Votes and Vowels: A Changing Accent Shows How Language Parallels Politics

By Julie Sedivy | March 28, 2012 1:13 pm

Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.

There’s been a good bit of discussion and hand-wringing lately over whether the American public is becoming more and more politically polarized and what this all means for the future of our democracy. You may have wrung your own hands over the issue. But even if you have, chances are you’re not losing sleep over the fact that Americans are very clearly becoming more polarized linguistically.

It may seem surprising, but in this age where geographic mobility and instant communication have increased our exposure to people outside of our neighborhoods or towns, American regional dialects are pulling further apart from each other, rather than moving closer together. And renowned linguist William Labov thinks there’s a connection between political and linguistic segregation.

map of North American dialects
Dialect regions as defined by the Atlas of North American English

In the final volume of his seminal book series Principles of Linguistic Change, Labov spends a great deal of time discussing a riveting linguistic change that’s occurring in the northern region of the U.S. clustering around the Great Lakes. This dialect region is called the Inland North, and runs from just west of Albany to Milwaukee, loops down to St. Louis, and traces a line to the south of Chicago, Toledo, and Cleveland.

Thirty-four million speakers in this region are in the midst of a modern-day re-arrangement of their vowel system. Labov thinks it all started in the early 1800’s when the linguistic ancestors of this new dialect began to pronounce “a” in a distinct way: the pronunciation of “man” began to lean towards “mee-an”, at least some of the time. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that this sound change began to trigger a real domino effect.

For many speakers of the northern cities, there were now no English words being pronounced with the original, now abandoned “a” sound. Since vowels evidently abhor a vacuum, this empty slot was eventually filled by the “o” sound, so that “pod” came to be pronounced like “pad” used to be. What ensued next was much like a free-for-all game of musical chairs involving vowels: “desk” has ended up being pronounced kind of like the former “dusk”, “head” like “had”, “bus” like “boss”, and “bit” like erstwhile “bet.” (You can listen to some examples here.)

This rearrangement, called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, is the result of a chain reaction of vowel changes on an epic scale similar to the process that transformed vowels from Middle English to Modern English between 1400 and 1600. (Ever wonder why a word like “beet” perversely uses the same letter for its vowel sound as the word “bed”? The two words used to be pronounced with essentially the same vowel sound). The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is thought to be both spreading and accelerating.

But one of the puzzles about this vowel shift is why it has spread through an area of 88 thousand square miles only to stop cold south of Cleveland and west of Milwaukee. And this is where things get political.

Linguists have long known that mere exposure to new speech patterns isn’t always enough to cause people to adapt their own speech accordingly. Often, a “buy-in” is required; your own speech may shift depending on how much social affinity you feel for the speakers of these new patterns. This explains why, even within the Inland North Region, the spread hasn’t been uniform. For instance, African American speakers in the same region—or rural speakers for that matter—haven’t really warmed to the new-fangled vowels. But why is it that white city folk in Cleveland sound a whole lot like white people in Syracuse and Milwaukee, but a whole lot unlike their fellow Ohioans in Columbus, a short distance away?

Labov points out that the residents of the Inland North have long-standing differences with their neighbors to the south, who speak what’s known as the Midland dialect. The two groups originated from distinct groups of settlers; the Inland Northerners migrated west from New England, while the Midlanders originated in Pennsylvania via the Appalachian region. Historically, the two settlement streams typically found themselves with sharply diverging political views and voting habits, with the northerners generally being more liberal.

Labov suggests that it’s these deep-seated political disagreements that create an invisible borderline barring the encroachment of Northern Cities Vowels. When he looked at the relationship between voting patterns by county over the last three Presidential elections and the degree to which speakers in these counties shifted their vowels, he found a tight correlation between the two. And the states that have participated in the vowel shift have also tended to resist implementing the death penalty.

Do vowel-shifters sound more liberal to modern ears? Yes, at least to some extent. Labov had students in Bloomington, Indiana, listen to a vowel-shifting speaker from Detroit and a non-vowel-shifter from Indianapolis. The students rated both speakers as equal in probable intelligence, education and trustworthiness. They also didn’t think they would have different attitudes about abortion (both speakers were female). But they did think the vowel-shifting speaker was more likely to be in favor of gun control and affirmative action.

Are we moving toward an era where Americans will speak discernibly red versus blue accents? It’s hard to say. Social identities are complex, and can be defined along a number of different dimensions like class, race, or ethnicity. Not everyone feels that politics are a part of their core identity. But I suspect that political ideology may become an anchor for accents to the extent that large social groups collectively identify themselves by their political beliefs. According to Bill Bishop, author of The Big Sort, this is happening more and more as Americans voluntarily cluster themselves into homogenous, politically like-minded communities.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that George W. Bush acquired a distinct Texan accent, despite having abundant exposure to people from the Northeast, or why Barack Obama sprouted a mild set of Chicago vowels, even though he was fully an adult before ever living there. Whether consciously or not, these politicians may be flying their partisan flags every time they speak. And if accent becomes routinely melded with political affiliation in people’s minds, it may come to play an even stronger part in how people respond to political candidates.

No doubt we’re already seeing the politicization of pronunciation in candidates’ speech. For instance, in 2008, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos remarked about Sarah Palin’s Western accent: “We really haven’t heard this kind of accent before. This is an original voice that doesn’t sound like Washington, doesn’t sound like an insider, doesn’t sound at all like what we have. I think it sounds outsider.” I suppose if you want to market someone as a maverick candidate, she’d best sound like one.

And I suppose that in the near future at least, any candidate with a claim to being a “true conservative” had best have speech that’s scrubbed clean of Northern City vowels, regardless of where he or she comes from.

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  • Randall “Texrat” Arnold

    I’ve been watching the increasing political polarization here in Texas for over 40 years. When I was a child the state was “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” in general, but it’s flipped 180 degrees over the years (don’t tell rank and file conservatives that the GOP is fiscally liberal, even though it has been since the 1980s– they apparently don’t want to know).

    I noticed a “circle the wagons” mentality in the mid 1980s when we were flooded by people from elsewhere (mostly Missouri it seemed, based on license plates). That contributed. But the polarization went into overdrive during the GW Bush presidency. I think there’s a subconscious tendency to harden regional dialect attributes when this occurs– it makes for easy sociopolitical identification of the speaker, as the last statement in the article implies.

  • John

    What’s the role of widely heard public speakers such as local TV and radio personalities in modeling pronunciation? I’ve seen the pronunciation of “negotiate” change from “negoshiate” to “negociate” for no good reason. This and the vowel pronunciation make me think of nothing more than poorly taught pronunciation in public schools and among widely heard public speakers in the media.

  • John

    May I add that one of the most prominent liberal radio personalities in Chicagoland, the host of a daily 2-3 hour evening talk show on WBBM, spoke with a Yiddish accent similar to that of the late comedian Joey Bishop? Why aren’t all the liberals there now sounding Yiddish?

  • Mark

    FWIW, “negociate” was new to me c. 1970 and the speakers were Ivy League-trained professors. Can’t say I remember where exactly they were from, but in later decades I noticed that pronunciation among the top tier of the U.S. diplomatic corps *a lot* … almost all of them were Ivy League grads — especially the primo Ivy school for foreign relations/diplomacy, Tufts (Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy). I suppose it’s drifted into the ranks of radio and TV personalities via repeated interviews with Ivied (or Ivy-influenced) officials.

    John, unless that Chicago radio show was syndicated and broadcast beyond that one market, I don’t think there’d be any chance of liberals adopting that guy’s Yiddish accent. Has it caught on at all among Chicago liberals? I’d be rather surprised if it did — really distinct accents strike me as a rather hard sell, unless the speaker(s) of them are astonishingly admired/beloved and widely known.

    But it seems to me that *distinctive* yet small changes in a few words, as spoken by an outlander who’s now a news presenter, can come to sound normal — especially if he/she has the chair for years and develops a loyal following in the broadcast area. I’d guess that listeners that have their school years behind them (and may never have heard all that much proper pronunciation in school, even from teachers) likely hear the presenter’s accent more often than any other, aside from immediate family and co-workers.

    I’d love to know what Labov thinks *caused* the vowel shift he’s observed, i.e. what other region’s pronunciation quirks are being picked up. Or is it something in the water?! ;^P

  • Julie Sedivy

    @ John: there are a couple of points you raise.

    One is the role of public speakers in shaping pronunciation. Their impact is probably quite slight, in fact. This is likely for two reasons. First, because if you think of the thousands of sentences that you hear spoken in the course of a day, the number spoken by these public speakers will be quite small, so that their speech patterns may be swamped by the much larger amount of language you hear elsewhere. But second, it seems that interacting with others—rather than passively listening to them—is what really drives people to (often subconsciously) adapt their own speech patterns. (And the adaptation is more likely to occur if they’re interacting with someone they feel an affinity to.) So it’s not just about emulating someone you admire. People are most apt to change their language through face-to-face interactions with those that they identify with. It’s more of a grassroots thing than a top-down effect.

    The other point you raise has to do with the teaching of pronunciation in schools. In fact, the notion that there is a “correct” way to pronounce English is not necessarily valid. It’s the nature of languages to mutate, and language change really is unstoppable, much like you can’t stop mutations within a biological species. When we say that someone’s pronunciation is incorrect, what we usually mean by this is that they’re not speaking in the dialect that is currently seen as being the “standard”, that is , the dialect currently associated with power and authority. But this too can change. For example, before the Second World War, it was considered standard to drop the “r” sound at the ends of words like “car” or “park”—this pronunciation feature was very closely associated with British English. But after the war, the prestige of this dialect plummeted, and it came to be seen as lower-class, or not quite right, to pronounce words in this way.

  • Noumenon

    Those short .wav files are terrible examples of the dialect, since I know from YouTube that I can’t even tell the difference between “b” and “d” without seeing the lips of the speaker. Use a spoken sentence or interview if you want laymen to hear what you’re talking about.

  • M. Edward (Ed) Borasky

    This is a very interesting pattern. I lived in Urbana, IL in the early 1960s (south of the Inland North) and then moved to Poughkeepsie, NY. I used to regularly ride the NY Central passenger train from Poughkeepsie back to Urbana to visit my parents. That train route runs right through the mid-line of the “Inland North!”

  • Mr Fee

    @ Julie: I couldn’t agree more
    As an undergraduate studying primarily British English, one has to take the view that language does change. Regardless of whether one is a prescribes or describes English, it will still change. Prescriptivist’s tried to do so with Chaucer in middle English, claiming it was the cannon and the correct way to speak, yet still, Briton’s sound nothing like that today.

    The most intriguing thing about this article is how there’s been a “north south” or “blue red” divide in the language. It’s clear that the UK has had more time to develop different regional accents in the UK rather than the more generalised North American accents, hence the greater variety in the UK. However, the introduction of the new media, in which one no longer just reads what politicians are saying, but hearing it, could most certainly account for this vowel shift. After all, who here can’t say they speak in a more prestigious manner in a formal situation, than in that of an informal one. If one is to consider the prestige dialect or accent to be that of their political standing, it will undoubtedly change what is perceived to be the prestige in a formal accent.

  • Georg

    Vowels are much more volatile in general compared to consonants, at least in indogermanic languages.

    For English the problem is accentuated by a chaotic spelling (better called mis-spelling).


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  • jumpeight

    Would love to hear the author’s thoughts on the Kennedy family’s accent which is common only to them and shares only a few sounds from the Boston accent (dropping “r”s as in pahk instead of park or adding as in Cubar instead of Cuba). Why would a family develop their own unique dialect?

  • Linda george

    I’ve become very much aware of the shifting sound of the /str/ consonant blend in the speech of many television personalities. For example, the word strong is often pronounced “shtrong.” Street is “shtreet” I also hear a lot of affected vocal distortion known as vocal fry among female speakers who seem to be trying to sound learned or professional. And why oh why must we all utilize the word utilize when it is so much simpler and to the point to utilize the word use?

  • BP Beckley

    And I suppose that in the near future at least, any candidate with a claim to being a “true conservative” had best have speech that’s scrubbed clean of Northern City vowels, regardless of where he or she comes from.

    What kind of accent does Joe the Plumber have? I’ve never heard him speak, but I think a working class guy from Toledo is going to have the Northern City vowels in spades. The whole culture of that area is really “working class”, rather than “liberal” as such. In so far as the accent is even known outside the zone itself, I don’t think it’s ever going to be associated with “elite” anything.

  • BP Beckley

    Also, the “Northern City” vowel shift, though real (in my completely non-professional opinion) isn’t THAT big, and it’s limited to the vowels. I think if you meet someone with the accent in isolation and you don’t have it, it doesn’t even occur to you that they have an accent as such. If you meet a whole bunch of people with the accent at once, and you’re pretty observant, you might notice a pattern.

  • Rob N

    I grew up in the North Central dialect, and even though I’ve moved around considerably since then, I have an appreciation of home and have made no attempts to lose my accent (although my wife claims it gets stronger when I drive home). I always suspected there was a difference between us and the rest of MN, at least the Twin Cities, so it’s nice to see it validated on this map. (Cosmopolitan areas seem to have fewer differences). I didn’t know what my cousins called soda was the same as my pop until I was 14, I thought they were talking about cream soda or something. Then in TX it’s all Coke, even a Dr. Pepper.

    Originally I thought I had the “proper” or “non-accented” American English, but my Texas friends corrected my pronunciation of bag (like bake for me) as often as I corrected something like tent (which they called tint) for them. Then I moved to Connecticut and discovered they could distinguish between the names Dawn and Don, which I cannot. So this is all very interesting to me. Couch vs. sofa vs. davenport vs. divan. We’re more varied than we think.

    As for Sarah Palin, I found her ‘folksy’ way of talking very annoying (I liked McCain, but yes, am more Democrat than not), but some of her speech, like many Alaskans, I believe has more influence from the North Central dialect than the Western dialect. It’s interesting that Canada is considered monolithic, even in the Quebec region.

    And for the record – most Minnesotans don’t talk like the movie Fargo, although there are those, mostly the first generation children of Norwegian immigrants, who do talk something like that. Areas around Duluth come to mind. But they never used ‘uff da’ in the movie. There’s pockets of native Americans, who have their own dialect, much like the urban black have their dialect farther south. But Minnesotans are proud of finding a preposition to end a sentence with.

  • Ben

    Interestingly, this only works in large-ish regions (in North America, at least)–Californians in right-wing enclaves (e.g. Orange County) tend to sound a lot like their neighbors, etc. Smaller groups will often assimilate, even with historical, cultural, or other differences between them and a larger community.

    The question I’m interested in: will we start to see individual adoption of dialect features based on political affiliation in the future. That is, will a liberal in Phoenix or Amarillo pick up the Northern Cities Shift in the future?

  • Raoul

    I’m from Iowa, but went to school in Michigan in the 1980s. You really heard that vowel shift in the Detroit suburbs. It got stronger as people got younger, as you went downriver (more workingclass), and with people of Eastern European background.

    The better an athlete you were at my school, the stronger your vowel shift. Especially our hackey players, who stood up in assembly to announce the hoom geems.

    I hear the shift fading west of Chicago. Wisconsinites have a softer sound, Minnesotans softer yet. Iowa seems to be a line of demarcation – northern counties talking a little more rounded and yah, yoo betcha – southern counties a little more Missourian, with a mild drawl, and words like heighth and acrost.

    I understand the vowel shift starts to resurface in the Pacific Northwest, which is interesting.

  • Eric

    It’s hard for me to read this entire article when you start by specifying how people in the Inland North speak, and even link to examples, and get it completely wrong. As a life long resident of Toledo, and someone who speaks to people all over the US and Canada on a daily basis for work, I can assure you that people in Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit, regardless of ethnicity, sound like that. Now, I very much do recognize that we speak differently than people in other areas. I’m not disputing that at all. However, unlike your linked example, we do not sound like drunken Brits.

  • John B

    @Rob N Sounds like there have been some changes in Texas speech since I left there in 1970. Back then we Texans pronounced Dawn and Don differently and a Coke was a Coke, never a Dr. Pepper, and both were ‘sody water’ with sody rhyming with toady.

    In Texas and other parts of the country the words ‘on’ and ‘own’ are pronounced identically, and the ‘h’ in words like ‘which’, ‘where’, ‘what’, etc is always pronounced. The ‘which witch’ connundrum never made sense to a Texan since, although the two words rhyme, they do not sound alike. And of course, ‘since’ and ‘sense’ are pronounced the same. The past tense of climb is clumb (I was in college before I learned otherwise), ‘yonder’ rhymes with ‘thunder’, ‘rinse’ and ‘wrench’ are pronounced identically, … I could go on all day.

  • Josh

    I wonder if this phenomenon explains the stereotypical “gay” accent (not flame-baiting, but seriously you know what I mean).

  • Anonymous

    Noumenon – Look up the “McGurk Effect”. Fascinating phenomenon about how we process language.

    6.   Noumenon Says:
    March 29th, 2012 at 12:18 am
    Those short .wav files are terrible examples of the dialect, since I know from YouTube that I can’t even tell the difference between “b” and “d” without seeing the lips of the speaker. Use a spoken sentence or interview if you want laymen to hear what you’re talking about.

  • Jill

    I’m sorry, but I grew up in the “Inland North” and know that we have never said, “mee-an” for ‘man’. That comes from another are entirely. I have lived and travels all over the US. What is being described in this article is not common for the midwestern area.

  • Ken Sowton

    So the U.S. has finally discovered what the British have always known. If someone speaks like they were “Born with a silver spoon in their mouth” they are “Upper class” and very likely to be conservative… And by the way, The British have given colours (colors) to their political parties for a very long time and sure enough, the Yanks got it backwards; Blue (true blue, blue blood) is conservative while red (under the bed) is socialist.

  • Ron

    Canada monolithic – sorry Rob, come on up for visit you’ll quickly see we are not.

    Strong differences between small town rural and the cities. Have you ever heard a “Newfie” (Newfoundland) accent or dialect.
    Quebec does have differences – Montreal notably

    With large immigration in the past twenty years from non-European countries our speech has changed.
    Most evident in our largest city of Toronto (4th largest in North America) where over 50% of people come from somewhere else.
    There is a large influence of Hindi-English and Chinese. Toronto has the most diverse culture of any city in the world (yes even more so than NYC) and it will interesting to see what kind of English develops as people learn to communicate with each other.
    Also not just dialect but vocabulary and word usage can be different from region to region.
    As to the article I wonder if the same could be said for political divisions here in Canada – upon reflection, I think not for several reasons, some that also differentiate Canadians from Americans.

  • Kaviani

    Interesting correllation; hardly a cause and effect phenomenon, though.

  • wj

    I’m sorry that your map cut off the West Coast. It would be interesting to see how the urban areas there (very liberal) differ, if at all, from the more inland areas (libertarian to conservative). I haven’t been able to detect a difference, although I certainly do not have an expert ear.

    FYI, when I was studying linguistics back in the ’60s, what you have labeled as “The West” was called “General American.” It was considered (at Berkeley, anyway!) as the default, with the others being “regional accents”.

    The theory seemed to be that it had become the default simply because the movie industry was centered there. So that’s what everybody across the country became familiar with — regardless of how their family and friends spoke, they tended to think that it was how the nation as a whole spoke.

  • Lang E. Lloveras

    The pronounciation of the letter “s” as “sh” before another consonant would imply a Germanic influence, as that is the pronunciation used in German-speaking countries, which is odd in this particular context. Also, the prevailing accent in New Orleans resembles Brooklyn, New York, much more than any other southern accent. In New Orleans, it is known as the “Irish Channel” accent, from its association with Irish immigrants. When the students with that accent arrive at LSU in Baton Rouge, it tends to be known as the “Catholic accent” because that mode of speech is common to many of the nuns and priests of the teaching orders, often of Irish or Italian ancestry, and tends to be spread through the parochial schools in New Orleans. My theory is that that particular accent is neither an Irish accent, nor an Italian accent, but a sort of spin-off of both, arising where large groups of Irish and Italian immigrants lived in close proximity.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @wj: I cut off the West Coast so the image would fit in the column, and there wasn’t any more detail in that part of the map, anyway. Not saying there aren’t any differences, but they weren’t depicted on this particular map.

    If you find any credible info/map about accents on the West Coast, add it to this thread.

  • Julie Sedivy

    A quick note to the several commenters who note that, despite living in the Inland North, they don’t sound like the examples in the linked sound files or the written descriptions I provided in the post. The sound files actually come from the field work of Dr. Labov; they are recordings from an actual Inland North speaker (and if you click through the “submit” button, you can hear the words in the context of complete phrases or sentences). Now, Labov and others have documented that the spread of the vowels isn’t entirely uniform within this area. As noted, there’s a strong urban/rural divide, and also, the degree to which people identify with their local region seems to have had an influence. In fact, Labov has discussed how the lack of uniformity can lead to some amusing misunderstandings. This is not unusual for many language changes— some people are “early adopters”, others more resistant to the spread. Interestingly, young women are often heavily represented among the early adopters.

    As for orthographic approximations of the vowels, they are at best that: approximations. I’m Canadian, and I swear I don’t say “aboot” for “about”, but I understand why this spelling is used to convey the difference in my vowels—it’s an indication that my vowel kind of heads in the direction of “aboot”.

  • Woody Tanaka

    “The pronounciation of the letter “s” as “sh” before another consonant would imply a Germanic influence, as that is the pronunciation used in German-speaking countries, which is odd in this particular context.”

    That’s a common feature in the Philadelphia accent. (The real one, not the marble-mouthed Brooklyn mess that Stallone used as Rocky Balboa…)

  • Michael

    “American regional dialects are pulling further apart from each other, rather than moving closer together.”

    This strikes me as very, very wrong. With television, movies, music, hip-hop, the internet, greater mobility and everything else (massive immigration from Latin America) regional accents would seem to have been and continue to be diluted, that and mixed with others. With every generation the Long Island, NY accent of the late 20th century decreases. Same with the Boston accent. The difference between how a 70-year-old white person in Pittsburgh sounds and his (or her) 20-year-old grandchild is pretty dramatic. I know many young and middle-aged Southerners who have little or no Southern accent.

    When people write about, say, “a Brooklyn accent” as one commenter does they’re alluding to an accent that has been in great decline for decades.

    I understand that isn’t the central thrust of this article, but – with all due respect – the quoted bit above and some of the premises here strike me as deeply wrong. I would presume to speak of Calgary, but any discussion of accents in the U.S. that ignores how much less in evidence provincial accents are with each younger generation is willfully blind – or, okay, rather deaf. It’s an incredibly self-evident phenomena whose reasons are clear.

    Sorry to be so blunt. Much of the rest of the piece was really interesting and informative.

  • Michael

    The above should read “I wouldn’t presume to speak of Calgary . . . .” Wouldn’t.

  • Kevin Carter

    Author seems to think Canada has all the same accent. That racist bastard

    Ed note: This comment is a South Park reference, not some a true expression of weird national-identity outrage.

  • Wayne

    About 15 years ago I heard a girl from California teaching English to foreigners. When she pronounced the letter ‘S’, it sounded exactly like the rude word for buttocks. It was then that I realized a vowel shift was happening in California. Your brain adjusts for a person’s vowel shifts without even realizing it until something sounds so different that it shocks you, like this did for me.

  • Ian MacDougall

    I wonder if the emphasis given a word, and the circumstances in which it is said, will influence its pronunciation. Someone saying ‘Aw man’ drawn out in exasperation might pronounce the vowel differently when saying ‘the man in the grey suit over there’.

    I also wonder if expectations affect the perception of another person’s pronunciation. As in Wayne’s example above, if someone told you to ‘Stick it up your S’, might that affect the way you heard that last vowel?

  • Frank

    I am not sophisticated enough to describe the blue state accent like the author, but I know it when I hear it. When I hear it, I assume the speaker is a Democrat. These blue state speakers may not realize it, but when I hear that accent, I will be polite, but end the conversation, because I have nothing in common with them, and certainly wouldn’t do business with them.
    Why wouldn’t I do business with them?
    Well, Democrats thought it perfectly fine for Bill and Monica to be having sex on the clock; thus I assume a Democrat might bill me for hours when they weren’t actually working on my project. Democrats thought it was OK for Bill to lie under oath to get out of a lawsuit; thus I am less inclined to sign a contract with someone like that. Democrats think it is OK to take from the rich and give to themselves. Democrats perceive anyone who owns a business to be rich. One could conclude that a Democrat would be more likely to steal from an employer or a vendor, that the perceived wealth justifies it.
    It just isn’t worth the risk, and this isn’t just theory; I have done business with Democrats in the past and got burned. I do feel sorry for the honest people who get tarred with the same brush, but I just can’t take the risk. Generally, you can tell blacks by their accent too. I feel sorry for black Republicans, who everyone automatically assumes are Democrats.

  • Bob

    Fascinating article; interesting comments. Some of the shifts become annoying to me, such as the shift over the past 10 years or so in the word strengthen, wherein many now leave out the -ng combination so that it comes out sounding like stren-then, and always seems to be spoken with an air of authority. How pseudo-sophisticated grating is that? Please make it go away…

  • janvones

    Who cares about politics, the Northern Cities Vowels are just plain ugly, almost as bad as those from Australia or New Zealand. That is just plain, objective fact.

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  • Nancy Irving

    The Great Vowel Shift in England also left behind the northern part of the island, though in this case it was almost certainly the result of geographical isolation. Brits from Yorkshire, Lancashire and points north still use the old-time long vowels, as for example, “book” rhymes with our “kook” rather than with our “cook.”

    I learned this after getting in the habit of watching British cop shows. One of the entertainments therein is trying to identify the regional accents, which you can do by looking up the actors’ bios on imdb. I noticed that the Yorkshire, Lancs and other northern folks had accents with uniformly longer vowels.

  • redmanrt

    Forgot to mention. I spent a few years in a small town south of Atlanta and taught school. I noticed that almost none of the children had a southern accent, and I was often surprised to hear their parents speak who did have a southern accent. What does that signify?

  • ackbark

    This map lacks a lot of detail. The part of the Inland North I’m from sounds more like the Catholic accent described by a poster above and nothing like the described accent; and the accent of some people I know from Chicago doesn’t, either.

    And other accents from the region (an area called the Driftless Region in geology, cutting across the border of Inland North and North) are all uniquely incomprehensible, often mutually incomprehensible, ranging from a kind of bug-eyed turkey gobbling to something that sounds like James Cagney while gargling.

  • redmanrt

    There’s also the matter of sentence melody. For example, the Irish “lilt” (which reminds me strikingly of the lilt in Swiss German), or the tendency of many young people in the US to make nearly every affirmative statement sound like a question.

    I once lived for a few years in a small town south of Atlanta and taught school. None of the teachers in that particular school and almost none of the children had southern accents. However, the parents of many of the children did. What is going on there?

  • Quadrivium

    I have to confess that I’ve more than once turned on the radio to hear some guy talking politics, and within a few seconds, before hearing him say anything to give away his political affiliation, I’ve made some assumption about it based on the way he talks. I don’t always get it right, but I’m pretty sure my guesses are a lot better than random. Part of it is the fairly obvious south-vs.-the-rest-of-us divide, but I think there’s more to it than that.

  • Carol StJohn

    I read once that we do not get our accent from our family, which would seem likely, but from our peers. So perhaps we adopt our speech from those we feel are like us, or who we admire and want to emulate. I myself grew up with a Noo Yawk accent, which has faded after living in the west for a long time. But when I am around that accent again, it comes right back. Maybe it is just a reflection of what we hear most often, and begins to sound right. Our ear adjusts and our tongue follows.

  • van Rooinek

    I wonder if this phenomenon explains the stereotypical “gay” accent (not flame-baiting, but seriously you know what I mean).

    Although I have spent very little time there and wouldn’t know first hand, the artsy beach town of Laguna, California is reportedly heavily gay. In college (80s) I knew two totally straight guys, who grew up in Laguna and whose accents sounded gayish, at least to my ultra-straight San Fernando Valley ears. So I have to wonder if the affected “gay” accent is so prevalent in Laguna that it has modified the local dialect as a whole…. even the evangelical Christians such as my Laguna-born junior-year roommate!

  • Julie Sedivy

    @ Michael: Your skepticism about dialects pulling apart is completely understandable. For all the reasons you mention, you would think that they should be assimilating to one another. And this is why, after carefully sifting through decades’s worth of data, linguists were quite astounded to find exactly the opposite.

    But don’t take my word for it. If your library has a copy, the Atlas of North American English can consume many hours of fascinated browsing (unfortunately, it’s outside the price range of most individual readers).

    @ Raoul: Interesting observations! You might be interested in having a look at a fascinating book by Penelope Eckert, in which she reports field work in Detroit-area high schools during the 1980s, and discusses how the prevalence of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift depended quite a lot on the social group that students belonged to.

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Note: due to a production error, the wording to the bit about Northerners generally being more liberal was garbled. I just fixed it. Doesn’t change the meaning.

  • ackbark


    I think that’s right about conservatives, particularly conservative men.

    They all speak with a sort of testosterone-addled ‘grrrrr’ underneath it all, and with a barely concealed general contempt and disinterest.

  • MWnyc

    I love it that there’s this huge swath on the map called “The South” – with that little carve-out for Charleston. I grew up there, and not everyone there has it (there are lots of people from other places living on the Lowcountry now, my parents among them), but the accent is very distinctive.

  • TGAP Dad

    Humans, from my perspective are basically tribal. Whether you assemble these tribes based on class, profession, region or religion, we always seem to want to display the “flag” of our tribe. IMO that is why Muslims wear hijabs and burqas, and Christians wear crosses and display icthus symbols on their cars. Dialect also helps to define these boundaries as well. This is why we hear lawyers saying “defenDANT” instead of “deFENduhnt” and doctors say “dilitation” instead of “dilation.”

  • Deborah Brooks

    Thanks, TGAP Dad. I’ve spent years transcribing the word “defenDANT”, wondering why lawyers say it that way (but never remembering to ask one why).

    I’ve known several people who pronounce “st” like “sht”, all from working class backgrounds — one from Boston, one from Hartford, CT, and several from New Jersey. All but the one from Boston were from Italian backgrounds; the Bostonian was Anglo-American.

  • JohnV

    I lived for 21 years in Syracuse and the last 11 in the South with 2 or 3 times a year visits back to Syracuse. I swear to you all that I’ve never once heard “dusk” “meean” or “blahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhk” like the audio clips suggested :p

  • Clark Carpenter

    I’d be interested to see how we should reconcile the claim of increasing “linguistic polarization” with the demonstrable fact that American spoken English has become more homogenized across the board. The major “regional” accents are much less divergent from each other than they once were, and the strong local dialect variance we used to see within those “regional” accents evaporating even more quickly.

  • caro

    I didn’t think that there really was a strong regional accent in Rochester until I came back from college and heard cousins speaking and ads on the radio. Is there is a chameleon effect in accents? Because I’ve noticed especially young speakers (teens-20s) have different patterns of speech depending on the situation – relaxed more regional/racial/cultural accented speech around peers and something closer to “general american” when in more formal/professional situations. The lines seem to blur the older the speaker is. Or that’s my observation.

    I don’t believe that regional accents are evaporating – I think it’s hard to judge accents on how the younger generations speak. Two of my uncles live in the Southwest (Albuquerque and El Paso) and they have picked up accents from that region while they both lived in the Inland North area until their twenties. Accents over time amongst people and even in one person change.

  • floodmouse

    Childhood experience: People grow up with at least three ways of speaking. (1) The way your parents make you speak (certain forms of slang NOT ALLOWED). (2) The way you speak when you’re alone with friends (certain forms of slang HIGHLY ENCOURAGED). (3) The way your teachers make you speak, which is (confusingly) often not the same as the way your parents talk. Also, the two sets of grandparents may come from different recent immigrant groups, so you may have two ways to pronounce the same word within a single family: “warshcloth” or “washcloth.” All this doesn’t even touch all the different regional accents we hear on TV. I assume people assimilate bits and pieces of things they like from the media, regardless of region.

    Evolving your own form of the language is an art form . . .

  • Dominick

    Having lived in the “inland north” area my whole life, the only people that I have ever heard that sound like that come from northern Minnesota. One wonders if Labov bothered to check where the geographic roots of his sample actually came from.

  • Steven B

    I call BS, I’ve looked in to this supposed “vowel shift” for year’s now, and from talking and actually traveling between Toledo (NW Ohio) and Columbus (Central Ohio) it’s not happening at least not among white suburban people (which I hang around with,) I guess Labov wants something cool or memorable to put his name on, but this supposed accent change is not actually occurring at least to someone who actually lives in the effected area.

  • Ron S

    A few of you from the “Inland North” have commented that you don’t hear this vowel shift, but believe me: it’s there in plenty of people, especially younger white working class people. You can’t hear it if you’re used to it. It’s the same phenomenon that prevents Canadians from hearing themselves say “aboot.”

    I’ve moved around a good bit, but I’ve never lived in the Inland North except for three years in my twenties when I lived in Cleveland. Even though to me it seemed like people in Cleveland were saying “labby” instead of “lobby” and “bed” instead of “bad,” by the end of those three years I had adopted some of the shift myself, and I had to work on getting rid of it.

  • Tom Ledford

    There is yet another vowel shift that seems to be unnoticed in this article. I call it the Northeastern Guttural Avoidance Shift. Generally, the vowel sounds that are “normally” said in the back of the throat are moving to the tip of the tongue. Therefore, “bet” is becoming indistinguishable from “bat.” The word “edge” sounds like “adge,” and the sound of “red” sounds like “rad.” These changes are especially noticeable in the female speakers on CNBC daytime television with the obvious exception of some of the foreign-born ones. It has become annoying enough that I have suggested that CNBC hire some speech coaches for their big-name on-air personalities. I suspect other networks have the same thing going on.

  • Raul

    It’s pretty ironic looking back on this article, seeing NCVSers characterized as being more liberal, when the two guys running on the Republican ticket this year are both shifted, Romney having got it growing up in Michigan obviously. I think it’s just too sweeping a generalization to try to break this sort of thing down into conservative vs. liberal. There are many very conservatives areas in the Great Lakes, and many very liberal areas.

  • David M

    In re: the original premise, this is nothing new. It explains why the Franks, a ‘germanic’ culture, came to speak the nasally variant we call French; and why parts of Spain have institutionalized a lisp (while other parts notably haven’t).

  • teopa

    Deborah Brooks Says
    “I’ve known several people who pronounce “st” like “sht”, all from working class backgrounds — one from Boston, one from Hartford, CT, and several from New Jersey. All but the one from Boston were from Italian backgrounds; the Bostonian was Anglo-American.”

    Michelle Obama speaks like that, where do you suppose that came from? I respect the woman, but it drives me crazy when she talks about “shtrong women”.

  • ThinkStraight

    Thanks, excellent job turning a perfectly benign conversation about linguistics into an asinine rant about politics. Not needed. Tool.

  • Hank

    @4699b743611f0ae8578ad7f13811d07b:disqus I live in Milwaukee right now and just moved from Chicago. I can say with some certainty that Chicago and Milwaukee have a distinct sound to their dialects both between one another and divergent from the dialects of people I’ve known from Cleveland and Minnesota. Most noticeably in the short “a” sound being elongated so that “bag” is pronounced “bayg” “dragon,” “draygon” and “Nevada” is “Nevayda.”

  • Teri W.

    Speaking of Rochester: I was born/raised in Philadelphia, PA, tho with a much weaker than typical Phila. accent, which I mostly lost attending h.s. in the NYC area w/mostly kids from NYC and Boston, & college farther north in Penna., before going on to a brief but promising career in radio announcing that ended for reasons other than my voice.

    Anyway, the first person I ever met from Rochester, NY — born/raised — sounded Chicagoan to me. In fact, when I jumped to the conclusion that Rochester is basically “The Midwest” and not “Eastern” in its essence — culture, regional orientation, atmosphere, etc. — she agreed.

    For whatever it’s worth…. 😉

  • Teri W.

    Migration to the cities/suburbs, depleting those ‘sub-accents’?
    Consolidation of regions around each one’s big-city broadcast media — TV, radio, cable, signal-boosters?
    Greater mobility even just within each region?
    Increased 4-yr. college education exposing people _everywhere_ to people _from_ everywhere?

  • Teri W.

    A little farther south than the area of interest, but I nearly got lost trying to follow the directions of a Hoosier in central Indiana, looking for a place she called Dellville but I eventually realized my map (and I?!) called Daleville! :)

  • Teri W.

    That would explain the Irish-German Brooklynite I first heard it in.

    Altho in Irish Gaelic the letter S sometimes sounds like SH in English, if it’s next to an I or an E, e.g., Sean, Sinead, Sinn Fein….

  • Teri W.

    More recently I read a linguist claim that Calif. English is indeed spreading because of that influence, audible in more and more people with NO physical contact with the West Coast.

  • Teri W.

    In the early 90s before same-sex marriage, a friend of mine from the Canadian Plains staying in the Midwest for a while got a horrid look trying to open a bank account for her and her partner “DAWN” (spelled Don, of course)!

  • Teri W.

    There can be family ‘subsubdialects,’ I forget the technical term for them. But when I was a kid and got sick at school once the nurse asked me if I’d vomited recently: I’d never heard the word before — only “puke” — and tho I was a smart kid with a smart mom, I didn’t know what she was talking about!

  • Gerald Okkenlaim

    As a professional linguist who spent his first three decades in Labov’s supposed “Northern Cities Vowel Shift”-land, I can honestly say that not even a single friend, family, or acquaintance from the region exhibits his claimed shift. That includes many young white people from Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio — most of the region that Labov claims for his Shift. The example audio clips that he uses to illustrate his shift sound more like caricatures than anyone I’ve actually met in the region. If white midwesterners aren’t actually displaying Labov’s “Northern Cities Vowel Shift”, then perhaps he should consider removing the letter ‘f’ from his term?

  • Jeff

    I was on a bus from LaGuardia Airport and as we approached the N train station, a woman who had already mentioned she was from Cleveland started asking where she could find a “mee-up.” Nobody on the bus knew what she meant until finally she elaborated, asking for a “mee-up” of the subway system. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is a real thing.

  • Gulf Coast

    It’s true. Very displeasing to the ear.

    • Yoandri Dominguez

      100% I know, right?

  • Yoandri Dominguez

    It is only makes sense with international phonetic alphabet. linguistically speaking, the a sound is higher/tenser. Extreme opposite is british english where you say moth for math. See?

  • Yoandri Dominguez

    YOURE NOT GONNA TURN THE CALIFORNIAN/CANADIAN SHIFT BACK. Get a great lakes cnbc. Those women are speaking general american. Your phonetics is also nonsense.

  • Jeff

    The subway announcers in NYC almost always do that: “This is 42nd Shtreet; 59th Shtreet next.” I try to tune it out, or just not care so much, but try as I might, it still annoys me to no end.

  • Jeff

    The NYC area also has people who break the short a sound—/æ/ into ee-uh—/iə/. In fact, I suspect that is why Ian Ziering pronounces his first name as “eye-an”—/aɪən/ instead of “ee-an”—/iən/. The more usual pronunciation sounds like the feminine name “Ann” in your dialect if you break the short a that way.

  • Jeff

    Sorry for all the replies so many years later. I know Midwesterners believe they speak the way God designed English to sound, but that’s not the case. Everybody has an accent when heard through the ears of somebody with a different accent. About 6 months ago I heard a story on NPR about “creaky voice” and “upspeak” and young ladies interviewed for the story because they exhibited those features were deeply offended that anybody would criticize the way they talk, which they believed (incorrectly) to be regional accent-free, broadcast standard, even though I’m sure they regard Southern, New Yorker, Bostonian, and other accents with disdain.


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About Julie Sedivy

Julie Sedivy teaches at the University of Calgary. She is the author of Language in Mind: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics and the co-author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You.


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