is just plain parochialism.
    But most ears are not sensitive in the way relevant here – or most cortices are not analytical of what the ears deliver. For this reason many dictionaries (I speak of British and Australian ones especially) represent sounds written with “a” and “o” stupidly and inconsistently, whether these sounds be in “foreign” words or not.

  15. First of all, happy new year, languagehat!
    Just wanted to tell you that I saw this episode and it really caught my attention too; so much that I blogged about it just yesterday (1/09)! I had no idea you had done the same until I dropped by your blog right now. Hehe. Well, my “coverage” is from a different perspective… one that you would expect. I, however, did enjoy those little sound tests on the show’s website to see if one can identify what is being said or the origin of the speakers. 🙂
    Anyway, nice to read from you again after a while.

  16. I wonder how recent this shift is — I suspect one aspect of it, the cot-caught convergence, happened decades ago. Also note how it complicates things for the non-native speaker (hearer), who should be grateful they don’t drop their r’s in Chicago, or else cot, caught and cart would become one.

  17. Anne: I’d always assumed that “coffee” is how the British pronounce “Nescafe.” (Feel free to insert disparaging remarks about “sweet tea” here.)
    LH: The “Hon” line is strictly anecdotal, I’m afraid. I think I first heard of it in a Dave Barry column, but I don’t think he coined it. It does describe something real, though, and it is odd the way it jumps north when you hit Indiana.
    This occurred to me after that last post: “Paul caught a cold after he got caught in the rain.” I think I would pick up the vowel sound of the preceding word, and could easily pronounce “caught” two different ways in the same sentence.

  18. HP: I read your “Paul caught…” sentence out loud to myself, and I too would say caught differently each time, the first with the same vowel as “Paul”, and the other with the “a” sound of father.
    Then again, I’m Canadian, and have been told I have a weird accent because of constant moving back and forth between Eastern and Western Canada, so maybe I’m not the best judge 🙂

  19. I also would pronounce caught two different ways. When speaking carefully I am more likely to pronounce “caught” differently than “cot”. “Cot” is always the same.
    The northward bluge of the “Hon” line mirrors political demographics — Indiana is the most Southern / Republican state in the North.

  20. Ted McClelland says

    I’ve lived in Chicago for 10 years, and Lansing, Michigan, for 25 before that, and I’ve never heard “bosses” for “busses.” “Caught” and “cot” are definitely distinct vowel sounds and I can hear “stayack” becoming “ste-ayack.” What a lot of people don’t hear in our speech is the subtle break, followed by a rise, in the long “o” sound. Pop isn’t “paaahp” it’s “paa-aahp.” “Gimme a cayan o’ paa-aahp.” Oh how Great Lakes.

  21. I grew up in Chicago but just recently moved back after being away for 15 years, and boy am I hearing those vowel shifts. It’s true that there’s quite a bit of variation from one person to the next–some people have a more pronounced /eæ/ than others, and some people seem to say almost /iæ/. Also, some people nasalize these vowels more than others, particularly the short o and a sounds.
    Re cot/caught: My partner is from California and merges those vowels, whereas I don’t and most Chicago locals don’t. There’s been at least one example of misunderstanding: We were looking at houses at one point, and my partner pointed out that the kitchen countertop was missing some caulk. Our realtor and I were rather taken aback until we understood he was indeed saying caulk and not …well, something else.

  22. Oh, and it’s probably worth a link to an old but relevant Language Log post.

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