Northern Cities Vowel Shift





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Published on Apr 27, 2008

Bill Labov discusses the Northern Cities Vowel Shift in American English.

While the language we speak on the streets of our cities is, by its very nature, changeable and shifting. For decades Bill Labov and his colleagues have been studying how Americans talk. The result is a whole library of recorded voices and a fascinating discovery. It's called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Labov believes there is a revolutionary shift in the pronunciation of short vowels that have been relatively stable for a thousand years.

BL: What we'll be looking at is this mass of cities around the Great Lakes. Here we have Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, and Cleveland, Detroit.

RM: How many people is that?

BL: It's about 34 million people. This area used to be the closest to network pronunciation. It was what the NBC standard was based on. And today it is moving further and further away.

RM: Let's go into that in some detail. Show us how that's happening.

BL: In these experiments, we played first of all an individual word.

Computer: "Black".

BL: And then, people had to write down what they thought they heard. So, you could do that yourself. What do you hear?

RM: "Black".

BL: And then, in another series they heard:

Computer: "Living on one black".

BL: Now what do you hear?

RM: "Block".

BL: Well, you change your mind.

Computer: "Old senior citizens living on one black".

BL: This person is saying the word "block" the way they say "black".

RM: The shift in this one vowel seems to have a domino effect on the other four vowels, and they all change too. The result can be serious misunderstandings.

BL: Now, this is spectacular.

Computer: "Bosses".

BL: Everybody writes down what?

RM: "Bosses".

BL: Right. The guy.

Computer: "The bosses with the antennas".

BL: Now you begin to wonder. What are these "bosses with antennas"?

RM: "Bosses with the antennas".

BL: Right.

Computer: "I can remember vaguely when we had the buses with the antennas on the top".

RM: So, "buses" has become "bosses".

BL: Right. And so, this is very hard for most people to recognize.

RM: So, is it fair to say that North Americans are, in different regions, are growing further apart from each other linguistically?

BL: It seems so. It's hard to believe. Everyone says to us, we all watch the same radio and television. How can that be? It's a very suprising finding.
From the documentary "Do you speak American?".

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