Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Changes in American English.

It was our contention in our post on ‘The purity of English’ that there is no such thing as ‘pure’ English. Professor Labov in his “Atlas of North American English,” shows how diverse and changing American English is, and contrary to common belief, Americans are NOT growing more similar in their speech. Change does not occur in grammar but in pronunciation and particularly in vowel sounds as consonant sounds are comparatively stable.

In fact, it seems that the mass media, greater mobility and easier communication have not standardized the language and new pronunciations continue to arise while others disappear - and this what a linguist is saying.

According to Professor Labov, the greatest change is taking place in the Inland North dialect, which used to be the model for standard American pronunciation. This is the English spoken around the Great Lakes including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland or Buffalo (about 34 million people today).

This change of pronunciation is called ‘the Northern city Shift’. Here are some interesting examples:

  • All words with the same vowel as 'cot' (box, lot, job, Don) are pronounced with a vowel closer to that of 'cat'.
  • A word like ‘block’ is pronounced increasingly like ‘black
  • The word ‘bus’ sounds like ‘boss
  • And the vowel sound in ‘news’ is moving forward towards the French sound of ‘u’.

According to Labov, the newest and most ‘invasive’ sound change is taking place in the Chicago area with the ‘eah’ sound, which you hear in ‘happened’ [sounds like heahppened].

There are other ‘mergers’ – i.e. sounds that used to be different and are becoming increasingly the same taking place in other parts of the country. In some cases the process is finished such as
  • The ‘h’ sounds of ‘wHile’ or ‘wHen’ which has completely disappeared (so now ‘which’ is no different than ‘witch’ when it used to be).
  • Or the vowel sound of 'o' in cot (or box, lot, job, Don, etc.) which is pronounced like the 'au' sound of caught (fought, bought, off, dawn, etc.). Many Americans use the same vowel in all of these words [so for them cot and caught as well as Don and dawn, stock and stalk, and other pairs are homophones].

There is also a Southern Shift for which all words with the vowel of tame (bake, late, Jane, day) take on a pronunciation closer to the vowel of time.

The question as to why such changes have taken place is fascinating and hopefully we'll have to make another post on that fascinating subject.

For more information read this or listen to this.

NOTE: it is worth noting a similar thing has occured in French – today very few people will make a difference between the vowel sound of ‘un’ as in ‘brun’ and ain’ as in ‘pain’ when it used to be quite different just a couple of generations ago.

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