“Say bat.”

Bat,” I repeat.

“Can you feel where your tongue is?”

Labov is trying to explain a diagram that I find quite abstruse—a swirl of vowels connected with directional arrows that signify the Northern Cities Shift, a sound change that began in the 1960s and encompasses 34 million people living in the Great Lakes region. Labov’s atlas identifies it in a swath of cities stretching from Syracuse to Chicago to Milwaukee, and dropping down the I-55 corridor to St. Louis.

“These are measurements of acoustic properties that correspond pretty well to where the highest part of the tongue is,” he explains. “Now say bet.”


“No you can’t.” (Well, that’s how it sounds in my native Virginia.) “Say yeah.”

Yeah.” Is this how Eliza Doolittle felt?

“Now go say that’s where.”

That’s where.”

“Hear your tongue going up when you come to where? It’s higher in your mouth. Now say ee.”


“The blade of your tongue is very close to the roof of your mouth.”

As Labov continues the tour of my mouth, he explains that sound is produced by an opening in the larynx known as the glottis. As it travels through the mouth, the tongue’s position reinforces certain harmonics and suppresses others. “That’s [similar to] what makes a bassoon sound different from an oboe,” Labov says. “They both can play the same note and sound very different, because different harmonics are reinforced.”

In the Northern Cities Shift—just as in the Southern Shift, the Canadian Shift, and the Pittsburgh Shift described in the atlas—changes in tongue position lead to a rotation of vowel sounds: Socks sounds like sacks would sound in other dialects. Man comes out as myeahn. Desk sounds like dusk. And bus sounds like boss. “But that’s only in the most advanced speech,” says Labov. “In most places it’s just a movement in that direction.”

Labov cites the television show NYPD Blue as an example. “Tell me who doesn’t fit in. It’s Dennis Franz, who’s from Chicago. He has a very strong Northern Cities Shift. So when Dennis Franz says, ‘What he-appened?’ Americans say, ‘What’s he doing in the New York City police department?’”

The Southern Shift—like a train heading down a different track—is taking vowel sounds in another direction: Say goes toward sigh. Weight is heard as white. Beat sounds like bait.

“It’s reached its maximum in areas [like] Tuscaloosa, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Birmingham, and the central Appalachian area,” Labov says. Interestingly, in the South, the smaller the city and the older the speaker, the stronger their accent is. In the North, the reverse is true: the younger the person and the bigger the city, the stronger the accent.

One of the many linguistic mysteries that occupy people like Labov is why the North American settlement patterns that established dialects many years ago are still reflected in sound changes today. The Northern Cities Shift, for example, “arose and [began to] spread 100 years after the main settlement lines were established, and it stops short on the same boundary.”

Given the sound changes he’s documented, if someone were to take a road trip around the country a century from now, would they be able to understand the person at the next gas pump?

“They may think they’re understanding [each other],” Labov says, but there will be changes that will lead to misunderstandings they’re probably not even aware of.”

While some sound changes seem to have reached a maximum, others appear to continue, says Labov. In many parts of the country, the girl’s name Ann now sounds like the boy’s name Ian, but this name-morphing seems to have reached its limit. In Philadelphia, the word paid is changing so it sometimes is mistaken for peed. “Sound change can go on and on, but it will take different forms.”

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/08/06

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FEATURE: Continental Drift
By Susan Frith

"Bill Labov is the indisputable architect of sociolinguistics," says an admiring colleague. "He is without peer."