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."