Say What?!

Although I grew up outside of Chicago, I’ve spent the last decade split between the East and West Coasts. Now, after 5 years in Los Angeles, my husband and I are settling into life as Michiganders. Aside from the longer days and lower cost of living, the biggest differences I’ve noticed are linguistic. People speak differently here, and for me it’s like coming home. After a decade away, I am back in a state where people drink pop instead of soda. And, at long last, I’ve returned to the land of the Northern City Vowel Shift.

Speech is constantly in flux, whether or not we are aware of it. Regional dialects diverge, giving us the drawls of the South and the dropped r’s of the Northeast. More recently, cities in a large swath of the northern Midwest are reinventing their vowels, especially the short vowels in ben, bin, and ban. From Syracuse to Minneapolis, Green Bay to Cleveland, these vowels have been changing among Caucasian native English speakers. The vowels are now pronounced with a different positioning of the tongue, in some cases dramatically altering the sound of the vowel. A wonderful NPR interview on the subject is available online in audio form and includes examples of these vowel changes.

I must have picked up the Northern City vowels growing up near Chicago. When I arrived in Boston for graduate school, friends poked fun at my subtle accent. They loved to hear me talk about my can-tact lenses. And I can’t blame them for teasing me. The dialect can sound pretty absurd, especially when pushed to the extreme. It was probably best parodied by George Wendt and the SNL cast in the long-running Super Fans sketch.

I have long been in love with the field of phonetics and phonology, or how we produce and perceive speech sounds. Creating and understanding speech are two truly impressive (and often underappreciated) feats. Each time we speak, we must move our tongues, lips, teeth and vocal folds in precise and dynamic ways to produce complex acoustical resonances. And whenever we listen, we must deconstruct the multifaceted spectral signatures of speech sounds to translate them into what we perceive as simple vowels, consonants, syllables. We do all of that without a single conscious thought – leaving our minds free to focus on the informational content of our conversations, be they about astrophysics or Tom and Katie’s breakup.

Experiences in the first couple years of life are critical for our phonetic and phonological development. Details of the local dialect are incorporated into our speech patterns early in life and can be hard to change later on. As a result, everyone’s speech is littered with telltale signs of their regional origins. My mother and aunt spent their early years in a region of Kansas where the vowels in pen and pin were pronounced the same. To this day, they neither say nor hear them as different. Imagine the trouble my mother had when she worked with both a Jenny and Ginny. I’ve noticed major differences between my husband’s dialect and my own as well. My husband, a native Angeleno, pronounces the word dew as dyoo, while I pronounce it as doo because in Chicago the vowels yoo and oo have merged.

These days I’m watching phonetic development from a front-row seat. My baby has been babbling for a while and I’ve watched as she practiced using her new little vocal tract. She would vocalize as she moved her tongue all around her open mouth and presumably learned how the sound changed with it. From shrieks to gasps to blowing raspberries, she tested the range of noises her vocal tract could create.  And as she hones in on the spoken sounds she hears, her babbling has become remarkably speech-like. The consonants and vowels are mixed up in haphazard combinations, but they are English consonants and vowels all right. Through months of experimentation, mimicry, and practice, she has learned where to put her tongue, how far to open her mouth, and how to shape her lips to create the sounds that are the building blocks of our language. And just as she was figuring it out, we went and moved her smack into a different dialect. She will have to muddle through and learn to speak all the same. And once that happens, it will be interesting to see where her sweet little vowels end up.

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