Canadian Vowels vs. California Vowels

Keanu Reeves

Photo: Michael Labowicz

Canadians and Californians share more than a few passing similarities, speech-wise. After all, it didn’t take much suspension of disbelief to buy Canadian Keanu Reeves as a Valley native in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (L.A. natives would probably disagree with my appraisal).

In both accents, the vowel in ‘dress’ tends to shift toward the vowel in ‘trap,’ the vowel in ‘trap’ tends to move toward the vowel in ‘lot’, while ‘lot’ merges with the vowel in ‘thought.’ As I’ve frequently discussed, this means that when a Californian says:

My pet cat Rod.

It might sound to someone from Chicago* like:

My pat cot rawed.

And yet something has always puzzled me about the parallel shifts in Canada and California: why does the shift seem so widespread in Canada, but more inconsistent in the Golden State?

A recent article in American Speech (the academic journal of The American Dialect Society) explores this very question. Robert Kennedy and James Grama’s Chain Shifting and Centralization in California Vowels: An Acoustic Analysis studied the speech of thirteen subjects from both Southern and Northern California.

The results confirmed my impressions: In California, the vowel in DRESS consistently moves toward TRAP, and the vowel in TRAP consistently moves toward the vowel in LOT. But the subjects were split nearly in half when it came to the vowel in LOT. Some retracted this vowel, so that it is (presumably) fairly close to the ‘standard’ British pronunciation of the word: [ɒ]. Others kept it more or less in the same position it is for most Americans, as an unrounded and fairly central ‘ah’ sound.

The range of variation of this one vowel indeed strikes me as remarkable. Some Angelenos conform to the ‘Valley Girl‘ stereotype of pronouncing such words with a back-rounded vowel (hence the stereotypical ‘Oh my gawwd’). Yet I’ve heard others pronounce it almost as one would in Chicago: [ä].

So what is it about California English that is more resistant to shifting the ‘o’ in ‘lot’? Is it (as Kennedy and Grama suggest) a matter of the two shifts being precipitated by the movement of different vowels? Or are there external factors that result in California maintaining the more ‘typical’ American vowel?

Source: Kennedy, R., & Grama, J. (2012). Chain shifting and centralization in California vowels: An acoustic analysis. American Speech, 87(1), 39-56.

*Okay, not quite. The Chicago DRESS vowel is actually usually retracted, and the Chicago TRAP vowel is raised and diphthongized. This is a very rough hypothetical example.


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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36 Responses to Canadian Vowels vs. California Vowels

  1. Jason Reid says:

    Hispanic influence on Californian speech? Scottish and Scots-Irish influence on Canadian speech?

  2. IVV says:

    In my experience, Californians avoid a lot of rounding. I’m LOT/THOUGHT merged, but they both merge to [ä]. I have [ɑ] as well and separate–I call it the difference between “ah” [ä] and “aw” [ɑ].

    Words using “ah”: cot, caught, hot dog, office, father, audible…

    Words using “aw”: all, saw, straw, lawn, call, halt, aura

    Now, I’m from inland Northern California, and the vowel shift described above sounds more like Southern California to me. But that’s the difference as I hear it.

  3. Kguy says:

    I think that the “lot” vowel pronunciation is quite inconsistent in Canada as well. I’ve heard [ɒ], [ɑ] and, in a few cases even things like [ä] or [ɔ].

    I’ve also heard Canadians switch between [ɑ] in words like law, water, watch, hockey and [ɑʷ] or [ɒ] in words like box, don, hot, bought.
    Some usually use [ɒ] in most words but [ɑ] in some words like father, water, watch.

    The only consistent thing seems to be rounding before l, most Canadians seem to say [ɔɫ] or [ɒɫ], even if their “lot” vowel is closer to [ɑ].


    “En route now to Watt photo studios”

    The “en” in “En route” sounds like [ɒn] while Watt sounds like [wɑt]/[wɑ̈t] to me.

    • Jason Reid says:

      @ Kguy:
      Wow, she sounds really Canadian.

      @ Trawicks:
      You meant “he pahssed the blahk cawed” for the second sentence I’m sure, but maybe Californians would hear Chicago passed as pest.

      And also, I’ve noticed a few odd things on this blog lately:

      1. I can’t use diacritics in my transcriptions. Earlier I tried to copy and paste my transcription of a word (from this lovely website) which contained a consonant with a laminal diacritic into the comment box. Not only did the diacritic disappear, but the vowel that came after the consonant (and had NO diacritics on it) also disappeared. I’ve also had trouble with diacritics over at Language Log though, so it’s not just here.

      2. The recent comments and recent posts sections which used to be on the right side of the page are now gone. I miss these, especially the recent comments section, which let me know when someone might have replied to one of my comments.

      • Kguy says:

        Jason Reid, try using this for your phonetic transcriptions:

      • trawicks says:

        Arggh … I totally screwed up that up! I was looking for an appropriate DRESS word and somehow mixed up the two. I’ve edited it so it has a ‘fed’/’fad,’ which makes very little sense. Shouldn’t have tried to get creative with it!

        As to the transcriptions, I’ve had that issue as well. I’m trying to look for a better font for this blog. Similar deal with the sidebar: I was experiencing a weird glitch with a bunch of the links there, which is why I’ve stripped a lot of stuff off of there until I can figure out how to fix it. I use kind of a old-ish theme, unfortunately. When I get the time I’m going to spruce it up!

  4. trawicks says:

    I think it’s highly inconsistent for both accents within the speech of individual speakers. However, in California English I find that there are speakers who strongly avoid the retracted pronunciation of LOT, a situation that strikes me as much less common among Canadians.

  5. Your suggestion that someone from Chicago would hear “He passed the black cod” as “He pest the block cawed” doesn’t ring true for me as a Canadian who lived and worked and taught accents in Chicago. A Canadian with a more open /a/ on “passed” (a merged TRAP/BATH word) wouldn’t use a more closed /e/ pronunciation, whereas a Chicagoan might be expected to have an offglide (in the style of Singin’ in the Rain’s “I can’t stand ‘im”). Now a Chicagoan could easily pronounce “block” in the same range as a Canadian might use on a BATH word, but not likely on a word like “black” because the vs. stop plosive /k/ would make the vowel very short, which keeps it higher. We don’t tend to get [blak] here. I really don’t think that there is an overlap between Canadian TRAP/BATH and Chicago LOT, which I think you’re getting at. flock/flack pock/pack bock(beer)/back just don’t align. Even BATH words like bass(fish)/boss, lass/loss, the Chicago LOT word is still more open/back than the Canadian words.

    I think your example would have been much more apt if it had included a DRESS word; something like said/sad is getting much closer together, I think.

    • John Pierce says:

      ” Even BATH words like bass(fish)/boss, lass/loss, the Chicago LOT word is still more open/back than the Canadian words.”

      I hope you don’t mind, but I have a little nit to pick here: Chicagoans don’t have LOT in words like boss and loss, nor do any Americans who have a distinction between the vowels of caught and cot AFAIK. They have THOUGHT, because of the LOT/CLOTH split (which is sort of like the TRAP/BATH split, but with different vowels).

      • I guess I disagree with you on what it means to “have” a LOT vowel. Yes, Chicagoans have merged CLOTH/THOUGHT. But they speak LOT/PALM words with an advanced /a/ vowel. And it is possible that LOT and PALM aren’t merged, too. (It’s not as if they lose these LOT words from their vocabulary!) Perhaps this LOT /a/not as advanced as in the Michigan Upper Peninsula, but this Inland Northern sound is way more advanced than Canadians’ LOT/CLOTH/PALM/THOUGHT. These Chicago LOT words are not merged with TRAP or BATH. So though they are not LOT vowels like you might expect in many accents, they certainly have a LOT lexical set!

        • John Pierce says:

          I’m afraid I don’t understand what you’re saying.

        • Ellen K. says:

          Eric, yes, they have a LOT lexical set, but boss and loss are NOT part of that set. Those have the THOUGHT/CLOTH vowel.

    • trawicks says:

      Said/sad is so much better! Yeah, as I mention above, I tried to find a sentence that made some kind of coherence and totally mixed up the two. Fixed it now.

    • dw says:

      Minor nitpick: “lass” and “bass” are TRAP words, not BATH words (BATH-broadening speaker here :) )

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    The rounded COT/CAUGHT/COLLAR/CALLER vowel is the norm in Canadian English (The Oxford Canadian English uses [ɒ] for this merged vowel). In California, the rounded vowel is generally avoided, although it can occasionally be heard in some words, like MOM or DOLLAR, but most Californians pronounce them with the unrounded [ɑ]. So, Canadian and Californian pronunciation may be similar PHONOLOGICALLY, but PHONETICALLY they are different. Too much rounding ( [ɒ] in GOD, LOT, MOM, DOLLAR) can give you a Valley Girl accent effect, and this is NOT the standard Californian English Hollywood accent coaches teach people.

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    But the truth to be told, the Californian accent is moving from ”General American” and many times you can say ”this person is from California” just by paying attention to the way they talk…So, this accent is (becoming) marked.

    A perfect ”example” of a neutral cot/caught/caller/collar merged General American is Lana del Rey (from Lake Placid, NY):

    • Andrej Bjelaković says:

      Hm, listening to the clip, I’m not completely sure she does have the merger.

      Did you notice, though, the T-Glottalling? :D

  8. Sooryan FM says:

    In Canada many people have the BOLD / BALD merger: [bɒɫd]
    (except in Newfoundland where there’s no monophthong in BOLD,
    and BALD is pronounced [bäɫd] or [bɑɫd], always with the unrounded vowel, this is similar to the Mountain West English and Vermont and NE NY English, the rounding caused by the dark L is avoided).

    In California, some people round [ɑ] before a word-final L, if you add a consonant, or a syllable, the unrounding is restored:

    wall (with [ɒ]) , but walls,Walsh, wallet with [ɑ]
    call (with [ɒ]), but calls, calling, caller/collar with [ɑ]
    doll (with [ɒ]), but dolls, dollar [ɑ]
    Paul/pol (with [ɒ]), but Paula with [ɑ]

    The same is true of [ɑ] before -ng: long [ɒ], longer [ɑ]

    This L/NG-influenced rounding is more common in men when in women,
    so we can’t consider it a ”fashionable” change, but a stable variation, according to Labov.
    But this dark L, and NG influence has nothing to do with LOT/THOUGHT retraction.
    Like I said before, many people have [ɒ] in FALL, but [ɑ] in FALLS or FALLING.
    If a person consistently pronounce POL (=politician) with [ɑ], and Paul with [ɒ], caller with [ɒ] and collar with [ɑ], Hong Kong with [ɑ] and long song with [ɒ], their being low back merged should be questioned.

    1. LOT/THOUGHT retraction is more common in Californian females, but it is unstable, as these girls get older, they shift to the unrounded pronunciation (and this shift to the unrounded pronunciation is complete, so even [ɒ] before -L and -NG is restored to [ɑ] as well);
    2. Californian heterosexual men have minimal LOT/THOUGHT retraction, but they round their LOT/THOUGHT vowels before -L, and -NG more frequently (they even may get unmerged before L/NG as they grow older, pronouncing POL [= politician], COLLAR , HONG KONG with an unrounded vowel, and PAUL, CALLER , LONG SONG with a rounded vowel).

    • Peter S. says:

      I think “low back merger except before l” is a perfectly good classification for some people. I spent the second half of my childhood in Northern California, and I know I never merged collar and caller, or Paul and pol, although I had merged “cot” and “caught” by the time I moved back east. Since then, the merger has become undone.

  9. m.m. says:

    the “pest” thing should definitely be fixed :b

    @Kguy’s video link : amazing! thats some very toronto speak! she even shifts here ‘trap’ a more than i do o_o though i seem to shift ‘dress’ more. i cant tell if her ‘watt’ is rounded or not. (definitely back though)

    im also with IVV in that i percieve the vowel shifting as more southern than northern california (speaking as a coastal southerner)

    though im a bit mixed on the lot-retraction avoidance. on one hand, as Sooryan FM mentions, “god” with a strongly rounded (& imo ingliding) [ɒ] can be marked as valley girl is generally stigmatized ([ɑ] unmarked general western, [ä] typically marked northern) but retracting and low rounding passes off as an allophone, which id imagine would contribute to low consistency of pure rounding in both areas because one can use either form without much consequence, so theres no real reason to avoid retraction/non high rounding (is the rounding consistency high in pittspurgh?)

    and regarding L/NG influenced rounding, my own pattern doesnt hold up; additional syllables or consonants doesnt affect my rounding before L/NG. my rounding everywhere else is inconsistent though, going from low back rounded to low central and anywhere inbetween.

    a note to the comparison to the english ‘lot’, one should note [ɒ] in england is short, california rounding is to a long vowel, getting [ɒː]. i myself cant see my rounded ‘lot’ at all similar to the one in england, because theirs is very noticeably clipped, thus different to my ears. if i artificially shorten it though, theyre indeed similar.

    • Kguy says:

      I think the cardinal [ɒ] has moved toward [ɔ̞] in British English, while [ɔ] has moved toward [o̞] or [ɒo] (British law may rhyme with Canadian “low”), which is why it sounds different than the Canadian [ɒː]/[ɒᵊ]. The Canadian vowel is longer and/or more open than the British one.

    • Rebecca Snow says:

      I’ve heard [ä] for LOT outside of the north too. I’ve heard it in the Midland more than once. David Letterman, who is from Indianapolis, has a noticeably centralized LOT. One of my cousins and an uncle from central Illinois (not along I-55) both have a centralized LOT. I’ve also heard a lot of people from the NYC area, like this guy, who also have a very centralized LOT vowel. I’ve also noticed westerners who sometimes have a centralized LOT vowel. I’ve also heard some who have it very frequently, like Adam Carolla for example. Presumably, he is CC merged so THOUGHT would be centralized for him too. But you did say “typically”, not always. So I’m not really disagreeing with anything you said.

      Also, the [ɒ] of RP isn’t fully open. It is in between [ɒ] and [ɔ]. So that could be another difference.

    • trawicks says:

      I agree that British and North American [ɒ] variants differ strongly by length. The [ɒ] often mentioned as part of Boston and Canadian English is really not the same [ɒ] of an RP speaker.

      I will say that I’ve heard Californians who consistently use a retracted/rounded vowel for LOT. The cases I’m specifically thinking of are (1) a young woman from Southern California with an unusually advanced shift, and (2) a friend of mine who grew up in a fairly remote part of Northern California. The vast majority of Californians I’ve met use [ɑ], with occasionally some retracted/rounded allophones.

      • dw says:

        The Boston merged LOT-THOUGHT vowel is much closer, both in length and quality, to the British THOUGHT vowel than the British LOT vowel.

  10. m.m. says:

    @Kguy – i do have [ɔ] in some places (mainly before L) and it does indeed sound just a bit higher than english “lot”; ive been under the impression “lot”/”thought” rising was an oceanic feature though.

    @Rebecca Snow – I know that for non merged speakers, ‘lot’ has a tendency to centralize to some degree. Most of the atlantic midland speakers i know have a ‘lot’ thats quite central. Id say the default CC merged vowel is a fronted [ɑ], but a real centralized merged output to me is regional.

    @trawicks – id want to say i hear most with [ɑ] and varied fronting, but im sure because retraction/rounding isnt marked to me, i perceive those as more prominent. i wish i could hear shifted ‘lot’ :[

  11. sdoca says:

    I just recently found this blog as I was doing some research and quite enjoyed reading a number of your postings. However, as a Canadian I’m dismayed to find that we’re all painted with the same dialectical brush. There’s a lot of regional diversity in how Canadians speak. So, which region of Canadian speakers are you comparing to California? Certainly not people from the east coast.

    • trawicks says:

      I’m comparing accents of Canadian English that feature this particular vowel shift. That encompasses more or less everywhere west of the Maritimes (with Quebec as something of a linguistic grey area, for obvious reasons). The Atlantic provinces don’t appear to participate in the shift (as per William Labov), although I once spoke to a young man from St. John’s who very clearly had the shift. There’s probably some conscious distancing from the ‘brogue’ among younger people in that city.

      All that being said, the shift is not as advanced for some speakers as for others, and I don’t mean to suggest Canadian English is an entirely monolithic entity. The vowel shift is fairly non-regional in its scope, though. And to clarify, I’m pretty exclusively talking about accents here; there are no doubt lexical differences between different regions.

  12. Nick C. says:

    I’m from Cleveland and I honestly don’t know if I’m northern cities vowel shifted or not. From what I can here a Chicagoans ”ah’ vowel is more fronted the mine and I round the vowel in ‘car’. My ‘cot’ vowel is at 800, 1400 and my ‘caught’ vowel is at 650, 950. I was just wondering which IPA symbol these would be. My guess is ä and ɔ.

  13. benw says:

    I grew up in Tucson AZ (age 4-17; current age, early 40’s) but somehow ended up with a consistent cot vs. caught distinction. Don’t quite know how this happened.

    This is a bit off-topic, but my pronunciation of “calm, palm, etc.” sound like “cawm/pawm/etc.”, i.e. with the vowel of “caught” rather than “cot” (/l/ is not pronounced). I’ve not seen a single mention of this pronunciation anywhere. Does anyone know whether this is an idiolectal oddity, or an actual dialectal variation? (And if so, where could it have come from? I spent ages 0-4 in New Haven, Connecticut, could I somehow have picked this up there?

    BTW aside from this oddity, my cot/caught distinction seems rather standard. The vowel of caught occurs in cloth/loss/cost/foster/loft/off/offer/dog/wrong/water/gone/Walter/wall, whereas the vowel of cot appears in Goth/cosset/roster/boggle/Congo/Watkins/on/Wally/wallet. The vowels of caught vs. cot are something like [ɒ] vs. [ɑ] — not too different.

    has the vowel of “c as far as I can remember (back to childhood),

  14. Pingback: Canadian and American /T/ | Dialect Blog

  15. Paul says:

    To me the vowel shift seems stronger and more common in Canada than in California. I think it’s telling that a map of the Canadian Shift in The Atlas of North American English (2006, William Labov et al.) shows most (non-eastern) of their Canadians having the shift and not a single one of their Californians having it*.

    * The criteria that had to be met for a person to be considered to have the Canadian shift were a 1st formant of /ɛ/ greater than 660, a 2nd formant of /æ/ less than 1825 and a 2nd format of /ɑ/ less than 1275.