Areas of the U.S. where "dew" and &q...

Areas of the U.S. where “dew” and “do” are pronounced differently. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A look into the Accents of the Southern Tier

by Alex Baer

Fourth of July, 1960. Columnist Norma Gauhn has dire words for Americans in the “jet age”: dialects are disappearing. So-called “speech experts” predict that “mass communications, compulsory education,” and the emergence of driver culture would soon homogenize American accents.

On the surface, it makes a good bit of sense; with distance made inconsequential, people aren’t as separated- one of the key factors that leads to the emergence of different dialects. Dialects, in layman’s terms, are variations of a language, different in their vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. For most American English dialects, the differences lie in their pronunciation.

While some accents do seem to be receding (how many New Englanders still sound like JFK?), what is becoming more and more apparent is that despite Skype, free long distance, and YouTube, dialects in the United States are changing more than ever.

As some of our listeners in the Southern Tier may know, one of these newfound dialects is in our own backyard. Coined in 1972 by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the Northern Cities Vowel Shift refers to an emergent accent relatively new to linguistics; spoken by over 30 million people from Milwaukee to Syracuse, it has scientists scratching their heads.

The accent has some key features that distinguish it from other American dialects: the backing of ʌ, the short u sound (as in uh), the fronting of aw, and the diphthongization of ae. What the heck is a diphthong, you say? It’s two adjacent vowels that lie within the same syllable. I just used one; the ie in lie is a diphthong.

For example: whereas someone would say “my mom got a cat,” someone from Rochester might say “my mahm gawt a kee-at.”

Any avid YouTubers out there might be familiar with Jenna Marbles, a Rochester native.Fans of classic Saturday Night Live also might remember Bill Swerski’s Superfans, a famous and early example of the accent.

Vowels are the key to understanding this linguistic change. There are short vowels (like in bat, or bot), and long vowels (like in boat, or beet). Long vowels have stayed the same since around the 1400s, but short vowels haven’t changed since the time of Charlemagne… until now.

William Labov, who identified the accent with the help of fellow linguists, is one of the leading experts on the dialect. Labov has likened this shift to “something like a game of musical chairs.” With each vowel sound fighting for their own phonological turf, a chain shift has occurred.

Together with Sharon Ash, Charles Boberg, published The Atlas of North American English back in 2005. Over 750 subjects were interviewed, from almost 300 communities, over 11 years. Called a “snapshot of our rapidly changing language,” it documents everything from the modern Bawston accent to the North Country (or Inland North) accent, and many more.

At any rate, it does seem that fears that mass communication is pushing us into a single accent are quite unfounded. We learn language from personal interactions, talking face-to-face with our friends and family. Even as cables and fibers turn us into a globally interconnected culture, we still retain our almost tribal identity of the people we interact with on a regional level.

So the next time you find yourself at a Syracuse game, or talking to a hometown Brewers fan, really listen. You just might learn something!

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