The Grammarphobia Blog

Shifty vowels

Q: When my son was at the University of Rochester, he noticed that the natives in upstate New York pronounced the word “Rochester” as RAH-ches-ta. That reminded me of the flat-sounding “a” in the words of an old friend who lives near Chicago. Any idea why or how the upstate New York speech pattern developed?

A: It’s not surprising that you should notice a similarity between the speech patterns of Rochester and Chicago. Residents in both areas speak what linguists and phonologists call the Northern Cities dialect.

Characteristically, these speakers swap their vowels in what is called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. For example, most of us pronounce the vowel in the first syllable of “Rochester” and the second syllable of “Chicago” as we would the “o” in “cot.” But characteristically, local residents pronounce it more like the “a” in “cat.”

They aren’t the only ones. James M. Hillenbrand, writing in 2003 in the Journal of the International Phonetic Association, cites the linguist William Labov in describing the geographical area involved:

“According to Labov, the Northern Cities dialect cuts an irregular swath through a chain of cities in the inland northeast extending, roughly, from upstate New York (e.g. Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo), through northern Ohio (e.g. Cleveland, Toledo), southern Michigan (e.g. Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids), northwest Indiana (e.g. Gary, Hammond), northeast Illinois (e.g. Chicago, Rockford) and south-central Wisconsin (e.g. Milwaukee, Madison).”

Hillenbrand adds that speakers “from neighboring regions such as northwest Vermont, northwest Pennsylvania, and north-central/northeast Indiana appear to show some features of the dialect.”

Labov, an expert on the vowel shift, has contended that the “shifts that characterize the Northern Cities dialect are observed in their most advanced forms in the largest urban areas of the region, such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Rochester,” according to the journal article.

How did this vowel-swapping come about? Labov says the trend may have begun in the late 1800s when large populations moved from east to west to work on the Erie Canal.

The vowels that are being swapped for one another involve those in the words “caught,” “cot,” “cat,” “bit”, “bet,” and “but.” Here’s what happens.

The vowel in “caught” becomes like the one in “cot” … “cot” becomes more like “cat” … “cat” becomes more like “kit” or “kee-at” … “bit” becomes more like “bet” or “but” … “bet” becomes more like “bat” or “but” … and finally the vowel in “but” becomes like the one in “caught.”

The theory is that as each vowel changes, another fills its place in a connected chain of shifts. The linguist Matthew J. Gordon explained it this way on the PBS series “Do You Talk American?”:

“When these changes are plotted according to the positioning of the tongue, the connections among them are clear and the shift resembles a clockwise rotation of the vowels in the mouth.”

So there you have it. That’s why people in Rochester and Chicago sound so much alike.

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