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This map shows, with red circles, the exact cities identified within the Inland North dialect region, according to Labov et al.'s (2006) ANAE.

Inland Northern (American) English, [1] also known in American linguistics as the Inland North or Great Lakes dialect, [2] is an American English dialect spoken primarily by White Americans in a geographic band reaching from the major urban areas of Upstate New York westward along the Erie Canal and through much of the U.S. Great Lakes region. The most distinctive Inland Northern accents are spoken in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. [3] The dialect can be heard as far west as eastern Iowa and even among certain demographics in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. [4] Some of its features have also infiltrated a geographic corridor from Chicago southwest along historic Route 66 into St. Louis, Missouri; today, the corridor shows a mixture of both Inland North and Midland American accents. [5] Linguists often characterize the western Great Lakes region's dialect separately as North-Central American English.

The early 20th-century accent of the Inland North was the basis for the term " General American", [6] [7] though the regional accent has since altered, due to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift: its now-defining chain shift of vowels that began in the 1930s or possibly earlier. [8] 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/PALM vowel) of this shift, documented since the 1970s as comprising five distinct stages. [6] However, evidence since the mid-2010s suggests a retreat away from the Northern Cities Shift in many Inland Northern cities and toward a less marked American accent. [9] [10] [11] Various common names for the Inland Northern accent exist, often based on city, for example: Chicago accent, Detroit accent, Milwaukee accent, etc.

Geographic distribution

Three isoglosses identifying the NCVS. In the brown areas STRUT is more retracted than LOT. The blue line encloses areas in which DRESS is backed. The red line encloses areas in which TRAP is diphthongized to [eə] even before oral consonants. The areas enclosed by all three lines may be considered the "core" of the NCVS; it is most consistently present in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago. Adapted from Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 204.

The dialect region called the "Inland North" consists of western and central New York State ( Utica, Ithaca, 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. Northern Iowa and southern Minnesota may also variably fall within the Inland North dialect region; in the Twin Cities, educated middle-aged men in particular have been documented as aligning to the accent, though this is not necessarily the case among other demographics of that urban area. [4]

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. [12]

Erie, Pennsylvania, though in the geographic area of the "Inland North" and featuring some speakers of this dialect, never underwent the Northern Cities Shift and often shares more features with Western Pennsylvania English due to contact with Pittsburghers, particularly with Erie as their choice of city for summer vacations. [13] 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.

Social factors

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. [14] Former President Barack Obama, for example, has a mild Inland Northern accent despite not having lived in the dialect region until early adulthood. [14]

Phonology and phonetics

The monophthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, typical of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, though not to the extreme. Adapted from Hillenbrand (2003). [15]
The diphthongs of Southern Michigan on a vowel chart, adapted from Hillenbrand (2003). [15]
Vocalic phonemes of INAE
Front Central Back
tense lax lax tense
Close i ɪ ʊ u
Close-mid ə
Open-mid æ ɛ ʌ
Open ɑ ɔ
Diphthongs   ɔɪ  
All vowels of the Inland Northern dialect
Pure vowels ( Monophthongs)
English diaphoneme Inland Northern realization Example words
/æ/ æə~eə~ɪə bath, trap, man
/ɑː/ a~ä blah, father, spa
/ɒ/ lot, bother, wasp
/ɔː/ ɒ~ɑ dog, loss, off
all, bought, saw
/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/ lame, rein, stain
/ɔɪ/ ɔɪ boy, choice, moist
/oʊ/ ʌo~oʊ~o goat, oh, show
R-colored vowels
/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/ cure, Europe, pure
† Footnotes
When followed by /r/, the historic /ɒ/ is pronounced entirely differently by Inland North speakers as [ɔ~o], for example, in the words orange, forest, and torrent. The only exceptions to this are the words tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, borrow and, for some speakers, morrow, which use the sound [a~ä̈]. This is all true of General American speakers too.
Based on Labov et al.; averaged F1/F2 means for speakers from the Inland North. Note that /æ/ is higher and fronter than /ɛ/, while /ʌ/ is more retracted than /ɑ/.

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

Northern Cities Shift as a vowel chart, based on image in Labov, Ash, and Boberg (1997)'s "A national map of the regional dialects of American English".

The Northern Cities Vowel Shift or simply 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 TRAP and fronting of LOT/PALM

The first two sound changes in the shift, with some debate about which one led to the other or came first, [16] are the general raising and lengthening (tensing) of the "short a" (the vowel sound of TRAP, typically rendered /æ/ in American transcriptions), as well as the fronting of the sound of LOT or PALM in this accent (typically transcribed /ɑ/) toward [ ä] or [ a]. Inland Northern TRAP raising was first identified in the 1960s, [17] with that vowel becoming articulated with the tongue raised and then gliding back toward the center of the mouth, thus producing a centering diphthong of the type [ɛə], [eə], or at its most extreme [ɪə]; e.g. naturally [ˈneətʃɹəli] . As for LOT/PALM fronting, it can go beyond [ ä] to the front [ a], and may, for the most 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 [ˈkʰupan] .

Lowering of THOUGHT

The fronting of the LOT/PALM vowel leaves a blank space that is filled by lowering the "aw" vowel in THOUGHT [ ɔ], which itself comes to be pronounced with the tongue in a lower position, closer to [ɑ] or [ɒ]. As a result, for example, people with the shift pronounce caught the way speakers without the shift say cot; thus, shifted speakers pronounce caught as [kʰɑt] (and cot as [kʰat], as explained above). [18] In defiance of the shift, however, there is a well-documented scattering of Inland North speakers who are in a state of transition toward a cot-caught merger; this is particularly evident in northeastern Pennsylvania. [19] [20] Younger speakers reversing the fronting of /ɑ/, for example in Lansing, Michigan, also approach a merger. [9]

Backing or lowering of DRESS

The movement of /æ/ to [ɛə], in order to avoid overlap with the now-fronted /ɑ/ vowel, presumably initiates the consequent shifting of /ɛ/ (the "short e" in DRESS, [ ɛ] in General American) away from its original position. Thus, /ɛ/ demonstrates backing, lowering, or a combination of both toward [ɐ], the near-open central vowel, or almost [æ]. [9]

Backing of STRUT

The next change is the movement of /ʌ/ (the STRUT vowel) from a central or back position toward a very far back position [ɔ]. People with the shift pronounce bus so that it sounds more like boss to people without the shift.

Backing or lowering of KIT

The final change is the backing and lowering of /ɪ/, the "short i" vowel in KIT, toward the schwa /ə/. Alternatively, KIT is lowered to [ e], without backing. This results in a considerable phonetic overlap between /ɪ/ and /ə/, although there is no phonemic KIT–COMMA merger because the weak vowel merger is not complete ("Rosa's" /ˈroʊzəz/, with a morpheme-final mid schwa [ ə] is distinct from "roses" /ˈroʊzɪz/, with an unstressed allophone of KIT that is phonetically near-close central [ ɨ]). [21]

Vowels before /r/

Before /r/, only /ɑ/ undergoes the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, so that the vowel in start /stɑrt/ varies much like the one in lot /lɑt/ described above. The remaining /ɔ/, /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ retain values similar to General American (GA) in this position, so that north /nɔrθ/, merry /ˈmɛri/ and near /nɪr/ are pronounced [noɹθ, ˈmɛɹi, niɹ], with unshifted THOUGHT (though somewhat closer than in GA), DRESS and KIT (as close as in GA). Inland Northern American English features the north-force merger, the Mary-marry-merry merger, the mirror–nearer and /ʊr//ur/ mergers, the hurry-furry merger, and the nurse-letter merger, all of which are also typical of GA varieties. [22]

History of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift

William Labov et al.'s Atlas of North American English (2006) presents the first historical understanding of 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. [23] 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 /ɑ/ (as in LOT and PALM); therefore, words like bot, gosh, or lock 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. [6] 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. [24] 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. [16]

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), [25] and the backing and lowering of /ɪ/ as in KIT, often but not always in that exact order. Altogether, this constitutes the Northern Cities Shift, identified by linguists as such in 1972. [14]

Possible motivations for the Shift

Migrants from all over the Northeastern U.S. traveled west 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. [26] He posits that this hypothetical dialect-mixing event, which initiated the larger Northern Cities Shift (NCS), occurred by about 1860 in upstate New York, [27] and the later stages of the NCS are merely those that logically followed (a " pull chain"). More recent evidence suggests that German-accented English helped to greatly influence the Shift, because German speakers tend to pronounce the English TRAP vowel as [ɛ] and the LOT/PALM vowel as [ä~a], both of which resemble NCS vowels, 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. [28] 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 showed NCS-like TRAP and LOT/PALM pronunciations, which may have already existed among 19th-century New England settlers, though this has been contested. [28] 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. [29]

Reversals of the Shift

Recent evidence suggests that the Shift has largely begun to reverse in many cities of the Inland North, [9] [10] such as Lansing, [9] Ogdensburg, Rochester, Syracuse, [10] [30] [31] Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago, and Eau Claire. [11] In particular, /ɑ/ fronting and /æ/ raising (though raising is persisting before nasal consonants, as is the General American norm) have now reversed among younger speakers in these areas. Several possible reasons have been proposed for the reversal, including growing stigma connected with the accent and the working-class identity it represents. [32]

Other phonetics

  • Rhoticity: As in General American, Inland North speech is rhotic, and the r sound is typically the retroflex [ɻ] or perhaps, more accurately, a bunched or molar [ɹ].
  • Canadian raising: 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, thus distinguishing, for example, between rider and writer by vowel quality ( listen ). [33] In the Inland North, unlike some other dialects, 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]. [34]
  • The nucleus of /aʊ/ may be more backed than in other common North American accents (toward [ɐʊ] or [ɑʊ]).
  • The nucleus of /oʊ/ (as in go and boat), like /aʊ/, tends to be conservative, not undergoing the fronting common in the vast American southeastern super-region. Likewise, the traditionally high back vowel /u/ is conservative, less fronted in the North than in other American regions, though it still undergoes some fronting after coronal consonants. [35] Also, /oʊ/, along with /eɪ/, can traditionally manifest as monophthongs: [e] and [o], respectively. [36]
  • The vowel in /ɛg/ can raise toward [e] in words like beg, negative, or segment, except in Michigan. [37]
  • 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]). [38] 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." [39]
  • Caramel is typically pronounced with two syllables as carmel. [40]


Note that not all of these terms, here compared with their counterparts in other regions, are necessarily unique only to the Inland North, though they appear most strongly in this region: [40]

  • boulevard as a synonym for island (in the sense of a grassy area in the middle of some streets)
  • crayfish for a freshwater crustacean
  • drinking fountain as a synonym for water fountain
  • 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 through Western New York State (Buffalo residents say pop, Syracuse residents say soda now but used to say pop until sometime in the 1970s, and Rochester residents say either. Eastern Wisconsinites around Milwaukee and some Chicagoans are also an exception, using the word soda.)
  • sucker for a lollipop (hard candy on a stick)
  • 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:

Notable lifelong native speakers

See also


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