Northern Cities Vowel Shift vs. Canadian Accents

Detroit, 1920s

1920s Detroit (Detroit Public Library)

As per our recent discussion of Canadian accents, I’d like to delve into a question I often hear: how different is Canadian English from American English?

What’s remarkable about Canadian English is not that it’s different from American English, but how different it is from the American accents nearby. The Toronto Accent, for example, is closer to the English spoken in California than the English spoken in nearby Buffalo. Why is this?

Not only are Buffalo accents and Canadian accents different, but they are actually shifting…in opposite directions.

Buffalo, along with other Northern US cities, features something called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCVS). That means that a number of vowels have shifted from their “normal” positions in General American. The vowel in bet moves toward the vowel in but, bat moves toward bet, bot toward bat, bought toward bot, and but toward bought. It’s like a game of linguistic musical chairs!

This is why somebody from Buffalo can sound a bit “flat:” the word back can sound like “beh-uhck” and the word top often sounds like General American “tap.” It can be slightly jarring to outside listeners.

But Toronto has its own game of “musical chairs” going on in the opposite way: the vowel in bat moves toward the vowel in bot and bot moves toward bought. So, somebody from Toronto could say:

Bought the bat.”

And it would sound to someone from Buffalo like:

Butt the bot.”

I am exaggerating a bit here, but the point is clear: these two cities, despite being a mere two hours from each other, are remarkably different linguistically.

Why is it that there is such a large divide along the border between Canada and the US? I did a bit of research to see what I could come up with, and at first glance not much explained this conundrum.

As per William Labov in this article, the Northern Cities Vowel Shift looks to have started in upstate New York or thereabout around the late 19th-Century. But both Buffalo and Toronto experienced similar immigration patterns around the turn of the 20th Century. So there isn’t much difference between the two in that regard.

But it occurred to me that there might be a more grim explanation here. The major Eastern cities close to Canada–Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland–simply never got a chance to attract any kind of cross-border cultural communication. Upon the collapse of industry in Detroit and Buffalo, there would have been little economic reason for Canadians to move there. Likewise, there would have been little reason for the largely working-class populations of those American cities to move to the very white-collar economically diverse Canadian cities of Windsor and Toronto. [UPDATE: After hearing from at least one native of Windsor, I'm not so sure this theory holds water for the Detroit-Windsor area.]

I wonder if this will change. I see no reason Detroit and Buffalo won’t become economically powerful cities in the next few decades. Weirder things have happened: In the 1970s, the city of Seattle was a working-class town with an unemployment rate of about 25%. In two decades it became one of the wealthiest and most economically diverse areas in North America. Go figure.

If these these other cities become powerful again, will the NCVS spread to Canada? Will Canadian English spead southward? Or will the two accents remain forever distinct?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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17 Responses to Northern Cities Vowel Shift vs. Canadian Accents

  1. I really wouldn’t call Windsor “very white-collar” but then I’m not sure what standard you are working from.

  2. 'enry 'iggins says:

    I’ve heard people say that people in Buffalo and Rochester sound like Canadians. They must not be listening closely. I don’t understand how anyone could get those accents confused.

    • trawicks says:

      Well, I’d say both accents are recognizably “Northern” in some respects, but the vowels in LOT and TRAP have such incredibly different realizations that I would have a hard time seeing how you could mistake the two.

      @Robert,

      It is true that Windsor has an automotive sector like Detroit, but it strikes me that it has a far more diverse economy. In fact, “white collar” is probably less accurate than “economically diverse.” The problem with the America cities I’m talking about is that they put all their industrial eggs in one basket.

  3. Claude says:

    Interesting and amusing that the day Stan (from Sentence First) sends us to your blog, you’re discussing the Toronto Canadian accents. I grew up French in Montreal, moved to Toronto in my twenties, in an attempt to learn English. It was a full, successful one-year-immersion. I didn’t have a clue then that, although I would be somehow understood anywhere I went in my country and the States, my ears would be so often puzzled by different pronunciations of familiar words. After all those years, it’s fun to see where, how and why. Thanks! You’re a nice place to visit.

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks for the great insight. Being American, my association of Canada with “white collar” may have gotten the best of me!

      So I’m gonna go ahead and officially revise my theory when it comes to Windsor. Being a native from the area, have you found that there is some other divide that explains the “accent wall?”

    • trawicks says:

      Thanks, Claude! Interestingly, I’ve found that Quebecois English speakers often sound a bit more (dare I say it) American than their English Canadian counterparts. Just a general observation, though.

  4. I’m here from Stan (Sentence first). Very impressive! I am a native of Southern Ontario (near Toronto) and a native speaker of that dialect; I now live in Windsor, ON but commute to work in Detroit, MI where I teach linguistics and anthropology at Wayne State University. The very hard linguistic border here (no NCVS in Windsor, no Canadian raising in Detroit) is always a very useful entry point for talking about the sources of and maintenance of linguistic variability.

    I don’t quite agree with your sociolinguistic explanation, though. Windsor is very blue-collar and automotive-oriented. There are also some lexical similarities between the Windsor dialect and Michigan English, e.g., the use of possessive forms for proper names of companies (Ford’s, Chrysler’s, Kmart’s instead of Ford, Chrysler, Kmart). There is an awful lot of cross-border traffic including tens of thousands of Canadian commuters such as myself. If you go to a Detroit hospital you are more than likely to be treated by a Canadian nurse.

  5. John Cowan says:

    I think the bottom line is Canadians’ determination not to sound like Yanks, as the NVCS is at least in part a determination not to sound like AAVE-speakers. Across the Pond, the Scottish accent has receded northward to the political boundary, leaving places like Berwick (which changed hands a lot and historically had a Border Scots accent) much more English English than Scottish English.

  6. For anyone who lived in Toronto, particularly before the days of proliferating television channels, local TV shows from Buffalo (and Western New York) would have been a part of everyday life. A Torontonian would know a Buffalonian accent very well and recognize its other-ness – and perhaps people from Buffalo felt or feel the same way about us.

    On visiting Buffalo last summer, I was astonished to learn – after a lifetime of assuming that Toronto was invisible to our near neighbours across the border – that a few of its citizens actually have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about Toronto. Who knew!

    Perhaps that’s one reason why our accents are diverging; we’re each marking our territory.

    • TheWhitefire says:

      I have to wonder about this as well. We Canadians have a very strong identity based around being NOT American. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this is why our accents are the way they are. Interesting to also note that the only two areas with vastly different accents in Canada are Quebec and the Maritimes- who have a very insular identity as being apart from the rest of Canadians.!!

  7. Darrensmooth says:

    I know a girl from Windsor, I assumed she was from one of the Northern US States, she was Canadian and had never lived in the US though, so she somehow picked up the accent.

    In the Toronto to Niagra Falls Area AKA The Golden Horseshoe as we call it, the accent sounds very different to Buffalo natives across the bridge. The biggest irony is that younger people in the Golden Horsehoe have an accent that is quite close to General American (and strangely much closer to it than people from Buffalo) despite the fact that they are Canadians.
    I read a theory that the general american accent was already formed before the American Revolution, and loyalists with that accent came to Canada and thus that accent mixed with the influx of scottish and irish immigrants, of course that is just a theory.

    • trawicks says:

      That theory holds water. The General American accent, in my opinion, actually predates America itself, since many Southwestern English accents are obvious linguistic cousins. And there’s quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that Scottish English may have played a role in Canadian English, since CanE shares its tendency to have a fronted vowel in words like “goose” but a very backed vowel in words like “goat.”

      • dw says:

        The General American accent, in my opinion, actually predates America itself, since many Southwestern English accents are obvious linguistic cousins.

        Its origins obviously predate 1776, but I’m curious about your logic here. It seems to me that the main thing General American has in common with Southwestern English is full rhoticity, which is a conservative feature. As far as I know Southwestern English does not share any of the significant ***innovations*** of GenAm, such as the Mary/marry/merry merger, the cot/caught merger (if this is considered a GenAm feature), or the father/bother merger.

        This is important, since it is shared innovations that would, if inherited, demonstrate a close relationship. Shared retentions prove nothing other than that both are dialects of English.

  8. Matt says:

    I thought this article was interesting. Being a native NYer (NYC area as in), coming to Buffalo for college I used to think Buffalo people sounded canadian. But now I definitely hear a difference after a couple of years in the area, especially of the shifting with caught and lot for example. It is extremely interesting hearing such different pronunciations of words for radio stations based out of Niagara Falls- St. Catherine’s area just miles (or km!) away! I like to test myself and listen closely at the mall to see if I can spot who’s a canadian and who’s american based on accent, as nearly half the people at the galleria on the weekend are from southern ontario.

    Despite some word differences, I do think there are some similarities though which is why I used to have a tough time distinguishing- such as the rounded “o” sound (like in the movie “Fargo”, sort of), and I think there “a” and “i” sounds can be similar (As in “Day” and “Five”), they sort of have an irish tonation to them. I guess as you mentioned in one of your reply these are kind of just “Northern Accent” traits.

  9. Nathan Brown says:

    My uneducated, uninformed guess is that people in much of the Northern Cities area developed accents unique from their counterparts across the border because there might not have been as much cross-border settlement as in other areas. Look at Buffalo, the white population is mostly European Catholics by descent — Poles, Irish, Italians, Germans. They wouldn’t have had much in common with the more English/Scotch-Irish culture on the other side of the border, and little reason to cross it.

    In some other areas like New York’s North Country and northern Vermont, you had more cross border traffic, a lot of French Canadians settled there. And as a result, the accents there have traces both of modern-day Canadian speech and, in the older generation, some French-accented holdovers.

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