North American English regional phonology
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North American English regional phonology is the study of variations in the pronunciation of spoken English by the inhabitants of various parts of North America (the United States and Canada). North American English can be divided into several regional dialects based on phonological (abstract sound-based), phonetic (physical sound-based), lexical (vocabulary-based), and some syntactic (grammar-based) features. North American English includes American English, which has several highly developed and distinct regional varieties, along with the closely related Canadian English, which is more homogeneous. American English (especially Western dialects) and Canadian English have more in common with each other than with the many varieties of English outside North America.
The most recent work documenting and studying the phonology of North American English dialects as a whole is the 2006 Atlas of North American English by William Labov, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg, on which much of the description below is based, following on a tradition of sociolinguistics dating to the 1960s; earlier large-scale American dialectology focused more on lexicology than on phonology.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Canada and Western United States
- 3 Greater New York City
- 4 Northeastern and North-Central United States
- 5 Southeastern United States
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
Regional dialects in North America are historically the most strongly differentiated along the Eastern seaboard. The distinctive speech patterns of urban centers of the American East Coast like Boston, New York City, and certain Atlantic cities of the South imposed their marks on the surrounding areas, all of these accents historically best associated with London-like r-dropping (called non-rhoticity), a feature now gradually receding among members of younger generations, especially in the South. The Connecticut River is now regarded as the southern and western boundary of the traditional New England accents, today still centered on Boston and much of Eastern New England. The Potomac River generally divides a group of Northeastern coastal dialects from an area of older Southeastern coastal dialects. All older Southern dialects have in fact mostly now receded in favor of a strongly rhotic, more unified accent group spread throughout the entire Southern United States since the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. In-between the two aforementioned rivers, some other variations exist, most famous among them being New York City English, still widely spoken in the largest American city and its metropolitan suburbs.
Outside of the Eastern seaboard, all other North American English (both in the U.S. and Canada) has been firmly rhotic, pronouncing all r sounds, since the very first arrival of English-speaking settlers. Rhoticity is a feature shared today with the English of Ireland, for example, rather than most of the English of England, which has become non-rhotic since the late 1700s. The sound of Western U.S. English, overall, is much more homogeneous that Eastern U.S. English. The interior and western half of the country was settled by people who were no longer closely connected to England, living farther from the British-influenced Atlantic Coast.
Certain particular vowel sounds are the best defining characteristics of regional North American English. One of the most documented markers of regional North American pronunciation is any given speaker's presence, absence, or transitional state of the so-called cot–caught merger. Eastern New England, Canadian, and Western Pennsylvania accents, as well as all accents of the Western United States have a merger of these /ɔ/ and /ɑ/ vowels, so that pairs of words like mock and talk, spa and thaw, or slot and bought rhyme. On the contrary, Philadelphia–Baltimore and New York metropolitan accents, plus inland accents of the Northern and Southern U.S., all strongly resist this merger, keeping the two sounds separate and thus maintaining an extra distinct vowel sound. Much of the rest of the United States is in a transitional state of the merger, particularly including the Midland dialect region, stretching from Ohio to eastern Kansas. Another prominent differentiating feature in regional North American English is fronting of the /oʊ/ in words like goat, home, and toe and /u/ in words like goose, two, and glue. This fronting characterizes Midland, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern U.S. accents; these accents also front and raise the /aʊ/ vowel (of words like house, now, and loud), making yowl sound something like yeah-wool or even yale. Northern U.S. English, however, tends to keep all these vowels more backed. Southern and some Midland U.S. accents are often most quickly recognized by the weakening or deleting of the "glide" sound of the /aɪ/ vowel in words like thyme, mile, and fine, making the word spy sound something like spa.
One phenomenon apparently unique to North American American accents is the irregular behavior of words that in the British English standard, Received Pronunciation, have /ɒrV/ (where V stands for any vowel). Words of this class include, among others: origin, Florida, horrible, quarrel, warren, borrow, tomorrow, sorry, and sorrow. In General American there is a split: the majority of these words have /ɔr/ (the sound of the word oar), but the last four words of the list above have /ɑr/ (the sound of the words are). In Canada, all of these words are pronounced as /ɔr/. In the accents of Greater New York City, Philadelphia, and the Carolinas, most or all of these words are pronounced /ɑr/ (Shitara 1993).
Hierarchy of regions by phonology
- North America
- Canada and Western United States = // remains backed + // is fronted + cot–caught merger
- Northeastern and North-Central United States = conservative // + conservative // + conservative // + pin–pen distinction
- Northern United States = cot–caught distinction + // is fronted
- Northern New England = cot–caught merger + // is fronted
- Northeastern New England = father–bother distinction + R-dropping
- Southern New England = cot–caught distinction + conservative //
- Upper Midwestern United States = cot–caught variability + // is central + bag–beg merger (or even haggle–Hegel merger)
- Northeastern and North-Central United States = conservative // + conservative // + conservative // + pin–pen distinction
- Southeastern United States = // is fronted + // is fronted + // is fronted
- Chesapeake and Outer Banks = // is backed + monophthongs can be diphthongized (up-gliding) before // and //
- Mid-Atlantic United States = cot–caught distinction + Mid-Atlantic // split system + Mary–marry–merry 3-way distinction
- Midland United States = // can be monophthongized before //, //, //, or // + transitional cot–caught merger + variable pin–pen merger
- New Orleans, Louisiana = cot–caught distinction + New York // split system + Southern // is variably monophthongized + pin–pen distinction
- Southern United States = // is monophthongized, encouraging the Southern Vowel Shift ([aː] ← // ← // ← // and drawling) + pin–pen merger
- St. Louis Corridor = // is always tensed, encouraging the Northern Cities Vowel Shift + cot–caught distinction + card–cord merger
- Southeastern United States = // is fronted + // is fronted + // is fronted
General American is an umbrella accent of American English perceived by many Americans to be "neutral" and free of regional characteristics. A General American accent is not a specific well-defined standard English in the way that Received Pronunciation (RP) has historically been the standard prestigious variant of the English language in England; rather, accents with a variety of features can all be perceived by Americans as General American so long as they lack certain noticeable sociolinguistically salient features: namely, local features (such as R-dropping, which usually identifies an American speaker as being from the East Coast or South), ethnic features (such as the "clear L" sound, which often identifies speakers as being Hispanic), or socioeconomic features (such as th-stopping, which often identifies speakers of a lower-class background).
One feature that General American is generally agreed to include is rhotic pronunciation, or R-fulness, which maintains the postalveolar /ɹ/ sound whenever it appears in a word, including before consonants in words like pearl, car, and court, differentiating it from RP. Unlike RP, General American is also characterized by the merger of the stressed vowels in words like father and bother, flapping of t and d, and the reduction of vowel contrasts before historic /ɹ/. General American also has yod-dropping after alveolar consonants, so that new sounds like noo and duke like dook.
The widespread Mary–marry–merry merger, horse–hoarse merger, and wine–whine merger are complete in most regions of North America and very common at least in informal and semi-formal varieties of many others; however, the most formal varieties tend to be more conservative in preserving these phonemic distinctions. Other phonemic mergers present in some General American speakers in certain regions include the cot–caught merger (in about half of speakers) and the gradually spreading pin–pen merger (a conditional merger).
Map of dialect regions
The map to the left shows the major regional dialects of Canadian English (each designated in all capital letters), as demarcated primarily by Labov et al.'s Atlas of North American English, as well as the related Telsur Project's regional maps.
All regional Canadian English dialects, unless specifically stated otherwise, are rhotic, with the father–bother merger, cot–caught merger, and pre-nasal "short a" tensing. The broadest regional dialects include:
Canada and Western United States
The English dialect region encompassing the Western United States and Canada is the largest one in North America and also the one with the fewest distinctive phonological features. This can be attributed to the fact that the West is the region most recently settled by English speakers, and so there has not been sufficient time for the region either to develop highly distinctive innovations or to split into strongly distinct dialectological subregions.
The main features of the Western U.S. and Canada are a completed cot-caught merger, a backed goat vowel (like the traditional Northern U.S.), and a fronted goose vowel (like the Southern U.S.).
Atlantic Canada, famously including the Maritime Provinces, forms a dialect region more marked than the rest of English-speaking Canada. Here, // is fronted and full Canadian raising occurs. Nova Scotia English has its own /æ/ system and a conservative //. Lunenburg English shows non-rhotic behavior. An influence of Hiberno- and Scottish English features is noticeable in Newfoundland English, including a fronting of //~//, the cheer–chair merger, the line–loin merger, and a distinct lack of the marry–merry merger. Such influence, though now largely declined, was also once significant to traditional Ottawa Valley English.
There are several phonological processes that have been identified as being particular to California English. However, these shifts are by no means universal in Californian speech, and any single Californian's speech may have only some of the changes identified below, or even none of them. Arizona, Nevada, and Oregon often demonstrate this Californian shift. Some youthful urban California English possesses a new vowel shift known as the California vowel shift that is partly identical to the Canadian shift:
- /æ/ is raised and diphthongized to [eə] or [ɪə] before nasal consonants. So ban is pronounced [beən].
- Before /ŋ/, /ɪ/ is raised to [i], so king has the same vowel as keen rather than kin.
- Before /ŋ/ /æ/ may be identified with the phoneme /e/, so rang is pronounced with the same vowel as ray.
- Elsewhere /æ/ is lowered in the direction of [a].
- /ʊ/ is moving towards [ʌ], so put sounds more like putt.
- /ʌ/ towards [ɛ], so putt can sound slightly similar to pet.
- /ɛ/ toward [æ], so kettle sounds like cattle.
- /ɑ/ toward [ɔ]: cot and caught are moving closer to General American caught.
- The vowels /uː/ (blue) and /oʊ/ (mope) are more front, i.e. [ʉː] and [ɵʉ].
Other English speakers in California have been reported to possesses the following features:
- Traditionally diphthongal vowels such as [oʊ] as in boat and [eɪ], as in bait, have acquired qualities much closer to monophthongs.
- A notable exception to the cot–caught merger may be found within the city limits of San Francisco, especially by older speakers.
- The pin–pen merger is complete in Bakersfield, and speakers in Sacramento either perceive or produce the pairs /ɛn/ and /ɪn/ close to each other.
Pacific Northwest and Standard Canada
Standard Canadian English is the relatively dialectally-uniform variety of North American English used in mainland Canada with phonetics and phonology equivalent to that of the Pacific Northwest, a regions extending from Southwestern Canada down into the Northwestern United States (particularly Washington and Oregon).
- [ɛ] raised and diphthongized to [ɛɪ] or [eɪ] before /ɡ/, and [æ] as [eɪ] before /ɡ/ and /ŋ/: leg and lag pronounced [leɪɡ]; tang pronounced [teɪŋ].
- The Pacific Northwest also has some of the features of the California vowel shift and the Canadian vowel shift:
- /æ/ is raised and diphthongized to [eə] before nasals by some speakers.
- Other features of the California vowel shift are mostly found in Southern Oregon.
The cot–caught merger to [ɒ] creates a hole in the short vowel sub-system and triggers a sound change known as the Canadian Shift, mainly found in Ontario, English-speaking Montreal and further west, and led by Ontarians and women; it involves the front lax vowels /æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/. It is also found scattered throughout the Western United States. The /æ/ of bat is retracted to [a] (except before nasals), lowering this vowel here more than in almost all other North American dialects; the retraction of /æ/ was independently observed in Vancouver and is more advanced for Ontarians and women than for people from the Prairies or Atlantic Canada and men. Then, /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are lowered in the direction of [æ] and [ɛ] and/or retracted; studies actually disagree on the trajectory of the shift.
Increasing numbers of Canadians and Northwestern Americans have a distinct feature called "Canadian raising" (Chambers 1973). This feature means that the nucleus of the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ are "raised" before voiceless consonants. In most varieties of American English pairs such as pouter/powder and rider/writer are pronounced exactly the same. In Canadian English, however, when a diphthong is followed by the voiceless consonants such as /p/ /t/ /k/ /f/ and some others, the starting point of the diphthong raises from an open central vowel to a mid one.
For example, ride is pronounced [raɪd] but with write, because the diphthong is followed by a /t/, the diphthong raises and the word is pronounced [rʌɪt]. Most other speakers of American English do not possess these allophonic sounds ([ʌʊ] and [ʌɪ]) but the pronunciation is still marked. The Canadian pronunciation of "about the house" may sound like "a boat the hoas" to speakers of dialects without the raising, and in many cases is misheard (or deliberately exaggerated) as "aboot the hoos". Some stand-up and situation comedians, as well as television shows (such as South Park) exaggerate the pronunciation to *"aboot the hoos" for comic effect. True Canadian raising affects both /aʊ/ and /aɪ/, but a related phenomenon, of much wider distribution throughout the United States, affects only /aɪ/. So, whereas the General American pronunciations of rider and writer are identical ([raɪɾɚ]), those American English speakers whose dialects include either the full or restricted Canadian raising will pronounce them as [ˈraɪɾɚ] and [ˈrʌɪɾɚ], respectively. Canadian raising is quite strong in the Prairies, the Maritimes, and most of Ontario as well.
Greater New York City
New York City
As in Eastern New England, the accents of New York City, Long Island, and adjoining New Jersey cities are traditionally non-rhotic, while other greater New York area varietes falling under the same sweeping dialect are usually rhotic. The vowels of cot [kɑt] and caught [kɔt] are distinct; in fact the New York dialect has the highest realizations of /ɔ/ in North American English, approaching [oə] or even [ʊə]. The vowel of cart is back and rounded [kɒːt] instead of fronted as it is in Boston.
The accent is well attested in American movies and television shows, especially ones about American mobsters. It is often referred to more narrowly as the "Bronx" or "Brooklyn accent", although in fact research has found no variation between the different accents among the boroughs of New York City per se. Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx both speak with this New York accent. In television and film, the accent is often exaggerated, but nevertheless still exists or existed to some degree among many New York metropolitan natives. The accent is heard in the popular television show The Sopranos, set in Essex County, New Jersey, within the metropolitan New York dialect area.
Northeastern and North-Central United States
One dialect area of the United States is commonly identified in linguistics research as "the North", though it does not necessarily comprise, literally, all the Northern States, instead usually comprising only the "traditional North": the Northeastern and North-Central States. This dialect area north of Pennsylvania and the Midland is distinguished from the Midland by a collection of linguistic features whose isoglosses all largely coincide, despite not being directly structurally related to each other. Dialectologists in the first half of the 20th century distinguished the North from the Midland on the basis of a large collection of lexical isoglosses, mostly dealing with differences in agricultural terms that are now largely obsolete (such as the use of ko-day in the north versus sheepie in the Midland to call sheep from the pasture). Despite the obsolescence of these lexical differences, the boundary between the North and Midland is maintained in the same place by phonological and phonetic isoglosses.
- Where the Midland has fronting of /aʊ/ and /oʊ/, in the North the nucleus of /aʊ/ is further back than that of /aɪ/ and /oʊ/ remains a back vowel. Similarly, although /uː/ is fronted to the point of being a mid or front vowel in most of the United States and Canada, in the North the allophone of /uː/ after non-coronal consonants remains back. Indeed, in part of the north (much of Wisconsin and Minnesota), /uː/ remains back in all environments.
- Where the Midland has /ɔ/ (as in dawn) in on, the North has /ɑ/.
- Canadian raising of /aɪ/—i.e., the use of a raised allophone such as [ʌɪ] for /aɪ/ before voiceless consonants—is very common in the North but infrequent in most of the Midland.
- There is no cot–caught merger in the North (as defined in the Atlas of North American English), although the merger is in progress in the Midland.
The North is also separated from the Midland by the presence of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS), on which see below; although the NCVS is not found in all parts of the North, it is present in the part of the North most closely adjacent to the Midland and thus helps to define the boundary.
The Inland North is a dialect region once considered the home of "standard Midwestern" speech that was the basis for General American in the mid-20th century (General American now being closer to the modern northern Midland dialect). However, the Inland North dialect has been modified in the mid-1900s by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which is now the main outstanding feature of this dialect region. Today the Inland North proper is regarded as the sub-region of the North where the NCVS predominates.
The Inland North is centered on the area south of the Great Lakes, and consists of two components to the east, central and western New York State (including Syracuse, Binghamton, Rochester, and Buffalo); and to the west, much of Michigan's Lower Peninsula (Detroit, Grand Rapids), Toledo, Cleveland, Chicago, Gary, and Southeastern Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha).
These two regions are separated by a region of northwestern Pennsylvania, including the city of Erie, which is not today part of the linguistic Inland North. Although Erie was historically part of the greater Northern dialect region, and is on the southern shore of Lake Erie halfway between Buffalo and Cleveland, it has not undergone the NCVS; instead, as a result of heavy influence from Pittsburgh, the cot–caught merger has taken place in Erie.
The NCVS is not uniform throughout the Inland North; it is most advanced in Western New York and Michigan, and less developed in Cleveland. At the eastern fringes are areas in which most speakers display NCVS features only in weak forms if at all, including northeastern Pennsylvania and some communities in northern and eastern New York. Northern Indiana and part of Minnesota show the first stage of the NCVS, tensing of /æ/, without any of the other stages.
- The first stage of the shift is the raising, tensing, and diphthongization of /æ/ towards [ɪə]. This results in words like cat being pronounced more like "kyat." This change occurs for the phoneme /æ/ in all contexts, in contrast with other American dialects in which phonetically similar "æ-tensing" occurs only before nasal consonants, or as part of a phonemic split of /æ/ into two phonemes, one tensed and the other still lax.
- The second stage is the fronting of /ɑ/ to [aː]. In some speakers this fronting is so extreme that their /ɑ/ phoneme can be mistaken for /æ/ by speakers of other dialects; thus for example block approaches the way other dialects pronounce black.
- In the third stage, /ɔ/ lowers towards [ɑ], causing stalk to sound more like other dialects' stock. The lowering of the phoneme /ɔ/ is not unique to this region. However, in other regions where such a lowering occurs, it results in the cot–caught merger. The merger does not occur in the Inland North because NCVS speakers front the /ɑ/ phoneme to [a], thus maintaining the distinction between /ɑ/ and /ɔ/.
- The fourth stage is the backing and sometimes lowering of /ɛ/, toward either [ə] or [æ].
- In the fifth stage, /ʌ/ is backed towards [ɔ], so that stuck sounds like stalk in dialects that maintain a [ɔ] sound in the word stalk. In this regard, a sound change occurs in the Inland North that is the reverse of most other American dialects (including the Midland): /ʌ/ is backer than /ɑ/ rather than fronter.
- In the sixth stage, /ɪ/ is lowered and backed. However, it is kept distinct from [ɛ] in all contexts, so, the pin–pen merger does not occur.
This shift is in progress across the region, though not necessarily completed. So, any individual speaker may display some of these six shifts without displaying the others. On the whole, though, the shifts occur in the order listed above, so speakers who display advanced forms of the later changes will generally be advanced in the earlier changes as well.
Southern New England
Southwestern New England forms a "less-strong" subset of the Inland North dialect region, in an area whose northernmost edge is lower Vermont, easternmost is Springfield, Massachusetts, southernmost is Middletown, Connecticut, and westernmost is Albany, New York. The dialect has close historical ties to the Inland North: it is from Western New England that the westward migration began that led to the settlement of most upstate New York and the rest of the Inland North. The linguistic boundary between Western and Eastern New England has been recognized at least since the 1940s; all of Western New England differs from Eastern New England in all of its features being able to pass as "General American", due communities settled from the Connecticut and New Haven colonies, rather than the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies.
Connecticut and western Massachusetts show the same general phonological system as the Inland North, including variable elements of Northern Cities Vowel Shift—for instance, an /æ/ that is somewhat higher and tenser than average, an /ɑ/ that is fronter than /ʌ/, and so on. The caught–cot merger has taken hold comparatively recently in Vermont, merging to an unrounded vowel [a] (unlike in Eastern New England, where the merged cot-caught vowel is back and rounded). In Connecticut /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ remain distinct.
Rhode Island is traditionally grouped with the Eastern New England dialect region, both by the dialectologists of the mid–20th century and in certain situations by the Atlas of North American English; it shares Eastern New England's traditional non-rhoticity and nasal short-a system. A key linguistic difference between Rhode Island and the rest of the Eastern New England, however, is that Rhode Island is subject to the father–bother merger and not the cot–caught merger. Indeed, Rhode Island shares with New York and Philadelphia an unusually high and back allophone of /ɔ/ (as in caught), even compared to other communities that do not have the cot–caught merger.
In the Atlas of North American English, the city of Providence (the only Rhode Island community sampled by the Atlas) is also distinguished by having the backest realizations of /uː/, /oʊ/, and /aʊ/ in North America. Therefore, Rhode Island English aligns in some features more with Boston English and other features more with New York City English.
Northern New England
The local traditional dialect of New England, sometimes called Eastern New England English, now only encompasses Northeastern New England: Maine, New Hampshire (some of whose urban speakers are retreating from the local accent), and eastern Massachusetts (including Greater Boston). The accent spoken here, plus the related one in Northwestern New England (Vermont), all share the Canadian raising of /aɪ/ and minimal fronting of /aʊ/ and /oʊ/ of "the North", but they also both possess the traditionally non-Northern cot-caught merger.
The Northeastern New England (Boston and Maine) accents have in a few respects more similarities with modern southern British English than many other dialects of American English have, due to the history of the region. Most famously, Northern New England accents (with the exception of Northwestern New England, much of southern New Hampshire, and Martha's Vineyard) are traditionally non-rhotic.
The Northeastern New England accent is seemingly unique in North America for having resisted the so-called father–bother merger: in other words, the stressed vowel phonemes of father and bother remain distinct as /aː/ and /ɒː/, so that the two words do not rhyme as they do in most American accents. Many Eastern New England speakers also once had a class of words with "broad A"—that is, /aː/ as in father in words that in most accents contain /æ/, such as bath, half, and can't. Broad A was another feature that Eastern New England shares with southern England. On the other hand, unlike dialects of England, the Northwestern and Northeastern New England dialects are subject to the cot–caught merger, merging the cot and caught classes to a back rounded vowel, [ɒː].
The distinction between the vowels of horse and hoarse is maintained in traditional non-rhotic New England accents as [hɒːs] for horse (with the same vowel as cot and caught) vs. [hoəs] for hoarse. Thus, the horse–hoarse merger does not occur traditionally, a relic feature still surviving in the Maine accent. Eastern New England has a so-called nasal short-a system. In other words, the /æ/ phoneme has highly distinct allophones before nasal consonants.
The North Central or Upper Midwest dialect region of the United States extends from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan westward across northern Minnesota and North Dakota and into eastern Montana. Although the Atlas of North American English does not include the North Central region as part of the North proper, it shares all of the features listed above as properties of the North as a whole. The North Central is a linguistically conservative region; it participates in few of the major ongoing sound changes of North American English.
- Unlike most of the rest of the North, the cot–caught merger is prevalent in the North Central region.
Southeastern United States
The 2006 Atlas of North American English identifies a "Southeastern super-region," in which all Midland and Southern accents, as well as accents on their regional margins, constitute a vast area of recent linguistic unity, based on the fronting of four vowel sounds (those in the words goose, strut, goat, and mouth).
A massive movement of non-Southerners into Atlanta during the 1990s has led the city to becoming hugely inconsistent in terms of dialect. Currently, the // vowel is variably monophthongized (as in the Southern U.S.); no cot–caught merger is reported; and the pin–pen merger is variable.
Chesapeake and Outer Banks
In the traditional "Hoi Toider" dialect enclaves of the Chesapeake Bay and Outer Banks (North Carolina) islands, // is typically backed and rounded. Ocracoke, North Carolina shows no cot–caught merger and its monophthongs are diphthongized (up-gliding) before /ʃ/ and /tʃ/. Smith Island, Maryland shows an // that is diphthongized and no happy tensing.
A band of the Midwestern United States from Pennsylvania west to the Great Plains is what linguists identify as the "Midland" dialect region. In older and traditional dialectological research, focused on lexicology (vocabulary) rather than phonology (accent), this is divided into two discrete subdivisions: the "North Midland" that begins north of the Ohio River valley area and, south of that, the "South Midland" dialect area. The North Midland region stretches from east to west across central and southern Ohio, central Indiana, central Illinois, Iowa, and northern Missouri, as well as Nebraska and Kansas where it begins to blend into the West. Major cities of this dialect area include Omaha, Kansas City, Des Moines, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. The South Midland dialect region follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moving across from Kentucky, southern Indiana, and southern Illinois to southern Missouri, Arkansas, southeastern Kansas, and Oklahoma, west of the Mississippi River.
The distinction between a "North" versus "South Midland" is discarded in the 2006 Atlas of North American English, in which the former "North Midland" is now simply called "the Midland" (and claimed to be the closest dialect to a "General American") and the "South Midland" is reckoned merely as the upper portion of "the South"; however, this ANAE reevaluation is on the basis of phonology rather than lexicology.
The Midland is characterized by having a distinctly fronter realization of the /oʊ/ phoneme (as in boat) than many other American accents, particularly those of the North; the phoneme is frequently realized with a central nucleus, approximating [əʊ]. Likewise, /aʊ/ has a fronter nucleus than /aɪ/, approaching [æʊ]. Another feature distinguishing the Midland from the North is that the word on contains the phoneme /ɔ/ (as in caught) rather than /ɑ/ (as in cot). (Obviously this only applies to Midland speakers not subject to the cot–caught merger, on which see below.) For this reason, one of the names for the North-Midland boundary is the "'On' line". However, since the twentieth century, this area is currently undergoing a vowel merger of the "short o" /ɑ/ (as in cot) and 'aw' /ɔ/ (as in caught) phonemes. Many speakers show transitional forms of this so-called cot–caught merger, which is complete in approximately half of the rest of North America. The /æ/ phoneme (as in cat) shows most commonly a so-called "continuous" distribution: /æ/ is raised and tensed toward [eə] before nasal consonants and remains low [æ] before voiceless stop consonants, and other allophones of /æ/ occupy a continuum of varying degrees of height between those two extremes.
The previous "South Midland" region shows dialectal features that are now more similar to the rest of the South than the Midland, most noticeably the smoothing of the diphthong /aɪ/ to [aː], and the second person plural pronoun you-all or y'all. Unlike the coastal South, however, the South Midland has always been a rhotic dialect, pronouncing /r/ wherever it has historically occurred. South Indiana is the northernmost extent of the South Midland region, forming what dialectologists refer to as the "Hoosier Apex" of the South Midland; the accent is locally known there as the "Hoosier Twang".
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina has a very distinctive Midland accent that encompasses elements of standard British English and American Southern English, with additional French-Huguenot influences. However, given Charleston's high concentration of African-Americans that spoke the Gullah language, the speech patterns were more influenced by the dialect of the Gullah African-American community. The most distinguishing feature of this accent is the way speakers pronounce the name of the city, to which a standard listener would hear "Chahls-ton", with a silent r. Alone among the various regional Southern dialects, Charlestonian speakers inglide long mid vowels, such as the raising for /aj/ and /aw/. Some attribute these unique features of Charleston's speech to its early settlement by the French Huguenots and Sephardi Jews, both of which played influential parts in Charleston's development and history.
The dialect of Central and Western Pennsylvania is, for many purposes, an eastern extension of the North Midland. Like the Midland proper, the Western Pennsylvania accent features fronting of /oʊ/ and /aʊ/, as well as positive anymore. The chief distinguishing feature of Western Pennsylvania as a whole is that the cot–caught merger is complete here, whereas it is still in progress in most of the Midland. The merger has also spread from Western Pennsylvania into adjacent West Virginia, historically in the South Midland dialect region.
The city of Pittsburgh is considered a dialect of its own often known as Pittsburghese. This region is additionally characterized by a sound change that is unique in North America: the monophthongization of /aʊ/ to [aː]. This is the source of the stereotypical Pittsburgh pronunciation of downtown as "dahntahn". Pittsburgh also features an unusually low allophone of /ʌ/ (as in cut); it approaches [ɑ] (/ɑ/ itself having moved out of the way and become a rounded vowel in its merger with /ɔ/).
The cities of the Mid-Atlantic States around the Delaware Valley are typically classified together, their speakers most popularly labelled as having Philadelphia accents or Baltimore accents. The Mid-Atlantic split of /æ/ into two separate phonemes is one major defining features of the dialect region, as is a resistance to the Mary–marry–merry merger and cot-caught merger (a raising and diphthongizing of the "caught" vowel, as in New York City), and a maintained distinction between historical short o and long o before intervocalic /r/, so that, for example, orange, Florida, and horrible have a different stressed vowel than story and chorus. Other features include:
- Water is sometimes pronounced [ˈwʊɾər], that is, with the vowel of wood.
- On is pronounced /ɔn/ not /ɑn/, so that, as in the South and Midland (and unlike New York and the North) it rhymes with dawn rather than don.
- The /oʊ/ of goat and boat is fronted, so it is pronounced [əʊ], as in the Midland and South.
- Canadian raising occurs for /aɪ/ (price) but not for /aʊ/ (mouth)
New Jersey is largely split into New York City dialectal features in the northeast, Northern dialectal features in the northwest, and Mid-Atlantic features in the South.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Parallels between the New York City accent and a type of white working-class New Orleans accent have been reported for over a century. This accent has been locally nicknamed "Yat" since at least the 1980s, from a traditional greeting "Where y'at" ("Where are you at?", meaning "How are you?"). The Yat/NYC parallels include the split of the historic short-a class into tense [eə] and lax [æ] versions, as well as pronunciation of cot and caught as [kɑt] and [kɔt]. The stereotypical New York curl–coil merger of "toity-toid street" (33rd Street) used to be a common New Orleans feature, though it has mostly receded today.
One of the most detailed phonetic depictions of an extreme "yat" accent of the early 20th century is found in the speech of the character Krazy Kat in the comic strip of the same name by George Herriman. While such extreme "yat" accents are no longer so common in the city, they can still be found in parts of Mid-City and the 9th ward, Jefferson Parish, as well as in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Oklahoma City, according to the ANAE's research, is not quite a member of the Midland dialect region, though it is still broadly a member of the Southeastern super-dialect region. The overview of ANAE's studied features for Oklahoma City speakers include a conservative //, conservative //, transitional cot-caught merger, and variable pin–pen merger.
The local Savannah accent is "giving way to regional patterns" of the Midland. According to the ANAE, there is much transition in Savannah, and the following features are reported as inconsistent or highly variable in the city: the Southern phenomenon of // being monophthongized, non-rhoticity, // fronting, the cot–caught merger, the pin–pen merger, and conservative // (dissimilar to both the South and the Midland).
The regional pronunciation of the Southern United States is often dialectally identified as "The South," as in ANAE. Few generalizations can be made about Southern pronunciation as a whole, as there is great variation between regions in the South (see different southern American English dialects for more information) and between older and younger people. Upheavals such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II have caused mass migrations throughout the United States. Southern American English as we know it today began to take its current shape only after World War II. Some generalizations include:
- The conditional merger of [ɛ] and [ɪ] before nasal consonants, the pin–pen merger.
- The diphthong /aɪ/ becomes monophthongized to [aː].
- Lax and tense vowels often merge before /l/
The South Midland dialect follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moves across Arkansas and Oklahoma west of the Mississippi, and peters out in West Texas. It is a version of the Midland speech that has assimilated some coastal Southern forms, most noticeably the loss of the diphthong [aɪ], which becomes [aː], and the second person plural pronoun you-all or y'all.
South Midlands speech is characterized by:
- monophthongization of /aɪ/ to [aː], for example, most dialects' I → "Ah" in the South.
- fronting of initial vowel of /aʊ/ to [æʊ]; the initial vowel is often lengthened and prolonged, yielding [æːʊ].
- nasalization of vowels, esp. diphthongs, before [n].
- raising of /æ/ to [e]; can't → cain't, etc.
- Unlike most American English, but like British English, the glide /j/ (the y sound) is retained before /u/ after the consonants /t, d, θ, s, z, n, l]; that is to say, yod-dropping does not occur.
- South Midlands speech is rhotic. This is the principal feature that distinguishes South Midland speech from the non-rhotic coastal Southern varieties.
In the Southern Vowel Shift:
- [ɪ] moves to become a high front vowel, and [ɛ] to become a mid front unrounded vowel. In a parallel shift, the /i/ and /e/ relax and become less front.
- The back vowels /u/ in boon and /o/ in code shift considerably forward to [ʉ] and [ɞ], respectively.
- The open back unrounded vowel /ɑr/ in card shifts upward towards [ɔ] as in board, which in turn moves up towards the old location of /u/ in boon. This particular shift probably does not occur for speakers with the cot–caught merger.
The lowering movement of the Southern Vowel Shift is also accompanied by a raising and "drawling" movement of vowels. The Southern drawl, or the diphthongization/triphthongization of the traditional short front vowels, as in the words pat, pet, and pit: these develop a glide up from their original starting position to [j], and then in some cases back down to schwa.
- /æ/ → [æjə]
- /ɛ/ → [ɛjə]
- /ɪ/ → [ɪjə]
The ANAE identifies an important subset of the South as the "Texas South," which only covers the north-central region of Texas (Dallas), Odessa, and Lubbock, but not Abilene, El Paso, or southern Texas. The pronunciation of the Southern dialect in Texas blends the major features of the Deep South and Upper South, as well as notable influence derived from an early Spanish-speaking population along with that of German immigrants.
In South Florida, particularly in and around Miami-Dade, Broward, and Monroe counties, a unique dialect, commonly called the "Miami accent", is widely spoken. The dialect developed among second- or third-generation Hispanics, including Cuban-Americans, whose first language was English (though some non-Hispanic white, black, and other races who were born and raised in Miami-Dade tend to adopt it as well.) It is based on a fairly standard American accent but with some changes very similar to dialects in the Mid-Atlantic (especially the New York area dialect, Northern New Jersey English, and New York Latino English.) Unlike Virginia Piedmont, Coastal Southern American, and Northeast American dialects and Florida Cracker dialect (see section below), "Miami accent" is rhotic; it also incorporates a rhythm and pronunciation heavily influenced by Spanish (wherein rhythm is syllable-timed).
However, this is a native dialect of English, not learner English or interlanguage; it is possible to differentiate this variety from an interlanguage spoken by second-language speakers in that "Miami accent" does not generally display the following features: there is no addition of /ɛ/ before initial consonant clusters with /s/, speakers do not confuse /dʒ/ with /j/, (e.g., Yale with jail), and /r/ is pronounced as postalveolar approximant [ɹ] instead of alveolar tap [ɾ] or alveolar trill [r] in Spanish.
St. Louis Corridor
St. Louis, Missouri is historically one among several (North) Midland cities, but it has developed some unique features of its own distinguishing it from the rest of the Midland.
- The St. Louis dialect merges the phonemes /ɔr/ (as in for) and /ɑr/ (as in far), while leaving distinct /or/ (as in four). This merger is less frequently found in younger speakers, and leads to jokes referring to "I farty-far" and "Farest Park".
- Some speakers, usually older generations, have /eɪ/ instead of Standard English /ɛ/ before /ʒ/: thus measure is pronounced /ˈmeɪʒ.ɚ/. Wash (as well as Washington) gains a /r/, becoming [wɔɻʃ] ("warsh").
- Dialects are considered "rhotic" if they pronounce the r sound in all historical environments, without ever "dropping" this sound. The father–bother merger is the pronunciation of the unrounded // vowel variant (as in cot, lot, bother, etc.) the same as the // vowel (as in spa, haha, Ma), causing words like con and Kahn and like sob and Saab to sound identical, with the vowel usually realized in the back or middle of the mouth as [ɑ~ä]. Finally, most of the U.S. participates in a continuous nasal system of the "short a" vowel (in cat, trap, bath, etc.), causing /æ/ to be pronounced with the tongue raised and with a glide quality (typically sounding like [ɛə]) particularly when before a nasal consonant; thus, mad is [mæd], but man is more like [mɛən].
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