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.

Inland Northern (American) English,[1] also known in the United States as Inland North English or Great Lakes English,[2] is an American English dialect spoken in a geographic band reaching approximately, east-to-west, from Herkimer, New York to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, including most of the cities along the Erie Canal and on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes region, and also including a geographic corridor that extends across a section of Illinois, ending around St. Louis, Missouri. The most advanced accents of Inland North English are spoken in the northern U.S. cities of Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse, New York.[3]

The Inland North geographic region was once the home of a standard American pronunciation in the early 20th century,[4] largely thanks to the popular influence of local Ohioan phonetician John Kenyon, though the regional dialect has since altered away from General American speech, due to its now-defining, innovative, mid-20th century "Northern cities" vowel shift.[5]

The Inland North accent was used for comedic effect in the Saturday Night Live skit "Bill Swerski's Superfans."


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); southeastern Wisconsin (Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee); and, largely, northeastern Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley/Coal Region (Scranton, Wilkes-Barre). This is the dialect spoken in part of 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 more features with Western Pennsylvania English. Meanwhile, 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 and other Northern cities are multidialectal and also or exclusively use African American Vernacular English, but some do use the Inland North dialect, as do almost all people of non-African descent in and around the city of Detroit.


Phonology and phonetics[edit]

A Midwestern accent (which may refer to other dialectal accents as well), Chicago accent, or Great Lakes accent are all 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 oftentimes found elsewhere in the Midwest.

  • Rhoticity: As in General American, Inland North speech is rhotic, and the "r" sound is typically the retroflex (or perhaps, more accurately, the bunched or molar) [ɻ].
  • 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.
  • Northern Cities Vowel 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. 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. This vowel shift has been occurring in six stages:
  1. The first and most common stage of the shift is the raising, fronting, and "breaking" of /æ/ universally (i.e., every instance of the "short a," thus, in words like cat, trap, bath, staff, etc), which therefore comes to be realized as a tensed diphthong of the type [eə] or [ɪə]; e.g. "naturally" as About this sound [ˈneətʃɻəɫi].
  2. The second stage is the fronting of /ɒ/, which in most American accents is [ɑ~ä], towards [a~æ]—in words like not, wasp, blah, and coupon (About this sound [ˈkʰupan])—which occupies a place close to (but opener than) the former /æ/.
  3. In the third stage, /ɔː/ (in words like law, thought and all) usually lowers towards [ɑ]; however, with the Inland Northern speakers, this lowers more precisely towards the General American [ɒ(ː)], since they front the Middle English /ɒ/ phoneme (e.g., in "rod") to [a], thus maintaining a distinction between cot [kʰat] and caught [kʰɒ(ː)t] (About this sound listen).[6]
  4. The fourth stage is the backing and lowering of /ɛ/, almost towards [ɐ].
  5. During the fifth stage, /ʌ/ (in words like cut, mud and luck) is backed in the mouth.
  6. In the sixth stage, /ɪ/ (in words like if, bib and pin) is lowered and backed, although it is kept distinct from /ɛ/ in all phonetic environments, so the pin–pen merger does not occur.
  • Canadian raising: Two phenomena typically exist, corresponding with identical phenomena in Canadian English, involving tongue-raising in the nuclei (beginning points) of gliding vowels that start in an open front (or central) unrounded position:
    • The raising of the tongue for the nucleus of the gliding vowel // is found in the Inland North when the vowel sound appears before any voiceless consonant, just like in General American, thus distinguishing, for example, between writer and rider (About this sound listen).[7] However, unlike General American, the raising occurs even before certain voiced consonants, including in the words fire, tiger, iron, and spider. When it is not subject to raising, the nucleus of /aɪ/ is pronounced with the tongue further to the front of the mouth as [a̟ɪ] or [ae]; however, in the Inland North speech of Pennsylvania alone, the nucleus is centralized, thus: [äɪ].[8]
    • The nucleus of /aʊ/ may be more backed than in other common North American accents (towards [ɐʊ] or [äʊ]).
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).[9]
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 nucleus of // (as in go and boat), remains a back vowel [oʊ~ʌo], not undergoing the fronting that is common in other American dialects, such as Southern and Midland American English. Similarly, the traditionally high back vowel /uː/ tends to be conservative and less fronted in the North than in other regions, though it still undergoes some fronting after coronal consonants: [ɵu].[10]
  • /ɑr/ (as in bar, sorry, or start) is centralized or fronted for many speakers in this region, resulting in variants like [äɻ~ɐɻ].
  • Working-class th-stopping: The two sounds represented by the spelling th/θ/ (as in thin) and /ð/ (as in those)—may shift from fricative consonants to stop consonants among urban and working-class speakers: thus, for example, thin may approach the sound of tin (using [t]) and those may merge to the sound of doze (using [d]).[11] This was parodied in the comedy sketch "Bill Swerski's Superfans," in which characters hailing from Chicago pronounce "The Bears" as "Da Bears."


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", Syracuse residents who used to say "pop" until sometime in the 1970s now say "soda", and Rochester residents say either. 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. Northeast 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/water 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
  • In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Binghamton (all New York), as well as Scranton (Pennsylvania), athletic/tennis shoes are often called sneakers.
  • 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.
  • In northeastern Pennsylvania, surrounding and including its urban center of Scranton, the plural of you (typically you guys or simply you in most of the Inland North and the rest of the country) are commonly heard to be yous(e).

Notable lifelong native speakers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds) (2004). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. xvi.
  2. ^ Garn-Nunn, Pamela G.; Lynn, James M. (2004). Calvert's Descriptive Phonetics. Thieme, p. 136.
  3. ^ Gordon, Matthew J. (2004). "New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities: phonology." Kortmann, Bernd, Kate Burridge, Rajend Mesthrie, Edgar W. Schneider and Clive Upton (eds). A Handbook of Varieties of English. Volume 1: Phonology, Volume 2: Morphology and Syntax. Berlin / New York: Mouton de Gruyter. p. 297.
  4. ^ "Talking the Tawk", The New Yorker
  5. ^ Labov et al., p. 188.
  6. ^ Labov et al., Chapter 14, p. 189.
  7. ^ Labov et al. (2006), pp. 203-204.
  8. ^ Labov et al. (2006), pp. 161.
  9. ^ Hillenbrand, James M. (2003). "American English: Southern Michigan". Journal of the International Phonetic Association 33 (1): 122. doi:10.1017/S0025100303001221. 
  10. ^ Labov et al. (2006), p. 187
  11. ^ van den Doel, Rias (2006). How Friendly Are the Natives? An Evaluation of Native-Speaker Judgements of Foreign-Accented British and American English (PDF). Landelijke onderzoekschool taalwetenschap (Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics). p. 268-269. 
  12. ^ Gostin, Nick (2011). "Joan Cusack on 'Mars Needs Moms,' Raising Kids and Her Famous Brother". AOL Inc. 
  13. ^ Stein, Anne (2003). "The über-mayor: what's behind Daley's longevity". Christian Science Monitor. 
  14. ^ Wawzenek, Bryan. "10 Actors Who Always Show Up on the Best TV Shows." Diffuser.
  15. ^ Dennis Farina, 'Law & Order' actor, dies at 69. NBC News. 2013. 
  16. ^ "Dennis Franz". Encyclopædia Brittanica. 2014. 
  17. ^ Metcalf, Allan (2004). Presidential Voices: Speaking Styles from George Washington to George W. Bush. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 156. 
  18. ^ Media Literacy: A Reader. Peter Lang. 2007. p. 55. 
  19. ^ Brooks, Jake (2004). "Mr. Skin Invades Sundance". The New York Observer. Observer Media. 
  20. ^ McClelland, Edward (2013). Nothin' but Blue Skies. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. p. 85. 
  21. ^ "Bush fears Moore because he speaks to the heart of America". The Independent (UK). 2004. 
  22. ^ Dominus, Susan (2009). "Suze Orman Is Having a Moment". The New York Times. 
  23. ^ "Michael Symon: 2007 winner of 'The Next Iron Chef'". Chicago Tribune. 2015. 
  24. ^ Maupin, Elizabeth (1997). "'Signs': Still Briming With Intelligent Life." Orlando Sentinel.


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