HRSFAlum Academia hits Pop Culture

A shout-out to HRSFAN Aaron J. Dinkin, linguist of the dialectological variety, who appeared as a Major Quoted Someone for Slate last month in an article on the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS aka NCS).

The article is raising awareness of some recent (~our lifetime) re-jiggering of “linguistic turf” for short vowels (cat, cot, caught, &c.), which seems to be radiating outward from areas like Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit &c. The write-up is fun, and Aaron sounds in his element.

I like the content of the article, but am not sure where the tone is coming from. Aaron, Emily, and anyone else with opinions and/or data, please chime in:

  • Why does the introductory expert, William Labov, explicitly present the NCS as a PROBLEM? It’s kind of cool to be catching systematic pronunciation change in the act — especially if it may truly be as big a vowel shift as we’ve seen (heard) in the past millennium. And it’s not like Northeast/Midwesterners feel like we can’t understand or be understood by others. Is this actually an aesthetic judgment? I think most of us already feel English vowels are dead ugly, and don’t care except (possibly) in an operatic context.
  • Are the experiments described as supporting lack of self-awareness on the part of NCS speakers (Preston, Niedzielski) presented accurately? Neither seem damning to me. How is “flipping a mental coin” for cat v. cot in isolation — if in one’s own pronunciation they are homonyms — different from flipping a mental coin for to v. two v. too in isolation?

2 thoughts on “HRSFAlum Academia hits Pop Culture

  1. Labov was really using “problem” in a highly bleached metaphorical sense there—all he means by “it wouldn’t be a problem” is ‘it wouldn’t have led to a major difference between the Inland North and other dialect regions. I’d just call this a poor choice of words on his behalf here.

    The Preston study is described confusingly. First of all, “cat” and “cot” aren’t homophones in anyone’s pronunciation of English, anywhere. (I feel almost comfortable stating that totally categorically.) The deal with the NCS is that merely that NCS speakers pronounce “cot” in a way that’s more like the non-NCS “cat” than non-NCS speakers do (and maybe more like the non-NCS “cat” than like the non-NCS “cot”). However, the NCS “cat” has already moved out of the way and is less similar to the non-NCS “cat”.

    If I recall correctly the way the Preston study worked, what happened was that NCS listeners, hearing an NCS speaker pronounce an NCS “cot”, which should have been easy for them to understand since it was a speaker of their own dialect, still some of the time interpreted it as “cat” because the NCS “cot” is similar to the non-NCS “cot”—i.e., NCS listeners sometimes interpret local speakers as if they *expected* them not to have the NCS.

    The Niedzelski study is the flip side of the same situation: having heard a speaker they were told was from Michigan, saying a word they were told was “bag”, the NCS listeners described the pronunciation after the fact as not having sounded like the NCS “bag”, even though it did—again, because the NCS listeners expect local speakers to *not* have a marked accent.

    And the general point that Inland North Speakers generally are unaware (unlike Boston, New York, and Southern speakers) that they have a distinctive accent is certainly true. (You yourself are a case in point, I think!) Another well-known study by Preston asked respondents from a couple different geographical areas to rate each of the 50 states for speech correctness/standardness—and respondents from Michigan consistently rated themselves as the highest-ranked state for correctness (which is not something respondents from, say, Alabama did).

    Cf. also my Minnesota Public Radio interview:

  2. That makes so much sense! Thanks for clearing up. I expected that a fair amount of the confusion was garbling in the translation from, say, “Handbook of perceptual dialectology” and “Contours of English and English language studies” to Slate, and so it seems.

    And, yes, I can acknowledge that Michiganians (Lower Peninsula, specifically) tend to define our speech as “non-accented.” I may be slightly more aware than average, but that’s just because I spent some formative time out of the country and got the “Midwestern ‘a'” wiped, but then it came back with a vengeance during high school.

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