Pre-R Raising in Cleveland

One of my favorite Food Network personalities is Michael Symon, a decorated chef from Cleveland. Celebrity chefs, refreshingly, tend not to alter their accent much (all those fancy French terms belie the industry’s working-class ethos). Symon is no exception, with a Cleveland accent strongly influenced by the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Beyond this generalized description, though, I find a particular feature of his accent  intriguing, one you might notice within the first few seconds of this video:

Symon (and other Clevelanders I’ve heard) raises the vowel in words like “fire” or “tire” (so it sounds a bit like “oyr” to outsiders). He also raises the related diphthong in words like “nice” and “slice,” you’ll notice, but one finds this among many Northern US accents. Raising the vowel in “-ire” words is quite a different story.

In other regions of the country, one often sees the opposite. In New York City, the mid-Atlantic,  and the American South, this vowel tends toward a monophthong (so “tire” sounds like “tar“). I’m not quite sure why “tire” falls in with the same group as “kite” and “right” for some Great Lakes speakers.

It is possible for this type of raising to “spread” beyond its original environment. This was one of William Labov’s famous findings about Martha’s Vineyard, where raising in words like “about” (i.e. before voiceless obstruents) had spread to words like “loud” and “found” due as much to sociolinguistic factors as phonological processes. But I would find it slightly peculiar for this to only occur before /r/. Is there some other influence at play?

This is a small reminder of just how much dialectal variety one finds in Ohio, one of America’s great linguistic border states. Within a state often associated with middle-American normalcy, one finds truly fascinating speech quirks.


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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23 Responses to Pre-R Raising in Cleveland

  1. Nicholas Chmielewski says:

    I’m from Cleveland and I do not raise before “r” consistently, although I had to think about it and say it several times both ways before I figured out what I say. It still sounds correct when I here fellow Clevelanders say “tiger” “spider” “fire” “tire”. These sound completely correct to me and I don’t think about it being different. I of course raise before all unvoiced consonants.

    An interesting difference between Cleveland and other Northern Vowel Shift cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit is that we do not back the first part of the diphthong in “cow” “about” “loud” and “house”. In fact, we tend to front these as they are in most midland accents. I was talking to somebody from Madison WI and I almost though they were Canadian raising “about” before I heard them talk more and use the same vowel in “loud”.

    Among younger speakers, we still front our “ahs” in “lot” “cot” etc., but I do not use this vowel before “r”. For example the vowel I use in “car” and “hard” is closer to the vowel I use in “caught” and “though”.

  2. Michael says:

    I found this 1987 paper, in which Timothy Vance noted that /ai/ was often raised before /r/ for the 3 people whose speech he analyzed (including himself). These people were from Minnesota and Upstate New York.

  3. dw says:

    The thing I noticed was the smaller-than-expected raising of the vowel in “pan”. Also, the complete L-vocalization in “grill” (unless followed by a vowel).

    • Tom Foss says:

      I noticed the l-vocalization too. What would you say about the token /ae/ in pan at 0:43 in the video? I’m just curious. Even as a Yank who has some raising of that vowel in that phonetic environment (I think), that token sounds noticeably raised and fronted to me.

      • dw says:

        It’s more raised/fronted than __his__ other tokens, but still restrained compared to much North American speech.

      • Tom Foss says:

        Okay. To my American ear, that token sounds more raised and fronted than the American norm. Thank you for replying though.

        • dw says:

          I may be influenced by my 5-year-old daughter, who is going through a nasal-raising-on-steroids phase 🙂

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    I once knew a guy from Cleveland who could pick out a Shaker Heights dialect with ease.

  5. Joe Clark says:

    Can you please learn to use nonbreaking hyphen in word-initial hyphens like “-ire” (sic, including quotes)?

  6. Nicholas Chmielewski says:


    I am from Shaker Heights. I’ve lived here since I was five. The idea that one can identify a Shaker Heights accent is ridiculous. Half of the people who live in Shaker Heights speak AAVE (ebonics) and the Caucasian population does not have an accent that is as distinct as other areas of Cleveland. I can hypothesize that the reason for this is for the following reasons.

    -The Caucasian population of Shaker Heights is predominantly upper middle class. I have noticed that the areas with the strongest accents tend to be working class communities such as Parma, Lakewood, Lyndhurst, Highland Heights, Mayfield Heights, et cetra. Shaker Heights has a (well deserved in my opinion) reputation for being pretentious and snobby, and the accent difference is a way of distinguishing class and sophistication.

    -Due to the large around (40%) population of Black people who speak AAVE and the high degree of perceived diversity, the accent is more neutral than the predominantly white cities I have listed above.

    -Due to the old, large, expensive homes which attract transplant doctors who go work at UH or the Cleveland Clinic who may bring school aged children who may have already developed another accent, which may be neutralized with the Inland North accent when they arrive, this may lead to the accent of the entire city to be more neutral.

    I would be very happy to provide a speech sample of me and my friends if you guys would like to hear the manner in which I speak.

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      Sorry, I should have said that the guy ‘claimed’ he could identify a Shaker Heights accent/dialect. The guy was probably referring to white middle/upper class.

  7. Nicholas Chmielewski says:

    As an addition to my above post, just think about it this way, are accent may have the difference similar to that between the Upper East and West sides of Manhattan and the working class neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

    Also, I go to college in Pittsburgh ( at Carnegie Mellon) and a large number of students from New Jersey and Miami notice interesting things about my accent. The most commented feature is actually the way I say words such as “pet” “vet” “let” etc. They are unable to distinguish the way I say these words from the way I say, “pat” “cat” etc. I no this is not a documented feature of the Inland North Accent so I find it interesting.

    • Ian says:

      “I no this is not a documented feature of the Inland North Accent so I find it interesting.”

      Actually that is a documented feature of the Inland North accent. In the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, the vowel in pet can either become more open, making it sound more like other peoples’ vowel in pat, or become more central, making it sound more like other people’s vowel in putt (or it may become more open and centralized).

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      How yinz making out in Pittsburgh?
      It’s where i was raised.

  8. In my experience as a lifelong New Yorker, I’d say that our pronunciation of “tire” is nothing like those of the other two regions you mentioned (the Mid-Atlantic and the South).

    The vowel in our “tire” does not tend towards a monophthong; the word is not at all tending towards “tar”. In fact, in New York, “tire” has a consonantal “y”, and is clearly a two-syllable word: “TIE-yer”.

    And this goes for both meanings of the word: the noun which names the rubber outer covering of the wheel on a vehicle; and the verb which means “to become enervated”. I can remember that I as a child wanted to spell the word “tired” as “tiyerd” because “tired” looked so wrong to me.

  9. Peter S. says:

    My personal hypothesis is that, in the phonemic inventory of most Americans, the ‘pre-r’ vowels (par, pare, peer, pore, poor, purr) have come unmoored from the other vowels and make a completely separate system of vowels. (I am fairly sure they have in mine.) Thus, pre-r raising and/or lowering of vowels in various dialects shouldn’t be a surprise.

  10. Matt Strickland says:

    FWIW (if anything), I’ve heard this pre-r raising in Chicago, Michigan and Vermont. I also remember on a linguistics forum one time a linguist from the Boston area told me he had it in some words.

  11. Nathan Brown says:

    I’m from Upstate New York, Capital Region, and I used to use a raised /^I/ vowel in fire, tire, spider, and tiger. (In addition to before voiceless consonants, where you’d more expect it.) First noticed it when I was in college and studying linguistics. People where I’m from often have Canadian Raising in the long “I” words but rarely in the “ou” words; if I hear a Canadian say “about,” it stands out.

    In my general experience, the further downstate you go you less you hear it, and the further north or west you go the more Canadian Raising you hear. I haven’t done a study on it though.

  12. Ayya says:

    My comment has nothing to do with this post. I wonder, what accents Julian Morris and John Simm have. I’m really thankful if you can answer.

    A geat blog otherwise!

  13. Chip O'Hoy says:

    In college a few years ago I met a few people from Chicago who displayed this characteristic. As far as I can tell they seem to speak like other people I’ve met from Chicago (I’m definitely not an expert!). So did they pick this up somewhere else or is this a phenomenon that occurs there as well?

  14. Pinksparkes says:

    When “pre-raising” turns into Canadian Raising you know you’re screwed lol.

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