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.”

There’s more.

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.

5 thoughts on “What does the voice of the Great Lakes sound like?

  1. I’ve lived in Rochester and in Michigan. Love our accent. Be proud. Or is a is prawd?

  2. Raised in Michigan near Detroit but have lived in Chicago for 30 years.

    The Swerski, SNL -da Bears- is more of a socio-economic dialect vs a Chicago one. For some people -the- becomes “da-. So you get, I’m going -wid- my friends to see -da- Bears game.

    One more from Chicago that I don’t hear anywhere else is “over by” instead of “to.” Thus, I’m going over by my Grandma’s house. And sometimes it’s -over by dere-.

  3. There is something to be said, though, for there being a particular “accent” in this region. For whatever reason, major commercial networks have newscasters who speak with a “Midwest/Great Lakes” accent on national news broadcasts. One of those networks even had a story on this phenomenon. Ever heard a national newscaster with a strong Brooklyn or backwoods Georgia accent? In spite of what our “national accent” was when our population was concentrated along the east coast, for some reason as we moved west our accent changed. Perhaps it is due to the infusion of European immigrants from areas other the the British Isles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As our population demographics change in this country, will Hispanic elements become more obvious in our “national accent?” We tend to speak the language and accent that we hear. The children in my cousin’s family grew up mainly in the South, a have a mild southern accent. They moved there with their parents from upstate NY at a young age. I guess this just goes to show that kids listen more to their friends than to their parents!

    I do support your assertion, though, that accents vary more within regions than the article mentioned suggests. Years ago I did energy audits for a non-profit in southwest PA. One day I interviewed a person at a medium-sized manufacturing plant there. He listened to me for a while and then said “I bet I can tell where you grew up from your accent.” He asked me to say a couple of key words, and then was able to narrow down that I had grown up in either Orleans or Genesee Counties in western NY. He was right (it was Genesee.)

    We should never minimize the importance of the regional accents. Variety is, as they say, the spice of life.

  4. I heard this on the radio this morning. I’ve noticed a few Wisconsin speech tendencies – “byag” for example – and my friend from Rochester, N.Y. definitely has an accent.

    But I agree, I’m not buying a lot of this. Even if the Northern Cities Shift is happening, who cares?

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