What does the voice of the Great Lakes sound like?
Does all this water makes us talk the same?
The communities of the Great Lakes region have long shared an environmental, industrial, commercial, recreational, cultural heritage. Echo claims the region has a shared news community.
But a shared accent?
That’s what Slate recently indicated in an article cleverly titled Vowel Movement: How Americans near the Great Lakes are radically changing the sound of English.
The piece counters a perception that regional linguistic differences are homogenized by cheap travel, fast communications, pervasive media and economic globalization.
Instead, it says linguistic differences are the kinds of things people tend to dig in their heels about changing. The report says that such differences are actually sharpening, especially here:
“But none is as dramatic, as baffling to linguists, and as mysteriously under the collective radar as what’s happening in the cities that ring the Great Lakes. From Syracuse, N.Y., in the east to Milwaukee in the west, 34 million Americans are revolutionizing the sound of English.”
I’ll skip the details of what the language experts call the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. It is an interesting read and I recommend it.
And I don’t buy a lot of it.
The story says that in some areas of North America cot and caught are pronounced the same. That’s unlike many northern cities that maintain a distinction.
I’m on board with that.
But the upshot is that supposedly this and similar distinctions have prompted a vowel shift where “People in Detroit have a jab not a job.” The story says those of us in what the linguists call the Northern Cities Shift region pronounce cot the way others say cat and that “but tilts toward bought” and “bet starts to sound like bought.”
And it’s equally wrong. We don’t talk that way. I grew up just north of Detroit and never held a jab in my life. But I certainly have been employed.
The other examples are inconsistent with the speech of my extended family and Michigan friends and colleagues.
The story gives a convenient explanation for that: We just can’t hear ourselves.
It cites research, including a Rice University study where people from the Northern Cities Shift region were played a recording of a speaker from Michigan saying bag. None could identify the byag pronounciation of a Northern Cities Shift speaker, the story says.
I don’t doubt it. I’ve never known a Michigan resident to munch on a byag of chips. Of course it’s difficult for a native Michigander to counter the claim that we are simply deaf to how we speak.
Oddly, the Slate piece points to Saturday Night Live’s Bill Swerski’s Super Fans skit as an example of the Northern Cities Shift.
I disagree. That’s not an example of a northern cities accent. Chicago is a city with a sound entirely its own. I’ve never pulled for “da Bears” or “da Bulls” in my life, and it’s not just because I’m a Detroit sports fan.
I’m hardly a linguist, but it strikes me that there is plenty of speech pattern variation within the Great Lakes region. Slate links to this guy demonstrating how people speak in Rochester. How is that remotely similar to how Upper Peninsula Michiganders speak? Ever been to the U.P.?
But come to think of it, maybe the U.P. characters in Escanaba in da Moonlight would root for da Packers if not da Bears or da Lions.
Naaahh… The whole regional accent thing escapes me.
But then, apparently I’m deaf to this argument.