What’s with the Western US and Velars?

Letter GI’d like to address something that has frequently been brought up in the comments.  One of the most salient (and ‘exotic’) features of accents in the Western US is the way vowels behave before voiced velar consonants (i.e. ‘-g‘ and ‘-ng‘).  This is especially noticeable in ‘-ing’ words: Arizonans, Californians and New Mexicans can pronounce ‘king’ as ‘keeng.’

But that’s not the only pre-velar curiosity.  ‘-Ag’ words, such as ‘bag’ and ‘tag,’ can be pronounced with the vowel in ‘face.’  To Southwesterners, Northwesterners, Western Canadians, and just plain westerners in general, ‘bag’ can rhyme perfectly with ‘vague.’

Remarkably, people who possess this feature often seem completely oblivious of its existence.  Some years back I played Jack Worthing in a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  The actress playing Gwendolen spoke in flawless British Received Pronunciation, with the notable exception of the line, ‘The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told.’  ‘Magazine’ sounded curiously like ‘MAY-gazine;’ the actress grew up in the Bay Area.  Even among people who are self-aware when it comes to their own accent, this feature is unremarked upon.

I can’t say for sure where these features come from.  The raising of ‘a’ before ‘-g’ also occurs in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but that strikes me as unrelated.  Nor are there easy answers for the tensing of ‘i’ in words like ‘king’ and ‘pink’. It’s odd that such a unique set of features is native to a region that is ostensibly a mishmash of different dialects.

At the West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, researchers Adam Baker, Jeff Mielke, and Diana Archangeli proposed that the raising of /a/ in words like ‘bag’ was due to a process called ‘velar pinch.’  In essence, because the tongue body is raised when making a ‘g’ sound, this impact the preceding vowel.  (The same would be true of the ‘pink’ = ‘peenk’ phenomenon).

American accents exhibit other types of this ‘velar pinch.’  The raised American ‘a’ in ‘can’ and the pronunciation of ‘bang’ as ‘bayng’ are most likely other examples.  But this doesn’t entirely explain why Western Americans extend this effect to ‘pink’ and ‘bag’ where Eastern Americans do not.  Why has this feature managed to spread so far and wide? (I’ve heard it as far east as Ontario.)

I remain stumped!

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-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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34 Responses to What’s with the Western US and Velars?

  1. IVV says:

    In my dialect, “bag” does not rhyme with “vague.” “King,” however, definitely uses /i/. We learn it that way, we don’t think that the sound is anything other than /i/, ask a child in phonics class how to write it out, they’ll use the long-E, and be marked wrong for using short-I.

    The word “English” is the one that causes the most confusion for me in IPA. I regularly see it written in IPA as /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/, and although that is much like RP, back in the San Joaquin Valley it’s definitely and clearly /ˈiŋɡlɪʃ/. At the very least, the first “E” and the middle “i” aren’t possibly the same vowel. I also would not call the second vowel /ɨ/, but it’s possible that I have trouble identifying /ɨ/ in my speech anyway (but the Rosa’s/roses difference helps).

    • trawicks says:

      I believe ‘bag’-raising is a bit less widespread than ‘king’-tensing. That might be a matter of the incidence of these two sequences — ‘-ing’ words are extremely common thanks to the ‘-ing’ morpheme where ‘-ag’ words are relatively more rare.

      • IVV says:

        How about Michael in the second video below? How would you compare his pronunciation of “man” and “grafting”?

  2. IVV says:

    For a really good idea of the accent I was raised with, I’ll point back to the almond farmers I’ve mentioned before.

    • IVV says:

      You can listen to him again here again, with a lot less background noise, and a number of short-A vowels in his opening sentences which may or may not sound raised to you.

  3. Jim Johnson says:

    My students from Texas are usually makeeng that -ing shift as well, and I’ve attributed it to the velar pinch you’ve mentioned. Bag/Beg is common in much of the upper midwest, too. Funny how these sounds can seem to take geographic leaps sometimes when so often it’s more of an easy geographic flow from one accent to another…

    • trawicks says:

      I’ve noticed a pretty pronounced Eastward drift of dialect features from the West into Texas. It’s possibly a matter of economics: given the recent boom in cities like Dallas, Austin and Houston, you’re probably more likely to get transplants from the West than from other Southern cities.

  4. Peter S. says:

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I pronounce bag with a diphthong: /bæɪg/. I get this from my mother, who grew up in Central Illinois in the 1930s, and I’ve heard it occasionally in other people from the Midwest. The same vowel is also in bang and bank. It doesn’t seem so unlikely to me that this altered vowel might have merged with beg, but this is pure speculation on my part.

    • Tom B. says:

      I’m from Central Illinois and I don’t do that myself. I’m not saying you’re a liar or your wrong though. I just think that that feature is probably more common with older speakers from rural areas; I’m in my 20’s and from a city. Another feature that reminds me of that is pronouncing ash like [æɪʃ] (cf. Belfast). Palato-alveolars seem to have a similar effect to velars on preceding vowels. You may also find older, rural Midland speakers who pronounce damage more like dameej or finish more like fineesh (also similar to Belfast I believe).

      What I wonder, though, is if all accents raise the tongue body when pronouncing ‘g’, then why don’t all accents have ‘velar pinch’? Why is it only restricted to a few places?

    • Rachel says:

      I’m from the Vancouver, Canada area, and my pronunciation of ‘bag’ similarly has a diphthong: [bæɪg]. Interestingly, my brother, who is 9 years younger than me (I’m 29, he’s 18) does say [beɪg]; I once asked him if ‘bag’ had a vowel that was more like ‘back’ or more like ‘bake’, and he said it was more like ‘bake’.

      I pronounce ‘king’ with an [ɪ], not an [i], though. [kiŋ] seems very strange to me.

  5. AL says:

    I was born in and lived in the SF Bay Area for the first 13 years of my life, and I never heard anyone there say bag like bayg (or vague). In fact the only person I know who says it like that is from Calgary, so I always thought it was a Canadian thing.

    I do pronounce king like keeng. I can’t imagine how else to pronounce “king”! How is that not the same “ee” sound? I mean, sure, when you spell it like “keeng” it might be drawn out longer… but is it not the same sound? It is definitely a different sound from “kin”, but I can’t do “kin” + g and not have the vowel change…

    • IVV says:

      Does anyone have an example of someone saying “king” that isn’t “keeng”?

      Or, more specifically, is “kin”+g?

      • dw says:

        Try this (me saying “kin, king, *keeng”).

        http://dl.dropbox.com/u/49106406/Kin_King_Keeng.mov

        • Ellen K. says:

          The only difference I hear between the 2nd and the third is the length.

          But, then, there was a post on Literal Minded which noted that people who think the vowel in words like king as ih will hear it as an ih, and people who think of it as an ee will hear at as an ee, regardless of how someone actually says it. (Alas, I can’t find the particular post, because I don’t know of any search string to use that’s unique enough.) It also noted that pronunciations are often somewhere in the middle, between ih and ee, rather than distinctly one or the other, since there is no phonemic distinction.

          Anyway, listening to that, I can’t personally, from how I hear it, understand why someone would thing of the vowel as matching kin rather than keen. Then again, I can hear the length difference. But I still hear it as the vowel of keen, even though it’s shorter.

        • Tom B. says:

          I hear both a qualitative and a (huge) quantitative difference between your “king” and “*keeng”. Were you exaggerating the length a bit or do you really pronounce /i/ that long before voiced consonants?

        • IVV says:

          That’s a king different from my king. There is some raising of the short-i, but it’s more similar to kin than keen. However, the vowel length of keeng is too much.

          Thanks!

        • dw says:

          I might say the FLEECE vowel that long in certain contexts (for example, sentence-finally with emphasis). I wanted to emphasize the contrast with “king”, so it may sound a little exagerrated.

        • AL says:

          To me, the difference between your king and your keeng is the length. You are drawing out keeeeeeeeng much longer. Try saying king with the same length; what vowel do you end up with?

        • Rachel says:

          I think this is the post from Literal-Minded that Ellen K. was referring to:

          http://literalminded.wordpress.com/2008/09/02/engma-enigma/

        • dw says:

          @AL:

          To me, the difference between your king and your keeng is the length. You are drawing out keeeeeeeeng much longer. Try saying king with the same length; what vowel do you end up with?

          I end up with a lengthened KIT vowel. Admittedly it’s phonetically very close to the FLEECE vowel, but then there is very little qualitative difference between [ɪ] and [i] in the first place (which is why people whose native language lacks a similar distinction have such a hard time distinguishing them).

          The same thing happens if I lengthen “kin” and compare to “keen”. In both cases, the two phonemes are still clearly distinct in my head.

        • AL says:

          Hmm, that is so strange! I’m kind of annoyed at myself now. If I stretch out kin and keen, I get two very distinct sounds. If I stretch out king, I get the same as keeng. It’s like I just can’t do -ing with the kin (kit) sound. Trying to force it feels so unnatural to me!

          kin, king
          bin, bing
          pin, ping

          Nope, the -ng forces an ‘ee’ sound for me!

          Could I possibly be influenced by my parents’ native Mandarin?

    • Peter S. says:

      I use the same sound in “kin” as “king”, and “keen” is definitely a different vowel from both.

  6. Amy says:

    I, too, grew up in the SF Bay Area, and “bag” sounds nothing like “vague” in my own pronunciation. I think of “bayg” as being vaguely Canadian, as AL says, and I never heard “bayg” said by native Californians when I lived there. I have, however, heard “keeng,” and even noticed recently that in very casual conversation when I say “making” it resembles “may-keeng.” This is a post-East Coast college pronunciation for me, and it sounds affected to my ears.

    • Julie says:

      I grew up on the Mendocino Coast, and “bag” and “vague” sound quite different to me, too. However, I did grow up saying, not “may-keeng,” but “may-keen,” a pattern I mostly dropped in college (Sacramento). I know one person who pronounces “bing” and “bean” identically (so far as I can tell), but he’s from Ohio.

    • Carol says:

      Three years later, and I too grew up in the Bay Area (a 4th generation San Franciscan). My “bag” does not sound like “vague” unless you pronounce that as “vag” as in “vagabond”. Also the the pronunciation of “king” as “keeng” is something I’ve only heard from housemate from Michigan. It sounds more upper midwest to me. I also have relatives who live in Tucson, Arizona and Albuquerque N.M. and they do not use either of the pronunciations written about here either. So????

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    sleek = slick

    not much difference in meaning

  8. Rodger C says:

    I pronounce “king” with a lax vowel in my high register. In my basilect I pronounce it to rhyme with “hang.” West Virginia, age 63.

  9. Sherlyn says:

    You’ve got to be kidding me—it’s so tarpnsarenlty clear now!

  10. m.m. says:

    The raising of [ɪŋ] to [iŋ] has been attributed to chicano influence, which is high in the west compared to the east.

    The raising before [g] on the other hand, I have only seen and heard of being confined to the north west and north central, but not the south west. A californian who says “bag” raised doesn’t sound ‘californian’, they sound canadian/washingtonian/oregonian/minnesotan, which coincides with a map in the ANAE showing the bag-vague merger occurring in those areas.

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    It’s actually been shown that many who raise [ɪ] to [i] actually produce a vowel that is BETWEEN the two, which is perceived as [i], but not a true [i] (some do raise to true [i] though]

    • trawicks says:

      That’s very interesting, mm, about the vowel being BETWEEN ‘kit’ and ‘fleece.’ My feeling is that such an observation may simply result from the ‘i’ in ‘-ing’ words being unstressed. In less prominent contexts, my ‘fleece’ vowel is a definitely a bit more lax (e.g. the ‘we’ vowel in ‘Are we there yet?’).

      Not to dismiss the work of the eminent Mr. Labov, but my impression is that ‘bag-vague’ merging is likely to be distributed in a very scattered way, such that there is a lot of inconsistency in specific locations. ‘-ag’ words are pretty sporadic in spoken language; I’ve been acquainted some ‘bag-vague’ merged people for quite some time before I’ve even noticed the feature. As such, it seems possible that if your parents didn’t have this merger, you could remain unmerged into adulthood even if your peers have the merger.

      • m.m. says:

        Well, the work im referring to looked at stressed productions of vowels before nasals in california speakers, and found that KIT before [ŋ] was separate from KIT before [n] for many, approaching FLEECE, but still separate. They were literally halfway between [i] and [ɪ], and there was issue as to how one might classify the ‘inbetween’ vowel they were producing, at it was neither KIT nor FLEECE.

        I don’t argue that it may be scattered, but research and stereotypes [even anecdotes of commenter here] do hold to where the merger does happen to a noticeable degree.
        I once read that one of the reasons that merger can go unnoticed is because of the low function load the non-merger carries.

  11. Eugene says:

    Here’s a factor. There is no tense/lax distinction before the velar nasal (right?). Think of *[-oŋ], and *[-uŋ], as well as *[-iŋ] and * [eŋ]. If there are no minimal pairs for [-ɪŋ] and [-iŋ] then there’s no distinction to be maintained and there’s more room for free variation and vowel shift. Thus the “halfway between [ɪ] and [i]” analysis makes sense. I’m not sure whether the velar pinch explanation or the Spanish influence explanation is more compelling.
    In my dialect, North Central, it’s [-ɪŋ], but we do have the raising in “bag,” which is part of the Northern Cities Vowel shift. I always thought “bag” and “bagel” had the same vowel until I looked it up, but I pronounced “bagel” with something between low-front ash /æ/ and mid-front /e/. People make fun of you when you do that.

  12. Phinumu says:

    I’m from Oklahoma and I’ve always used the FLEECE vowel in king and similar words. Additionally, I use the FACE vowel in -ang words such as hang and thank.

    Another distinctive feature of my accent is that I pronounce the initial consonant of thank as /ð/, making it an exception to the rule that only function words start with /ð/.

    In all of these cases, it was not until I started studying linguistics and phonetics that I discovered other people pronounce these words differently.