Accents of the Pacific Northwest, Part II

Mount Rainier


Since moving across country, I’ve only had intermittent internet access.  I’ll be more active here and in the comments once we get everything set up on Friday.  A brief anecdote, however.

As I foreshadowed some time back, I just moved to the city of Seattle.  A week ago, while hunting for apartments, a spacey property manager handed me the opportunity dialect hounds dream of:  he identified where he grew up (Seattle), his age (late thirties), and gave a detailed account of everywhere he’s lived in the greater metropolitan area.  I’m still somewhat perplexed about what entails a ‘Pacific Northwest accent,’ so I took note of the following observations:

*He tended to use a monophthong in words like ‘face’ and ‘goat’ (i.e. ‘fehs‘ and ‘goht‘ or [e:] and [o:]).
*The vowel he used for words like ‘lot’ and ‘top’ was fairly consistently rounded (i.e. ‘lawt’ and ‘tawp;’ or [ɒ].
*Somewhat anachronistically, the speaker exhibited some indications of the pin-pen merger: when he mentioned ‘Kent’ (a suburb of Seattle), he pronounced so that it sounded like ‘Kint.’

The first two features are typical of Canadian English or some types of Western American English. The last, curiously, is more typical of the American South, although it can be heard in some Western states as well. To be honest, I’d need more information to deduce if this is truly the merger, or due to some other phenomenon.

None of what I’ve said here is particularly revealing (several people on this blog have commented on the same observations), but it was great to hear what seemed to be a true-blue Northwest accent.  That being said, I should note that other Seattleites don’t exhibit anything like what I’ve described above.  Are there perhaps ‘working-class’ Northwest accents? ‘Educated’ ones?


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched 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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16 Responses to Accents of the Pacific Northwest, Part II

  1. gaelsano says:

    Well, the cot-caught merger is dominant in Canada and everywhere west of the Mississippi. That makes the lot-palm-thought vowel subject to extreme variation.

    The second generation Philippine MC of the Seattle hip-hop duo Blue Scholars exhibits this. I think the influence of AAVE in hip hop has given him occasional distinction between thought and lot-palm and some occasional thought-north-goat merging in a few phrases, but his verses are reliably Seattle. His lot-palm-thought vowel is free to move from ɑ to ɔ and everywhere in between. The American West Coast (and England?!) have a strong centering of the STRUT vowel and a lowering of the TRAP vowel, so a Chicago-like PALM [a] is impossible. Within one song it fluctuates. Check out “Cornerstone.” The vowel in “rock, rock on” is definitely closer to [ɔ] though not as tightly rounded and not as high as the [ɔ:] of England.

    Not too many people in the NW are long time residents. Many are transplants or the children of transplants. It hasn’t defined itself the way California has with its extreme GOAT and GOOSE fronting (“no…” sounds remarkably Oxford-like) and its own lexicon (“hella”). It makes sense that Seattle would sound like a mixture.

    There’s also a funny tendency for Canadian speech features to cross the border far more successfully than American features. I have never heard a Canadian (if you know to the contrary please correct me) use the shifted vowels of the Northern Inland Cities, but I have heard upper-peninsula Michiganites use “eh” and show Canadian raising in life and about. In northern New York State, Canadian raising in life/like/height is 100% complete among the youth. The GOAT vowel is also nearly fully monophthongized. For some reason it’s much more subtle than monphthongization of the FACE vowel.

    I think that the [ɪ] of /eɪ/ is usually closer to [i], but the [ʊ] of /oʊ/ is much more subtle. For many Americans the [ʊ] is often unrounded or only gently rounded and almost as weak as the Japanese “u” making it perfect for fusing with the [o] vowel into [o:]. Compare the way the British say “cook” and the way North Americans say “cook.” It’s practically said as [kʰ.k̩] for young Americans and [kʰukʰ] for old RP speakers and old American. From The Shining, listen to the old caretaker in the ballroom lavatory from The Shining when he says “Yes… a ****** coooook.”

  2. JB says:

    I’m always a little puzzled by the “monophthongization” of /e/ and /o/ as mentioned in the post. Linguistics textbooks vary on this, though Fromkin, et. al. treat them as monophthongs.

    The IPA handbook lists /e/ and /o/ as monophthongs for General American English. Also, check out the University of Iowa phonetics website, where /e/ and /o/ are treated as monophthongs. Iowa, by the way, is the epicenter of General North American English (the most leveled-out, least distinctive dialect?).

    The Northwest is developing its own dialectal features. A lot of Minnesotans migrated out there early on and you can sometimes hear that influence. In general, though, Northwesterners are not far from General North American English, with a few Canadian features, as is common across the northern states.

    As for US features not influencing Canadian dialects, what about Toronto? Canadians from Toronto seem to be very close to General North American.

  3. Peter S. says:

    Aren’t /e/ and /o/ more likely to be monophthongs before unvoiced consonants, in words like “face” and “goat”, than at the end of a word?

  4. Josh McNeill says:

    I’m not sure you can take pronunciation of locations at face value like in the case of how he pronounced Kent. For instance, I’ve never heard anyone pronounce Houston (like the city) any way other than hue-ston (sorry for my lack of ability to use IPA) but when I lived in NYC there was a street of the same name that everyone seemed to pronounce how-ston. This confused the hell out of me at first but after a short bit I simply conformed to how they pronounce the street name there while still pronouncing the city the way I’ve always heard it. Perhaps his pronunciation of Kent is the same sort of thing.

  5. First of all, welcome to Seattle! I’d love to meet you in the real world; hope there’ s not too much culture shock 😉

    Second, there’s a native pin/pen merger here; I’ve said it before (see my comment in the Pacific NW Accents Part I). And I think it’s going away; it’s much less common now than when I was growing up.

    Third, I’m baffled by constant comparison with Canadian English. To my Seattle ear, the Vancouver [o:] is exotic. I myself pronounce “lot” and “top” without rounding, and while I do know some native Seattlites who do round that vowel, I think it’s hasty to say that it’s a Seattle thing to round it or not round it.

    You can hear my accent here; I promise you that ever since I was an undergrad, I’ve made every effort to talk local, and resist standardizing and assimilating. As a TA in grad school my midwestern students used to heckle me for the way I pronounced “root” (same vowel as “foot”).

    • Jordan says:

      It’s funny that your Midwestern students of all people would heckle you about that, because pronouncing “root” to rhyme with “foot” is a very Midwestern (especially upper Midwestern) thing. I also read somewhere that a lot of the settlers of the West were from the Midwest, so you can blame them for your accent 🙂

      • Ellen K. says:

        Maybe he wasn’t in the upper Midwest? The Midwest is NOT a dialog area. Don’t generalize from “done in the Midwest” to “done everywhere in the Midwest”. Speech wise, it’s probably safe to assume that anything particularly associated with the Midwest will NOT be something done all over the Midwest. And anything widespread enough to be universal in the Midwest is not going to be a Midwest thing, but rather significantly more widespread than that.

        • I was teaching Spanish 101 at the UM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The lesson was how to conjugate verbs in Spanish into the present tense. I was saying something like “take the root, add the suffix.” They were visibly agitated that I kept saying “root” with a vowel that rhymes with “foot.”

          I’m not making any claims about speech in the Midwest here, I can only tell you that my students interrupted me to correct my pronunciation of “root.” I told them that I grew up pronouncing “root” that rhymes with “foot,” and they said that I should change it now that I’m in Ann Arbor.

          I told them that I had been assimilating all my life and that I was done with it, and that I even if I did change my vowel and assimilate my speech to theirs, I’d never be white. That was the end of the discussion.

        • Ellen K. says:

          @JP Villanueva

          My post was a reply to Jordan, not you. I definitely did not think you were generalizing about speech in the Midwest.

        • Jordan says:

          Is it that time of the month? Sorry, I should have known.

          PS What’s a “dialog area”? Is that the area on stage where actors practice their dialogs? Don’t normal people spell the word “dialogue”? So many questions, so little time.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Sorry, I meant dialect.

          But, no, “dialog” would not be an incorrect spelling, had that been the correct word. Normal people spell it both ways.

  6. Julie says:

    I don’t know whether this is relevant, but I’ve recently learned that the lumber mills in my Northern California hometown were actively recruiting in the mid-South during the 1930’s and -40’s. Did anything like this happen in Seattle? That could account for a “native” pin-pen merger.

  7. Chris Stillman says:

    You should hear my accent, everybody thinks i’m from canada, seattle born and raised, haven’t left the area for more than two months.

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  9. Dave says:

    I’m a native northwesterner. I have the pin/pen merger, I say foot and roof the same, bag rhymes with beg (bAg), my S’s are, well, slurred or something… when it’s a short s it comes out like sh like shout (I have some friends who say “shpoon”). Another strange thing’s the way younger nwers, especially in Seattle, say “there”, sounds like “deer”.

    I recently looked into the Michigan accent and was shocked to find I pronounce words like milk, both, and sherbet exactly like them. And in lazy speech I say chrysler like them. Actually, after looking into midwestern speech more, I think Nwestern speech is significantly influenced by it.
    Look at MaxSeven’s post.

    I also noticed that northwesterners, the blue-collar ones, not from california, slur and string words together, I actually have a habit of doing so, too.

    Interesting linguistic story: In Seattle while cheering some guy to sled down stevens st. on cap hill, they chanted “Doo-wet! Doo-wet!” (Do it!)

    Also, we DO NOT talk like californians. If any northwesterner talks like a californian, they’re probally from cali, or their parents were, or they’re trying to be cool. Seriously, californian accents sound stupid, to me at least. I’m 20, I hear young wannabe californians alot.

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