Inland Northern American English

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This map shows the approximate extent of the Inland North dialect, as defined by Labov et al (2006).
This map shows the approximate extent of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and thus the approximate area where the Inland North dialect predominates. Note that the region surrounding Erie, Pennsylvania, is excluded; the dialect spoken there more closely resembles that of Pittsburgh.

The Inland North dialect of American English is spoken in a region that includes most of the cities along the Erie Canal and on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes region, reaching approximately from Herkimer, New York to Green Bay, Wisconsin.

This dialect had been the model of standard American pronunciation in the early 20th century,[1] though it has since been modified by an innovative vowel shift known as the Northern Cities Shift which has altered its character,[2] leaving a region to the south and west of the Great Lakes to become the home of the General American dialect.

The dialect was used for comedic effect in the Saturday Night Live skit Bill Swerski's Superfans, and in the film The Blues Brothers.


The Inland North consists of western and central New York State (Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Jamestown, Olean); northern Ohio (Akron, Cleveland, Toledo); Michigan's Lower Peninsula (Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing); northern Indiana (Gary, South Bend); northern Illinois (Chicago, Rockford); and southeastern Wisconsin (Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee). This is the dialect spoken in America's chief industrial region, an area sometimes known as the Rust Belt.

Erie, Pennsylvania was regarded as an Inland North city by researchers in the first half of the 20th century, but it never underwent the Northern Cities Shift and now shares many features with the rest of Western Pennsylvania.

In suburban areas, the dialect may be less pronounced, for example, native-born speakers in Kane, McHenry, Lake, DuPage, and Will Counties in Illinois may sound slightly different from speakers from Cook County and particularly those who grew up in Chicago.

Many African-Americans in Detroit are multidialectal and also or exclusively use AAVE, but some do use this dialect, as do almost all people of non-African descent in and around the city.


Phonology and phonetics[edit]

A Midwestern accent (which may refer to other dialectal accents as well) or, sometimes, Chicago accent or Great Lakes accent, are common names in the United States for the sound quality produced by speakers of this dialect. Many of the characteristics listed here are not necessarily unique to the region and are especially found elsewhere in the Midwest.

  • As in General American, Inland North speech is rhotic.
  • The Mary–marry–merry merger: Words containing /æ/, /ɛ/, or /eɪ/ before an r and a vowel are all pronounced "[ɛ~eɪ]-r-vowel", so that Mary, marry, and merry all sound the same, and have the same first vowel as Sharon, Sarah, and bearing. This merger is widespread throughout the Midwest, West, and Canada.
  • The Inland North does not undergo the cot–caught merger.
  • Many speakers in the region rhyme the word on with don, not with dawn.[3]
The monophthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, typical of the Northern cities vowel shift, though not to the extreme. Adapted from Hillenbrand (2003).[4]
Based on Labov et al.; averaged F1/F2 means for speakers from the Inland North. Note that /æ/ is higher and fronter than /ɛ/, while /ʌ/ is more retracted than /ɑ/.
  • The Northern cities shift

This chain shift is found primarily in the Inland North—in fact, it is the feature that largely defines the Inland North, for modern dialectological purposes. It has been occurring in six stages:

  1. The first stage of the shift is the general raising and fronting of /æ/, which often comes to be realized as a centering diphthong of the type [eə] or [ɪə].
  2. The second stage is the fronting of /ɑ/ to [a], which occupies a place close to the former /æ/.
  3. In the third stage, /ɔ/ lowers towards [ɑ]. (However, this particular merger does not occur in the Inland Northern speakers who front the /ɑ/ phoneme to [a], thus maintaining the distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/.)
  4. The fourth stage is the backing and lowering of /ɛ/.
  5. During the fifth stage, /ʌ/ is backed towards [ɔ].
  6. In the sixth stage, /ɪ/ is lowered and backed, although it is kept distinct from /ɛ/ in all phonetic environments, so the pin–pen merger does not occur.

Note that this shift is in progress across the region, but that each subsequent stage is a result of the previous one(s), so that an individual speaker may not display all of these shifts, but no speaker will display the last without also showing the ones before it.

  • Other characteristics
  1. Canadian raising of /aɪ/, though usually not of /aʊ/, is found in this region.[5] It occurs before some voiced consonants. For example, many speakers pronounce fire, tiger, and spider with the raised vowel.
  2. When it is not subject to raising, the nucleus of /aɪ/ is pronounced with the tongue further to the front of the mouth than that of /aʊ/. Relatedly, the nucleus of /aɪ/ may be more fronted than it is in some other North American accents and the nucleus of /aʊ/ may be more backed than in some other North American accents.
  3. Like /aʊ/, the nucleus of /oʊ/ (as in go and boat) remains a back vowel [oʊ], not undergoing the fronting that is common in some other regions. Similarly, the traditionally high back vowel /uː/ tends to be less fronted in the North than in other regions, though it still undergoes some fronting especially after coronal consonants.[6]
  4. /ɑr/ (as in bar) is fronted for many speakers in this region, resulting in variants like [bäɹ] or even [baɹ].
  • Examples
  1. Measure major pleasure. (measure sounds like major i.e. MAY-zhur more so than pleasure i.e. meh-zhur)
  2. Rah rah, raw fish! (raw sounds nearly identical to rah)
  3. Beg for the bag. (bag sounds like bayag)
  4. Hire and fire the dire tires.
  5. Bar cars with hard R's.


Note that not all of these are specific to the region.

  • Faucet vs. Southern spigot.
  • (Peach) Pit vs. Southern stone or seed.
  • Pop for soft drink, vs. East-Coastal and Californian soda and Southern coke. The "soda/pop line" has been found to run between Western and Central New York State (Buffalo residents say "pop" while Syracuse residents who used to say "pop" until sometime in the 1970s now say "soda." Lollipops are also known as "suckers" in this region.) as well as in parts of eastern Wisconsin.
  • Shopping cart vs. Southern buggy.
  • Teeter totter vs. Southern seesaw.
  • Tennis shoes or gym shoes vs. New England sneakers.
  • Bubbler vs. Drinking fountain vs. Water fountain.

Individual cities and regions also have their own vocabularies. For example:

  • in a large portion of southern and eastern Wisconsin, drinking fountains are known as bubblers
  • in the Chicago area, sneakers are often known as gym shoes and the ATM is known as the "Cash Station".
  • in Michigan, convenience stores are called party stores
  • in Detroit, sliding glass doors may be called doorwalls
  • Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Binghamton residents say "sneakers" rather than "tennis shoes"
  • in Cleveland the road verge (grass between the sidewalk and the street) is called a tree lawn, whereas in nearby Akron the same space is called a devilstrip.

Notable lifelong native speakers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Talking the Tawk", The New Yorker
  2. ^ Labov et al., p. 188.
  3. ^ Labov et al., Chapter 14, p. 189.
  4. ^ Hillenbrand, James M. (2003). "American English: Southern Michigan". Journal of the International Phonetic Association 33 (1): 122. doi:10.1017/S0025100303001221. 
  5. ^ Labov et al. (2006), pp. 203-204.
  6. ^ Labov et al. (2006), p. 187
  7. ^ Stein, Anne (2003). "The über-mayor: what's behind Daley's longevity". Christian Science Monitor. 
  8. ^ Dennis Farina, ‘Law & Order’ actor, dies at 69. NBC News. 2013. 
  9. ^ "Dennis Franz". Encyclopædia Brittanica. 2014. 
  10. ^ Media Literacy: A Reader. Peter Lang. 2007. p. 55. 
  11. ^ McClelland, Edward (2013). Nothin' but Blue Skies. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 85. 
  12. ^ "Bush fears Moore because he speaks to the heart of America". The Independent (UK). 2004. 
  13. ^ Dominus, Susan (2009). "Suze Orman Is Having a Moment". The New York Times. 


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