“Where’d you learn to speak like thee-at?”
Krissy Walter always knew she had a slight nasal accent. But the moment she stepped onto Colgate University’s campus in central New York state, the Buffalo, N.Y., native started taking flack for the distinctive way she pronounced her flat A’s.
“It would always hee-appen when I said a word like eah-pple,” Walter said. “Everyone would kind of repeat my words bee-ack and laugh.”
Walter, now a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Buffalo, is at the forefront of an epic vowel shift sweeping the U.S. Great Lakes region from Milwaukee to upstate New York, linguists say. The trend, known as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, was first detected in the early 1960s, but has likely been spreading for at least a century.
Although the shift is one of several important language changes in the country, linguists say it’s the most significant because of the vowels it affects--the six short vowels in caught, cot, cat, bit, bet and but.
“The short vowels in bit and bet have been pretty stable since old English, going back a thousand years,” said Matthew Gordon, an English professor at the University of Missouri at Columbia. “There have been periodic shifts from time to time, but nothing like this before.”
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which takes place in several stages and eventually makes words like cat and bat sound like kee-at and bee-at, is spreading quickly, although scholars are not sure where it will move next. The shift could remain isolated within the Great Lakes area or it could creep west toward Seattle.
Although traces of the shift have been found as far south as Indianapolis, the trend is mainly confined to urban centers around the Great Lakes. The shift’s eastern boundaries extend to upstate New York. Buffalo is at the heart of the affected region. From there, the pattern sweeps through Erie, Pa., and toward Chicago, extending all the way through Michigan and Wisconsin.
So far, the trend hasn’t crossed into different ethnic or racial communities. Although the shift is widespread among whites who identify themselves with the Great Lakes region, it’s virtually nonexistent among blacks and Hispanics.
“It’s not uncommon to find language differences that fall along ethnic and racial lines,” said Gordon, who explained that the shift is generally subconscious. “Ultimately, it’s related to the fact that language is a part of individual identity.”
Even white Canadians living across the border show no signs of adopting the shift, linguists say.
“It’s kind of surprising it hasn’t spread [in Canada] a little bit,” Gordon said. “Maybe at some level it’s seen as an American way of speaking and is avoided.”
The shift may astonish many northern Midwesterners and Michiganders in particular, many of whom, Gordon said, believe they speak perfect American English. And indeed, up until the time the shift became prominent, the Great Lakes region used the vowel system common in the central Midwest--the kind of pronunciation on which network broadcasters were once told to model their speech.
But not anymore.
Although the vowel shift is often associated with a Chicago accent, some linguists believe it actually originated in the eastern United States in the late 1800s. William Labov, a linguist and Northern Cities Vowel Shift expert at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the trend may have started during the construction of the Erie Canal, which brought thousands of immigrants from the east to the west.
During the late 1800s “you had people from all over coming to that part of the country speaking different kinds of English,” Gordon explained. “That’s the kind of environment where you expect language to shift very quickly.”
Linguists are undecided on where and when the shift will move next.
“It’s probably spreading west,” Gordon said, “but when you think about it, once you go west of Minnesota, there aren’t any big cities until Seattle. It could slow down as it goes through those rural areas.”
For the most part, though, linguists do not expect the shift to spread to the East Coast or central Midwest.
But even the central Midwest is undergoing a significant vowel shift, linguists say. Half of the country, from eastern New England to the West Coast, is experiencing a trend commonly called the ‘cot/caught merger.’ Those affected by the recent merger, which is moving west to east often within a generation, no longer make a distinction between words like cot and caught and don and dawn--words that have traditionally been distinct. Most, for example, will pronounce caught like cot.
Although the Northern Cities Vowel Shift is buffered to the south and east, it continues to spread in the Great Lakes region, most likely through young women like Krissy Walter.
“When it happens, traces can be heard within a generation,” Gordon said. “And it’s not that surprising that the most extreme example would be in the younger generation and in a young woman in particular.
“Women are always at the forefront of the language front,” he said, at least when people are unaware of the trend's presence. Linguists are not sure why. But they do know that the shift is spreading quickly because it carries no stigma--at least for the most part.
Americans are divided on whether the shift is a pleasant, neutral or downright cacophonous change in the Great Lakes dialect. Walter, however, is fine with the way she speaks.
“I don’t think of it too much,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the worst accent to have. I’d much rather hee-ave this than a Boston or New York City accent.”
But Brooke Taylor, a 25-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native who now lives in Washington, prefers to leave her vowels the way they’ve been pronounced for a thousand years.
“I still notice my flat A’s sometimes,” Taylor said. “But now that I’ve moved away I think I’ve mostly lost the accent. A lot of times people will say to me, ‘Oh, you’re from Rochester? You don’t sound like you’re from there at all.’ I’ll say, ‘Oh, really?’ And think, ‘Thank God.’”