Inland Northern American English
Inland Northern (American) English, also known in American linguistics as the Inland North or Great Lakes dialect, is an American English dialect spoken primarily by White Americans in a geographic band reaching from Central New York westward along the Erie Canal, through much of the U.S. Great Lakes region, to eastern Iowa. The most innovative Inland Northern accents are spoken in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. A geographic corridor reaching from Chicago southwest along historic Route 66 into St. Louis, Missouri, has also been infiltrated by features of the Inland Northern accent, with the corridor today showing a mixture of both Inland Northern and Midland accents. Linguists often characterize the western Great Lakes region's dialect as the separate North-Central American English.
The early 20th-century accent of the Inland North was the basis for the term "General American", though the regional accent has since altered, due to its now-defining chain shift of vowels that began as late as the 1930s. A 1969 study first formally showed lower-middle-class women leading the regional population in the first two stages (raising of the TRAP vowel and fronting of the LOT vowel) of what, since the 1970s onward, has been documented as the five-stage Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Some recent evidence has suggested a reversal of some of the shift's features in certain locations.
The dialect region called the "Inland North" consists of western and central New York State (Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Jamestown, Fredonia, 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 and Wilkes-Barre). This is the dialect spoken in part of America's chief industrial region, an area sometimes known as the Rust Belt.
Linguists identify the "St. Louis Corridor", extending from Chicago down into St. Louis, as a dialectally remarkable area, because young and old speakers alike have a Midland accent, except for a single middle generation born between the 1920s and 1940s, who have an Inland Northern accent diffused into the area from Chicago.
Erie, Pennsylvania, though in the geographic area of the "Inland North," never underwent the Northern Cities Shift and now shares more features with Western Pennsylvania English due to contact with Pittsburghers, particularly with Erie as their choice of city for summer vacations. 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 rather than Inland Northern English, but some do use the Inland Northern dialect, as do almost all people in and around the city of Detroit who are not African American.
The dialect's progression across the Midwest has stopped at a general boundary line traveling through central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and then western Wisconsin, on the other sides of which speakers have continued to maintain their Midland and North Central accents. Sociolinguist William Labov theorizes that this separation reflects a political divide and a controlled study of his shows that Inland Northern speakers tend to be more associated with liberal politics than those of the other dialects, especially as Americans continue to self-segregate in residence based on ideological concerns. Former Democratic President Barack Obama, for example, has a mild Inland Northern accent.
History of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift
William Labov et al.'s Atlas of North American English (2006) presents the first historical understandings about the order in which the Inland North's vowels shifted. Speakers around the Great Lakes began to pronounce the short a sound, /æ/ as in TRAP, as more of a diphthong and with a higher starting point in the mouth, causing the same word to sound more like "tray-ap" or "tray-up"; Labov et al. assume that this began by the middle of the 19th century. After roughly a century following this first vowel change—general /æ/ raising—the region's speakers, around the 1960s, then began to use the newly opened vowel space previously occupied by [æ] for the broad a of "spa" /ɑ/ as in LOT and PALM, so words like bot, gosh, or lock then came to be pronounced with the tongue extended farther forward, thus making these words sound more like how bat, gash, and lack sound in dialects without the shift. These two vowel changes were first recognized and reported in 1967. While these were certainly the first two vowel shifts of this accent, and Labov et al. assume that /æ/ raising occurred first, they also admit that the specifics of time and place are unclear. In fact, real-time evidence of a small number of Chicagoans born between 1890 and 1920 suggests that /ɑ/ fronting occurred first, starting by 1900 at the latest, and was followed by /æ/ raising sometime in the 1920s.
During the 1960s, several more vowels followed suit in rapid succession, each filling in the space left by the last, including the lowering of /ɔ/ as in THOUGHT, the backing and lowering of /ɛ/ as in DRESS, the backing of /ʌ/ as in STRUT (first reported in 1986), and the backing and lowering of /ɪ/ as in KIT, often but not always in that exact order. Altogether, this constitutes a chain shift of vowels, identified as such in 1972, and known by linguists as the "Northern Cities [Vowel] Shift" or NCS: the defining pattern of the current Inland Northern accent.
Possible motivations for the shift
Migrants from all over the Northeastern U.S. came to the rapidly-industrializing Great Lakes area in the decades after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, and Labov suggests that the Inland North's general /æ/ raising originated from the diverse and incompatible /æ/ raising patterns of these various migrants mixing into a new, simpler pattern. He posits that this hypothetical dialect-mixing event that preceded the Northern Cities Shift (NCS) occurred by about 1860 in upstate New York, and the later stages of the NCS are merely those that logically followed (a "pull chain"). More recent evidence suggests that German-accented English greatly influenced the shift, because German speakers tend to pronounce the English TRAP vowel as [ɛ] and the LOT/PALM vowel as [ɑ̈~a], and there were more speakers of German in the Erie Canal region of upstate New York in 1850 than there were of any single variety of English. There is also evidence for an alternative theory, according to which the Great Lakes area—settled primarily by western New Englanders—simply inherited Western New England English and developed that dialect's vowel shifts further. 20th-century Western New England English variably shows NCS-like TRAP and LOT/PALM pronunciations, which may have already existed among 19th-century New England settlers, though this has been contested. Another theory, not mutually exclusive with the others, is that the Great Migration of African Americans intensified White Northerners' participation in the NCS in order to differentiate their accents from Black ones.
Reversal of the shift
The shift, found throughout the Great Lakes cities, still exists, but recent evidence suggests a reversal of the shift in at least some of the Inland North, such as in Lansing, Michigan, and Ogdensburg and Syracuse, New York, in particular with regard to /ɑ/ fronting and /æ/ raising (though raising is persisting before nasal consonants, as is the General American norm).
Phonology and phonetics
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||Inland Northern realization||Example words|
|/æ/||eə~ɪə||bath, trap, man|
|/ɑː/||a~ɑ̈||blah, bother, father, |
lot, top, wasp
|ɒ~ɑ||all, dog, bought, |
loss, saw, taught
|/ɛ/||ɛ~ɜ~ɐ||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||ə||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||ɪ~ɪ̈||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||ɪi~i||beam, chic, fleet|
|/ʌ/||ʌ~ɔ||bus, flood, what|
|/ʊ/||ʊ||book, put, should|
|/uː/||u~ɵu||food, glue, new|
|/aɪ/||ae~aɪ~æɪ||ride, shine, try|
|ɐɪ~əɪ~ʌɪ||bright, dice, fire|
|/aʊ/||äʊ~ɐʊ||now, ouch, scout|
|/eɪ/||eɪ||lame, rein, stain|
|/ɔɪ/||ɔɪ||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||ʌo~oʊ~o||goat, oh, show|
|/ɑːr/||aɻ~ɐɻ||barn, car, park|
|/ɪər/||iɻ~iɚ||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɛər/||eəɻ~eɻ||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜːr/||əɻ~ɚ||burn, doctor, first, |
herd, learn, murder
|/ɔːr/||ɔɻ~oɻ||hoarse, horse, war|
|/ʊər/||uɻ~oɻ||poor, tour, lure|
|/jʊər/||jɚ||cure, Europe, pure|
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.
Northern Cities Vowel Shift
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift or Northern Cities Shift is a chain shift of vowels and the defining accent feature of the Inland North dialect region, though it can also be found, variably, in the neighboring Upper Midwest and Western New England accent regions.
Tensing of /æ/ and fronting of /ɑ/
The first two sound changes in the shift, with some debate about which one led to the other or came first, are the general raising and lengthening (tensing) of the "short a" (the vowel sound of TRAP), as well as the fronting of /ɑ/ (the "ah" vowel of PALM and LOT), in the direction of [a]. Inland Northern /æ/ raising was first identified in the 1960s, with /æ/ coming to be articulated so that the tongue starts from a position that is higher and fronter than it used to be, and then often glides back toward the center of the mouth, thus producing a centering diphthong of the type [ɛə] or [eə] or at its most extreme [ɪə]; e.g. naturally /ˈnætʃɹəli/ as [ˈneətʃɹəɫi]. As for /ɑ/ fronting towards [a], it may, for advanced speakers, even be close to /æ/—so that pot or sod come to be pronounced how a mainstream American speaker would say pat or sad; e.g. coupon /ˈkupɑn/ as [ˈkʰupan].
Lowering of /ɔ/
The fronting of /ɑ/ leaves a blank space in Inland North speakers' pronunciation that is filled by lowering /ɔ/ (the "aw" vowel in THOUGHT), which comes to be pronounced with the tongue in a lower position, closer to [ɑ] or [ɒ]. As a result, for example, people affected by the shift may pronounce caught the way speakers without the shift say cot, with both using the vowel [ɑ]. However, a cot–caught merger is robustly avoided in many parts of Inland North, due to the prior fronting of the /ɑ/. In other words, cot is [kʰat] and caught is [kʰɒt]. Even so, however, there is a definite scattering of Inland North speakers who are in a state of transition towards a cot–caught merger; this is particularly evident in northeastern Pennsylvania. Younger speakers reversing the fronting of /ɑ/, for example in Lansing, Michigan, also approach a merger.
Backing or lowering of /ɛ/
The movement of /æ/ to [ɛə], in order to avoid overlap, presumably initiates the further movement of the original /ɛ/ vowel (the "short e" in DRESS) towards either [ɐ], the near-open central vowel, or almost [æ]. As the vowel [ɐ] is pronounced with the tongue farther back and lower in the mouth than in the sound [ɛ], this change is called "lowering and/or backing".
Backing of /ʌ/
The next change is the movement of /ʌ/ toward a very far back position [ɔ]. /ʌ/ is the "short u" vowel in STRUT. People with the shift pronounce bus so that it sounds more like boss to people without the shift.
Lowering and backing of /ɪ/
The final change is the lowering and backing of /ɪ/, the "short i" vowel in KIT, to a more central position in the mouth, perhaps [ɘ].
- 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 that formerly contained /eɪ/, /æ/, or /ɛ/ before an r and a vowel are all pronounced as [ɛ~eə] followed by r followed by the vowel, so that Mary, marry, and merry all sound the same, and have the same first vowel as Sarah, and bearing. This merger is also widespread throughout the Midwest, West, and Canada.
- 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 /aɪ/ 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 (listen). 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 than most other American dialects, as [a̟ɪ] or [ae]; however, in the Inland North speech of Pennsylvania, the nucleus is centralized as in General American, thus: [äɪ].
- The nucleus of /aʊ/ may be more backed than in other common North American accents (towards [ɐʊ] or [äʊ]).
- The nucleus of /oʊ/ (as in go and boat), like /aʊ/, remains a back vowel [oʊ], not undergoing the fronting that is common in the vast American southeastern super-region. Similarly, the traditionally high back vowel /u/ tends to be conservative and less fronted in the North than in other regions, though it still undergoes some fronting after coronal consonants.
- /ɑr/ (as in bar, sorry, or start) is centralized or fronted for many speakers in this region, resulting in variants like [ɑ̈ɻ~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]). This was parodied in the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch "Bill Swerski's Superfans," in which characters hailing from Chicago pronounce "The Bears" as "Da Bears."
- Caramel is typically pronounced with two syllables as carmel.
Note that not all of these terms, here compared with other regions, are necessarily unique only to the Inland North, though they appear most strongly in this region:
- Boulevard as a synonym for island (in the sense of a grassy area in the middle of some streets)
- Crayfish for a freshwater crustacean
- Devil's Night for the night before Halloween (not Northeastern Mischief Night)
- Expressway as a synonym for highway
- Faucet for an indoor water tap (not Southern spigot)
- Goose pimples as a synonym for goose bumps
- Pit for the seed of a peach (not Southern stone or seed)
- Pop for a sweet, bubbly soft drink (not Eastern and Californian soda, nor Southern coke)
- The "soda/pop line" has been found to run between Western 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. Eastern Wisconsinites around Milwaukee and some Chicagoans are also an exception, using the word soda.)
- Teeter totter as a synonym for seesaw
- Tennis shoes for generic athletic shoes (not Northeastern sneakers, except in New York State and Pennsylvania)
Individual cities and sub-regions also have their own terms; for example:
- Bubbler, in a large portion of Wisconsin around Milwaukee, for water fountain (in addition to the synonym drinking fountain, also possible throughout the Inland North)
- Cash station, in the Chicago area, for ATM
- Doorwalls, in Detroit, for sliding glass doors
- Gapers' block or gapers' delay, in Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit; or gawk block, in Detroit, for traffic congestion caused by rubbernecking
- Gym shoes, in Chicago and Detroit, for generic athletic shoes
- Party store, in Michigan, for convenience store
- Rummage sale, in Wisconsin, as a synonym for garage sale or yard sale
- Treelawn, in Cleveland and Michigan; devilstrip or devil's strip in Akron, Ohio; and right-of-way in Wisconsin for the grass between the sidewalk and the street
- Yous(e) or youz, in northeastern Pennsylvania around its urban center of Scranton, for you guys; in this sub-region, there is notable self-awareness of the Inland Northern dialect (locally called by various names, including "Coalspeak")
Notable lifelong native speakers
- Hillary Clinton – "playing down her flat Chicago accent"
- Joan Cusack – "a great distinctive voice" she says is due to "my Chicago accent... my A's are all flat"
- Richard M. Daley – "makes no effort to tame a thick Chicago accent"
- Kevin Dunn – "a blue-collar attitude and the Chicago accent to match"
- David Draiman – "distinct Chicago accent"
- Rahm Emanuel – "more refined (if still very Chicago)"
- Dennis Farina – "rich Chicago accent"
- Chris Farley – "beatific Wisconsin accent"
- Dennis Franz – "tough-guy Chicago accent"
- Sean Giambrone – "Sean, whose Chicago accent is thick enough to cut with a knife"
- John Goodman – "Goodman delivered a completely authentic Inland North accent.... It wasn't an act." 
- Susan Hawk – "a Midwestern truck driver whose accent and etiquette epitomized the stereotype of the tacky, abrasive, working-class character"
- Bill Lipinski – "I could live only 100 miles from the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Lipinski) and he would have an accent and I do not"
- Jim "Mr. Skin" McBride – "a clipped Chicago accent"
- Michael Moore – "a Flintoid, with a nasal, uncosmopolitan accent" and "a recognisable blue-collar Michigan accent"
- Suze Orman – "broad, Midwestern accent"
- Iggy Pop – "plainspoken Midwestern accent"
- Paul Ryan – "may be the first candidate on a major presidential ticket to feature some of the Great Lakes vowels prominently"
- Michael Symon – "Michael Symon's local accent gives him an honest, working-class vibe"
- Lily Tomlin – "Tomlin's Detroit accent"
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- List of English words from indigenous languages of the Americas
- American English regional differences
- North Central American English
- Western New England English
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