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Next: The Shape of Vowel Up: Chicago White English Previous: Surface Phonological Inventory of

Impressions of Stressed Vowels: The Northern Cities Chain Shift

Two vowel shifts, involving a number of phonemes, are rearranging this vowel system. One is a parallel chain shift, where a set of vowels moves together, in the same direction across vowel space, while the other is the circular drag chain shift called the Northern Cities Chain Shift. In a drag chain shift, one vowel changes to become a different phonetic form, leaving behind a gap in phonetic space, which is filled by another vowel that moves into the gap, leaving behind another gap, which is in turn filled by another vowel, etc., etc.

The movement of the vowels in this chain shift forms a closed loop. A total of 6 vowel phonemes, one after another, have moved so far from their original locations that the new form of one vowel overlaps the old form of another. This is a widespread, ongoing, historical change in the English vowel system, the Northern Cities Chain Shift (Labov 1991), which is in progress in Detroit, Buffalo, and other cities of the Rust Belt.7.10

The Northern Cities Chain Shift is as dramatic as the Great Vowel Shift of Early Modern English. It is evident in the following impressionistic transcriptions. The first 10 stressed tokens of each non-rhotic vowel were listened to several times and transcribed with the range of impressionistic realizations presented in Table [*].

Table: Impressionistic Transcriptions of Stressed Vowels (Rita)
/iy/: [Ii, i, i, I ] /uw/: [U, I, u:, U, :, , u, uw ]
/I/: [, , I,I] /U/: [U, , I, U, , I, U, ]
/ey/: [I, I, i, e, ei ] /ow/: [, U, oU, U, :, ]
//: [, , I, , ] //: [, :, , , , , , , ]
/æ/: [I, e, ei, , I, , :, , ] //: [, , ]
//: [a, a, , a, a, ] /:/: [, , {, , }/_ l) ]
/y/: [, , :, I, I, I, , aI ] /w/: [, , aU, aU, U, , o, , ]
/oy/: [ui, ui, uI, oI, oI]    

Comparing these impressionistic values to the Reference American phonetic values, we find a number of differences, which reflect the progress of the Northern Cities shift. /æ/ has raised from low to upper mid, as shown by [, e, ] transcriptions above.7.11 In the wake of the raising of /æ/, // and // are shifting to the front, as reflected in [a] values for the former, and [] values for the latter, except before /l/. Then // appears to be backing and falling, evidenced by some [] transcriptions. The next vowel in this chain shift is //, with some tokens as far backed as [] among the first ten stressed instances transcribed. Finally, // may be undergoing some backing or centralization, possibly preliminary to a downward shift into the [] area.

To summarize the Northern Cities Chain Shift as it occurs in Chicago, /æ/ first raises to mid- or high- front; then // and // move frontwards, and // backs and falls towards []; last // moves backwards towards [].7.12 7.13 It is also possible that // is starting to back and fall. Thus the pattern is:

(// )// // // // /æ/ [e~ ].

Advanced tokens of each phoneme in the Northern Cities Chain Shift are easily found in recordings of vernacular speech which, when played in isolation, sound entirely like conservative tokens of the overlapped phoneme. As Veatch (1987), Labov & Veatch (1987), and others have shown in Labov's project on Cross-Dialectal Comprehension, even Chicagoans who speak the advanced vernacular dialect can be completely fooled by such tokens, despite the fact that they are native speakers of this dialect.

This chain shift is an exception to one of the general constraints on chain shifting of Labov, Yaeger, & Steiner (1972). There the observation is made that in chain shifts: 1: peripheral vowels rise; 2: non-peripheral vowels fall; and 3: back vowels move to the front. These principles are said to hold much more strongly of chain shifts than of isolated shifts of single vowels. The Northern Cities Chain Shift, however, includes at least two non-peripheral vowels which move not just down, but also back. The front vowel // has central realizations, and the central vowel // has back realizations. Thus this chain shift constitutes a rare exception to principle 3.7.14

The Northern Cities Chain Shift is not the end of the changes affecting the Chicago vowel system. All the back vowels except /oy/ appear to be phonetically fronted.7.15 Thus we variably find phonetically fronted and even fronted-unrounded tokens of /uw, U, ow,7.16 /. Clearly not all tokens are shifted, but many are, to a greater or lesser degree.

Yet another vowel may be on the move in Chicago: the vowel /oy/ was variably transcribed here with a nucleus raised towards [u]. Indeed, only about a third of the vowels are not undergoing change in this dialect, namely /iy, ay, aw, /.

Considering the large implications of these impressionistic transcriptions, let us now go on to the instrumental characterizations of Chicago White English vowels, and see if the impressions are confirmed by the measurements.

next up previous
Next: The Shape of Vowel Up: Chicago White English Previous: Surface Phonological Inventory of
Thomas Veatch 2005-01-25