Sunday, March 19, 2006

In The News

Well, now I have been mentioned on three of my favorite blogs: In Mol Araan, Langauge Log, and, as of yesterday, Language Hat. Pretty flattering, all told. Anyways, just wanted to brag.

What kind of responsible American dialectology blogger would I be if I didn't post on the latest round of publicity for William Labov's new groundbreaking (and still unseen by me) Atlas of North American English Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change? This latest bout of media attention was spurred, as far as I can tell, by a NYT article in Friday's travel section, describing a dialectological roadtrip in which Tim Sultan heads northwest from New York City, in pursuit of dialectological diversity. Guided by the atlas and by Labov himself, Sultan drives towards Rochester, listening for evidence of the Northern cities vowel shift.

In interviews, Labov has been touting this vowel change as the most interesting ongoing development in American speech, and as evidence for his general yet counterintuitive theory about increasing diversification among American dialects. Labov often describes this vowel change, and the Inland Northern dialect that it typifies, as the "Chicago Dialect." As a Chicagoan, I was a bit surprised by this. Sure, I thought, Rochesterians may raise /ae/ and front /ah/, and they may not have the low-back merger, but that doesn't mean they sound like Chicagoans, does it?

Well, apparently it does. Perhaps you've encountered the gooey feel-good story that's been in the news recently about the autistic high-school basketball player making six 3-point shots in one game. I saw this CNN clip on the story, and when the coach started talking midway through, I thought, oh, they must be in the Chicago suburbs.

Of course, they're in Rochester. Go know. I must point out that this supports the theory I mentioned earlier about gym coaches tending to exhibit the local dialect.

Two postscripts: First off, notice the distinctly midland dialect of the CNN reporter. Growing up in the Inland North, I repeatedly heard that broadcasters tried to sound like they were from Michigan. This is based somewhat in reality - another version I heard was that there was conflict between those who favored Midland and those who favores Inland Northern. Given that Inland Northern is now changing, maybe Midland is ascendant again. If you want to hear good old Inland Northern broadcasters, though, check out Rochester's WROC news report on the same story.

Secondly, when we say "Chicago dialect," we generally mean the general dialect of the Chicagoland region. I still maintain that the dialect of the city itself is quite distinct from that of the suburbs. On the one hand, the stereotypical Chicago trait of /dis/ for "this" and so on, is not really found in the suburbs. Also, the vowel system in the city is a bit different; along with Rochester, Labov has been talking a lot about Pittsburg, giving as the shibboleth the monophthongized /dahntahn/ pronunciation of "downtown." There's a similar monophthongization in Chicago, though it's a bit further back, more like /donton/. These two traits, though certainly not unique to Chicago, make the dialect of the city distinct from general Inland Northern.


Queenie said...

Hi again Ben. Congrats on the mentions. You're an ace. I loved the NYT article too.

Of course anytime you talk about Chicago, I have to throw in my dos centavos...

First of all (and we've disagreed on this before-- the [I think, contra you, mostly nonexistent] city/suburban divide) the 'dis' thing is found in the suburbs too. Off hand, I can think of people I've interviewed from one southwest, one western, and one far south suburb one that use it variably. All men, and of a range of ages, incidentally.

Second, I've never heard /aw/ monophthongization in Chicago, except for before L, as in [fal] for 'foul', which isn't unique to Chicago. Personally, I have to struggle to say "vowel" with two syllables, and not say [val]. Glide deletion may appear sporadically in other environments, in the way people reduce glides when they talk fast, but not moreso than in other cities (although if someone has data to suggest otherwise, please share it as I'd be really interested).

On behalf of my blogposting cat Queenie,

Ben said...

Hi Corrine, and thanks again for your dos centavos, which are, as always, very welcome. That's very interesting stuff. I still think there is some sort of city/suburb split, but maybe it's an economic one, at least in the suburbs. Incidentally, I tend to think of inner-ring suburbs as part of the city. Someone from Evergreen Park, say, is a Chicagoan in a way that someone from Hinsdale just ain't. In fact, the person in my family with the most typically Chicagoan dialect is an Evanstonian.

Again, though, data is always more nuanced than guesses - even informed ones.

And /val/ for vowel - that's really heymish, as we say in Yiddish. That is, it's redolent of deep-dish pizza, the El, and just a wee lingering hint of the stockyards. In a good way.

Queenie said...

Economic might be a better assessment, though there could be some truth to the 'burb/city distinction. I'll tell you in a couple of years, after I've sampled more Chicagoland folks. Regarding Hinsdale, I once met a person from there who used positive anymore.

I don't know what heymish means. But yeah, it's unfortunate that I say vowel many times per day, often with an audience of university students.

Ben said...

I actually meant "heymish" as praise - it means "reminiscent of home, and thus comforting." But yeah, it is a bit humbling to have your own students laugh at your pronunciation. The word that always gets my students going is "have"; but it's good that they laugh, because it encourages me to avoid English, which I should be doing anyways.

The heaviest positive anymore sayer I know is from Wheaton, not far from Hinsdale culturally or geographically.

Queenie said...

eureka!!!! could it be we've stumbled upon a wheaton-hinsdale/rest of chicagoland isogloss?