Thursday, January 26, 2006

Why We Don't Say Chicago The Way We Think We Do

There was recently a bit of discussion at Language Log over the new term "blawg," meaning a law blog. Mark Liberman remarked that "blawg" and "blog" are pronouced the same, but Benjamin Zimmer responded that they only sound the same if you have the "cot/caught" merger, in which there is no distinction in pronunciation between these two vowels, and hance between the two words. Generally, this merger has occurred in the "midlands," that is, in stripe from the mid-Atlantic states westward. The merger tends to be more common the farther west you are. Wikipedia has the following map, which is pretty nice:

In this map the blue lines enclose the areas where the vowels are fully distinct, and the green lines enclose the areas where they are completely merged. The rest is either transitional or there is insufficient data.

Me, I'm from solidly blue turf. So I thought about it a while, and realized that I use the same vowel for "blog" and "law," namely the vowel from "caught." Thus, I would pronounce "blog" and "blawg" the same, but not "cot" and "caught." Sure enough, John Lawler, who's from the same neck of the woods as me, (I'm from the spinal column of the woods, he's from the esophagus) wrote in to the same effect.

So I got to thinking about all the trouble this merger gets us Chicagoans into. Not like the trouble a different vowel merger causes for a Philadelphian friend of mine, who insists on having her name pronounced "Carrie" with a lax /a/, not "Care-y" with tense /a/, even though I can barely produce this sound. No, the trouble stems from how our dialect is stereotyped. Cast your memory back, if you will, to the SNL skit "The Superfans" - you know, the one with the Chicagoans who discuss the Bears and Bulls in an exaggerated dialect while feasting on something they call "Polish sassage." This always rang a false note with me, and now I know why. Sure, Chicagoans ואני בתוכם front the /ah/ vowel to the point that "hot" could be mistaken by an outsider for "hat," but "sausage" has a different vowel, which doesn't get fronted. But to all those folks from within the green lines on the map above (lines which strike me, I must say, as conservative), "sausage" and "hot" have the same vowel, so if Chicagoans say "hat" for "hot," shouldn't we say "sassage?" But we don't. We may say "cat" for "cot," but not for "caught."

A good number of the actors who played the Superfans were Chicagoans or from the Chicago area - George Wendt, Joe Mantegna, Chris Farley. On the other hand, Farley grew up in Southern California, and Mike Myers, who it must be said has a decent ear for dialects, nevertheless hails from solidly cot/caught merging Canada. My suspicion is that the latter two actors suggested "sassage," and the Chicagoans didn't pick up on the wrongness of it, trusting Farley's Chicago roots and Myers's facility with accents. But the bottom line is that, as any good student of language knows, intuition is no substitute for data; language is so complex that as speakers we are unaware of how we speak. Just because we Chicagoans don't say "sassage" doesn't mean we know we don't. Case in point? Ask just about any Chicagoan what the locals call the city, and they will immediately reply "Chicaahgo." But that just ain't true. Listen to this sample from York University. Wait until the end. Hear that? That's how we say it. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.


Queenie said...

i respectfully beg to differ...

in my household (SW suburban chicago),we always called it sahsage (cot vowel). just like the superfans. really. i am not making this up! it's one of those variable words, like 'watch' and 'chicago'. there is just no consensus on how to pronounce these words, which i conclude based on listening to people produce them spontaneously during interviews (and not from asking people what was the right way to pronounce them).

for me: chicago has the cot vowel, watch has the caught vowel, and blog (for me) has the cot vowel too. yeah, so another argument against intuitions, since mine are different from yours!

incidentally i recently saw a children's book that rhymed 'jog' with 'dog'. NOT!

the chocolate lady said...


You are agreeing with Ben. "Sausage" is pronounced in your trachia of the woods or whatever it is with the "cot" vowel, but not with the "cat" vowel as in the show.

I think it is possible that in the TV show you describe, the mis-pronunciation of sausage was not a mistake but a deliberate hyper-correction for the sake of making it funnier. I am thinking of many Yiddish satirical songs in which Eastern or Central Yiddish dialects are exaggerated for comic effect. For instance in "a khazndl in amerike," the "Galitsiyaner" pronounces "oy vey" as "ay vay." It is true that the Central Yiddish speaker would pronounce the "vey" part as "vay." He would not pronounce "oy" as "ay" and Lebedeff knew this as well as anyone, but since NEY has oy->ey and CY has ey->ay, line them all up and get "ay vay"
similarly caught -> cot plus cot-> cat equals caught->cat and Sausage -> sassage

Queenie said...

chocolate lady,

just to clarify: i'm not necessarily agreeing with ben. he thinks that hot and sausage have different vowels... for me they are the same vowel. and they are both fronted to phonetic [a].

but yes, in the show, it is probably exaggerated to phonetic [ae] (low-front) position. this sounds like the 'hat' vowel of many other dialects, as ben says. it is, as chocolate lady says, a bit of an exaggeration.

i once heard someone doing a chicago accent pronounce "hot dog" with BOTH words fronted to [a]. now this comes from the problem of letting those merged people do our accent! (and i hope we both agree that dog has the caught vowel and hot does not!)

peace to my /ah/ fronters and cot-caught non-mergers.

Ben said...

Lots of interesting stuff. First off, Chocolate Lady, I think you're absolutely right that SNL Chicagoese is like stage Central Yiddish. I've heard, in fact, this stage dialect called "Paylish," another exaggerated misapplication of Central Yiddish vowels. As for "oy vey," I've always wondered why this isn't "ou vay" in Central Yiddish, given the protovowels. I've never heard "ou vay," though, and I have heard "oy vay" plenty.

Incidentally, as I'm typing this, I'm listening to Brian Lehrer on WNYC (a local NPR affiliate), and I noticed that one of the callers just now was clearly a young Yiddish speaker. Then I realized he was one of my Central Yiddish 'informants,' and was in fact the groom at a wedding that both the Chocolate Lady and me were guests at.

But yes, Queenie, I agree that you were disagreeing with me, and moreover you are right to do so - I trust you about a hundred times more than I trust myself on this subject, not only because you study it and I don't, but your claims are based in data, and mine aren't. It's pretty interesting that even though both of us don't merge cot and caught, our cots and caughts don't shake down the same way; I'm sure that I have cot in watch and caught in Chicago and sausage. As my grandfather would have said, how 'bout that?

As for hot dog, I do have different vowels in the individual words, but I could imagine myself saying "hot dog" with two "cots." Weird.

Queenie said...

aww shucks,

yeah, i got real data, but my actual intuitions are no more valid than yours.

but if i ever catch you saying hot/dog with the same vowels, you're in big trouble.