Thursday, December 08, 2005

Northern Cities

A few weeks back the New Yorker had a Talk of the Town piece about the publication of dialectologist William Labov's new Atlas of North American English. There are some muddled bits in the article that I attribute to the writer, who, after all, should be given some leeway when presenting a fairly technical matter in a light forum. One particular section did catch my eye, however:
These days, Labov found, the most extreme dialect change in the country is taking place in the Chicago area. “The ‘eah’ sound, which you hear in ‘happened’—heahppened—is a young, very invasive sound that is rapidly changing a number of other sounds around it,” he said. This so-called “Northern Cities Shift” is spreading toward St. Louis along I-55, transforming the Inland North dialect.
I happen to be from one of the places mentioned, and I in fact do have this feature in my speech. I'm not entirely pleased about it; I prize linguistic diversity and regional distinctiveness, just not in myself. In any case, though, this change is not taking place in the Chicago area - it has already taken place there. If you call my parents' answering machine (no, I'm not going to give the number) you'll hear my father say "We ceahn't come to the phone." My gut feeling is that this change has already taken place throughout the Great Lakes region. But Labov is nevertheless right - this is the most extreme linguistic development in American English nowadays, and also the most important, because it is spreading out from the Northern Cities to the entire country, causing me to misidintify people as Midwesterners with alarming frequency. I attended a lecture recently (okay, it was about beer) and spent the entire time trying to identify whether the speaker was from Chicago proper or the suburbs. He was from New York. Then the other night a friend (from Northern Illinois, with even more extreme vowels than me) introduced me to a friend of hers, who sounded just like my cousins. So of course I said something revealing that I had assumed she was from Northern Illinois too (I believe it was something like, "So I assume you're from Northern Illinois too"). Nope. Arizona.

What is my point? I'm not sure. Maybe that I shouldn't feel bad about talking funny, and the next time somebody makes fun of the way I say "that," I should point out that their grandchildren will sound like me. Maybe I'll put a Churchillian twist on it: "I may talk funny, but you look funny, and your grandchildren will look funny and talk funny." Yeah. That's way less antisocial than saying "isogloss."


Queenie said...

actually, the chicago pattern isn't spreading outside of the inland north, except to st. louis. the northern cities shift stays in the north. there is some tensing of /ae/ in some northeast dialects too, but that's not the northern cities shift per se. there are some aspects of the shift that have "finished" but some are still strengthening. (i can give you more details if interested-- i happen to work on this!)

but yeah, i'm from chicago and i got it too! mad props to my /ae/ raisers and /ah/ fronters.


Ben said...

Fascinating -- especially the bit about certain shifts strengthening currently. If I had to guess, I'd guess that one of the strengthening ones is /e/ lowering. But this particular vowel strikes my city ears as suburban, as does distinct /ah/ fronting. Is there anything to my suspicion that Chicago isn't undergoing the Inland Northern vowel shift to the same extent as the suburbs?

Queenie said...

Don't know enough to say for sure about city vs. suburban. But neither /ah/ fronting nor /e/ lowering is particularly suburban-- these features are found in city and suburban folk alike. /e/ lowering is definitely getting stronger, as is /i/ lowering, the final stage in the shift.