More on Dictionary Pronunciations

As per my last post on “dictionary standards,” here’s an actual editor’s thoughts on dictionary pronunciation guidelines:

Good dictionaries leave room for change. Take, for example, a word like “comfortable.” In a pronunciation guide from the early 1960s, the word is transcribed kʌmfərtəbəl, with four syllables. The canonical pronunciation in 2013, however, is more likely the trisyllabic kʌmftərbəl in standard American English (although the older pronunciation won’t attract much attention). Wisely, Merriam-Webster no longer treats either as “deviant.” Standards evolve.

As astute commenters have pointed out, though, dictionaries contain broad phonemic transcriptions, not dialect prescriptions. When a dictionary using IPA notation mentions that “cut” is pronounced kʌt, this should not imply that ʌ is more correct than ɐ or ɜ, but that “cut” has the same vowel as “bud,” “blood” and “hut.”

Alas, prescriptivists (a problematic term, I realize) often elide the crucial distinction between phonology and phonetics. For a vocal minority of language obsessives, there is no difference between “dictionary pronunciations,” diction “rules,” and accent reduction (e.g. this controversy). It’s all sloppy! There are valid discussions to be had about “standard English,” of course. But if you can’t make very simple distinction these very different concepts, it’s a non-starter.

An online guide termed “Dr. Goodword’s one-stop cure for the plague of mispronunciation” illustrates my point. The list contains instances of common “mistakes” like pronouncing “often” with a “t,” “barbiturate” without the second “r,” and confusing “cachet” with “cache.”

Fair enough. I don’t care whether someone says “often” as opposed to “offen,” but I suppose it’s helpful to know that the relatively obscure latter words are pronounced the way they are. Yet Dr. Goodword also lists such “mispronunciations” like “cannidate” for “candidate,” “febyuary” for “February,” “mannaise” for “mayonnaise,” and “upmost” for “utmost,” minor instances of elision or assimilationWorse, Dr. Goodword cites as “incorrect” pronunciations like “plute” for “pollute” and “fedral” for “federal,” presumably examples of syllabic liquids which are arguably more “correct” than unnatural attempts to insert a clearly articulated schwa between /p/ and /l/ or /d/ and /r/.

I can see why you might want to pronounce “cache” as if it were “cash,” because to do otherwise might cause confusion*. But to lump situations that involve genuine intelligibility with phonetic minutiae is to betray a deep misunderstanding about the English language. That’s why it’s so important to define the purpose of dictionary pronunciations and similar guides; in the wrong hands, these can be treated as strict and inflexible rules rather than mere descriptions.

*By the way, I can think of at least one example in which prescriptivist pronunciation guidelines cause confusion instead of clarity. That would be the oft-repeated bugaboo that “forte” should be pronounce “fort.” I’m a proponent of “forte” with two syllables, because no matter how much this may defile the original French loan word, I find that pronouncing “forte” with one syllable causes confusion. 


Posted in American English | Tagged | 21 Comments

Midwestern English is Not “Dictionary Standard”

In a recent columnMarilyn Vos Savant (a columnist with an alleged record-setting IQ) wrote:

I’ve retained 99+ percent of my Midwestern ‘accent,’ which sounds like no accent at all because nearly all the words are pronounced according to dictionary standards.

A reader understandably objected to this (flagrantly wrong) statement, and Savant clarified in a later column:

I understand what you’re expressing, but Midwestern speech is widely considered to be closest to the way English is spoken in this country (i.e. without a regional accent) because, as I mentioned, nearly all the words are pronounced according to dictionary standards.

No. American “dictionary standard” (which isn’t really a thing to begin with) usually reflects “General American English” (GenAm), a rather hypothetical and amorphous “standard.” You can, admittedly, find accents quite close to “classic” GenAm in the Midwest, in the Western section of what William Labov calls the North Midland*. This constitutes a narrow band roughly encompassing Northern Missouri, Southern Iowa, Southern South Dakota, most of Nebraska, and northern Kansas.

But “midwestern English” encompasses many unique dialects, not all of which sound like the folks who read you the morning news. Beyond the GenAmish accent just referenced, one finds the Great Lakes (Northern Cities Vowel Shift-influenced) accent, the German/Scandinavian-influenced accents of Northern Minnesota and North Dakota, and the “South Midland” accent found in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. That’s a broad (and non-exhaustive) list of categories, excluding the sub-dialects and urban dialect islands one finds throughout the region.

Speaking of which, it is worth noting that Vos Savant hails from St. Louis, a city with an isolated local accent located outside Labov’s Western-North Midland region. It’s possible her accent is a “mild” or “modified” version of St. Louisian, falling within the range of General American English. But one can such accents in many US regions days (just note the distribution of “unmarked” speakers on Labov’s map). GenAm isn’t exclusively a “midwestern thing” anymore.

There is almost certainly some truth to the notion that General American English has Midwestern origins. The term is associated with the dialect-levelling that occurred during the 20th Century. Since this entailed “Southern” accents becoming less “Southern,” “Northern” accents becoming less “Northern,” and “Eastern” accents becoming less “Eastern” (goodbye, “toidy-toid street!”), it’s not surprising that the English spoken smack dab in the nation’s middle might be described as kind of de facto standard.

At the end of the day, though, I’m less bothered by Vos Savant’s suggestion that her accent is “standard English” so much as I’m bothered her narrow definition of what constitutes a “midwestern accent.” Just as attempts to describe Midwestern monoculture ignore the the region’s unique individual parts, speaking of a supposedly monolithic “Midwestern English” as if it were the way “normal” Americans talk ignores the area’s wonderful linguistic diversity.

*I’m basing this on the fact that this area generally avoids overtly Southern or Northern features, and also largely eschews features of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.


Posted in American English | Tagged , | 24 Comments

The Accents of Transplants 2: Adolescents

Recently, the Daily Show‘s fearless Aasif Mandvi made headlines when a satirical interview he conducted with Republican precinct chairman Don Yelton led to the man resigning from his post. I get the sense, from watching the cringe-inducing video of the event, that Mandvi’s Indian name and slightly peculiar accent may have elicited Yelton’s blatant xenophobia and racism.

In fact, Mandvi grew up in Bradford, England (although he was born in Mumbai, he apparently only lived there as a baby*). He moved to the United States at the age of 16, and thus he’s noteable for being a transplant who left his native England in late adolescence, rather than childhood. Here’s a clip of Mandvi speaking (which contains some mildly ribald humor):

Mandvi speaks with a mostly American-sounding accent, but with a slightly unusual quality, subtle enough that it can take several listens to notice it. The most obvious point is that his accent isn’t 100% rhotic; he occasionally drops the /r/ in unstressed syllables, and will sometimes exhibit non- or weakened rhoticity in stressed ones (for instance, “are” at the :15 mark). You’ll also note that the “short a” vowel in words like “back” (at 1:25) is slightly laxer than it would be in General American English.

Intriguingly, though, I don’t hear much of Northern England in his speech, although admittedly the hazy details of Mandvi’s situation while in Bradford makes it hard to deduce how “Northern” his accent would have been in childhood (a Guardian article describes him as having attended both a state-funded “community school” and an independent prep school).

It is clear, however, that Mandvi exemplifies one way transplants can sound when they’ve made a cross-Atlantic move in their secondary school years. His speech is mostly American, yet with subtle and inconsistent holdovers from an earlier model.

As I’ve mentioned in a similar post, however, transplant accents are a sort of case-by-case phenomenon. Notably, the actor John Mahoney (of Frasier fame) moved from Northern England to Illinois at around the same age as Mandvi, yet I detect virtually nothing English in his accent. (Although a strikingly “meta” moment on Frasier revealed that he can still slip back into his original “voice” pretty easily).

The point being, the results of moving from one place to another in one’s teenage years can produce very different results depending on the circumstances. Will one maintain features of their “original” accent at this age? Or will their speech be wiped clean forever by adulthood? I’m not sure what factors predict the answers to those questions.

*Although we’re obviously talking about an enormous region of the world, I generally find it uncommon to encounter Americans and Britons born in the Indian subcontinent who exhibit strong non-English speech influences if they left at such an early age. I’m not sure why this differs from, say, those with Spanish- or Chinese-speaking parents, who sometimes (though not always) retain some of the prosody and phonotactics of those languages even if they were born in America.


Posted in British English | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Boston “Brother”


Jgibby1961 / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

While waiting in Boston’s South Station last week, a man with a thick accent asked for information about the coming bus. After hearing my reply, he said “Thanks, Brother!” (That is, “Bruthah” brʌðə). “Brother,” as commonplace as the word may seem, strikes me as salient in Boston, roughly akin to British and Australian “mate.” But why (and how) is the word particular to the city?

In an interview on a talk show, Ben Affleck once claimed that “brother” has various meanings in Boston depending on context (I wish I could find the bit on Youtube). This observation may have been exaggerated for the purposes of humor, so I wouldn’t assign it much sociolinguistic rigor. But the word definitely seems to be a common term of endearment in that area.

“Brother,” of course, has had currency in other subcultures and ethnolects, but like “wicked,” Boston uses the word in a way that seems unique to the region. Yet I can’t quite put my finger on how it’s unique. Perhaps it’s the way the word can be applied to total strangers (like a fellow passenger on a bus) that seems so unusual.

Unfortunately, like many household words with dialectally specific meanings, “brother” is a search engine black hole. So in lieu of articles or books on the subject, two plausible hypotheses come to mind:

1.) Unabbreviated “brother” was once common everywhere, but remained stronger in Boston while there was a shift toward “bro” (or other terms) elsewhere in America.

2.) “Brother” is an entirely separate development in Boston.

Lending credence to hypothesis 1 is that Boston is a strikingly conservative city, linguistically-speaking. For example, it is arguably the only major city in America where young, Caucasian English speakers are quite so resolutely non-rhotic.

Then again, that very linguistic conservatism could suggest “brother” evolving from an entirely different source. Any Bostonians care to comment?


Posted in American English | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Vowel Shifts in English and Dutch


© Jorge Royan / / CC-BY-SA-3.0

As I recently discussed, English shares its penchant for r-variability with other languages. This got me thinking about another dialect marker common to English and other tongues, namely what might be called the “close diphthongs.”

These are vowels typically found in the words “code” and “face.” In accents such as rural Irish, America’s upper Midwest, marked Canadian English and many Northern English accents, these are often pronounced as monophthongs such as o: and e: (“eh” and “oh”). In General American English, British RP, pan-regional Irish English, and many Canadian accents, these vowels are often pronounced as close diphthongs along the lines of  and . These diphthongs are even more open in accents like Cockney, Australian English, and American Southern English, but I won’t discuss those here as they indicate a further step in a vowel shift.

English is not the only language with dialects divided by this feature. I can think of a few languages that exhibit the monophthong/close dipththong schism (Quebec vs. European French comes to mind), but one of the more English-like in this respect is Dutch. Some dialects of that language have the diphthongs  and (or similar diphthongs) where others have the monophthongs e: and o:. This is a rather striking resemblance to the language’s close Germanic cousin across the sea.

While seeking explanations for why the close diphthongs emerge, I stumbled upon a thesis via Google Scholar called On variation and change in diphthongs and long vowels of spoken Dutch by Irene Jacobi. I couldn’t help noticing a very familiar looking visual toward the beginning of the paper (which I’ve shoddily recreated here):

e: –> ɛi –> ai

This represents a very common vowel shift in both Dutch and English. Readers here may recognize the similarity to shifts in English dialects wherein which the vowel in “face” gradually moves toward the vowel in “lie.” Jacobi explains the shift succinctly:

The diphthongs /Ei, œy, Ou/ are lowered to /ai, ay, au/. The lowering of these diphthongs in the articulatory-auditory space drags along the long vowels /e:, ø:, o:/, which, by being lowered as well, fill in the empty space previously occupied by the diphthongs

Hence, the close diphthongs in Dutch probably indicate a shift away from monophthongal e:. Again, this is very similar to the trajectory of English vowels in several parts of the world. Although I’ll concede that Dutch and English aren’t quite as distant from one another as, say, Finnish and Zulu!

That being said, we tend to think of vowel shifts as quintessentially English phenomena when they constitute a much more universal process. It may be hard to see them as such because there aren’t many languages with vowel inventories large enough for English-style phonemic jostling. Dutch is one example; what other languages exhibit English-style vowel shifts?


Posted in English Phonetics | Tagged , , , | 19 Comments

I Thought He Was Australian!

I’ve recently noticed several comments on my weeks-old Orphan Black post taking issue with my praise of lead actress Tatiana Maslany‘s “Southeast English” accent. Here’s a representative example:

I’ve only just watched the first episode and presumed Sarah was meant to be Australian. Perhaps to a non-Brit she may sound like she’s from the south east of England but she really doesn’t. I’ll give it another episode to see if it gets better but it’s hard to maintain the necessary suspension of belief when something fundamental jars you out of it every so often.

A valid point, but I should mention that the original post clarifies that I did not actually find Maslany’s accent representative of how Londoners talk. The actress plays a character who has lived in Canada since childhood, and thus any inauthenticity on Maslany’s part would arguably be due to her accent not being muddled enough. (A cursory listen to either of the Osbourne children will give you a sense of how much “damage” an accent can sustain from an early trans-Atlantic move!)

The comment above is perceptive in a way the commenter may not have intended, however. At least in my experience, Brits from Southeast England who’ve spent years in North America often do end up sounding a bit Australian.

I once worked closely with a British co-worker during his first year in the States. While observing his speech during this period, I noticed that one of his earliest shifts was to replace glottal stops in words like “better” with the more “American” tapped t (ɾ). This variant is common in Australian English as well, so it can give American-influenced British accents a bit of a Aussie flavor right off the bat.

This is not the only such quirk. Common “intermediate” qualities of the vowel in “nurse” for those transitioning from rhotic to non-rhotic English tend toward front or front-lax rounded vowels like ø or ʏ, not that far from a marked Down Under pronunciation of the phoneme (although I find this more typical of New Zealand than Australia).

None of this is meant to suggest that Australian English lies “in between” British and American; its vowel system remains far far closer to London than General American. It’s AusE’s very cousinhood to Cockney, perhaps, that makes Londoners sound vaguely Aussie when they have lost certain Londonisms.


Posted in British English | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

“Oriental:” Death of a Semi-Slur

While reading yesterday’s paper, I skimmed a news piece about Nina Davuluri, the first Indian-American Miss America winner. Being American, I was puzzled by the journalist’s description of Davuluri as the first “Asian-American” to win. It’s an illogical reaction on my part; Davuluri is Asian-American. “Asian,” however, has long been shorthand for “East Asian” in American English dialects, as Separated by a Common Language‘s Lynne Murphy discussed some years back:

In BrE, when Asian is used to refer to a person, culture or cuisine, it is most usually referring to someone or something South Asian (i.e. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). In the US and, it turns out, Australia, Asian typically refers to people/things from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.).

Demographics almost certainly play a role here. Over 4% of Australia’s population (for example) is of Chinese ancestry, compared to less than .5% in the UK. Yet for me, “Asian” fills a lexical gap left by a word banished from my vocabulary as a child: “oriental.” Murphy briefly addresses this taboo term later in the post:

I have also heard the word Oriental as a noun or adjective referring to people more often in this country than I have in the US (mostly from over-60s), leading me to wonder if (a) it’s perceived as less politically incorrect here than in the States, (b) I just hang out with more older, white people in the UK (who might not have caught up with the fact that Oriental is not preferred)

But how did the word become offensive to begin with? Etymologically-speaking, “oriental” is hardly pejorative, deriving from a French term which basically translates to “Eastern” (and still exists as French “orientale“).  In other words, one might describe it as a Latinate antonym of “Westerner,” a term which Europeans and Americans take little offense at. Of course, etymology little influences our politeness norms.

I distinctly remember older teachers in my childhood using “oriental,” and just as distinctly remember my father chastising me for using it to describe a Chinese restaurant on Cape Cod. Since then, I’ve never questioned its offensiveness, yet it’s tricky to describe why. Note, then, this explanation from Wikipedia’s entry on the term:

John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program and Institute at New York University, said the basic critique of the term developed in the 1970s. Tchen has said, “With the anti-war movement in the ’60s and early ’70s, many Asian Americans identified the term ‘’Oriental’’ with a Western process of racializing Asians as forever opposite ‘others’.”

So it seems that with the “politically correct” movement in late-20th-Century academia, “oriental” may have been purged along with once-euphemistic terms like “retarded” and “handicapped.” With respect to Tchen, however, I find the word more creepily fetishistic than disparaging. In my opinion, its patronizing quality makes a more compelling argument for its offensiveness. Indeed, when New York State decided to ban the term from official state documents in 2009, Howard University’s Frank H. Wu defended the action on such grounds:

[Wu] said that the term was associated with exoticism and with old stereotypes of geisha girls and emasculated men. “‘Oriental’ is like the word ‘negro.’ It conjures up an era.”

The “Negro” comparison seems apt. “Negro” causes less offense than its vicious cousin, but we nevertheless associate it with eras of racist condescension. Both also notably derive from latinate versions of everyday words (“black” and “Eastern”), giving them an unnatural, old-fashioned ring. At least that’s my impression; I’ve heard both used unselfconsciously over the past decade, so not everyone finds them as cringeworthy.

Although it seems “oriental” still enjoys some currency in the UK, I’m less clear on its status beyond the US. Is there any part of the Anglophone world where “oriental” is completely okay? Or is doomed to the dustbin of English history?


Posted in American English | Tagged , | 39 Comments

It’s Not Just English with the “R” Thing


AnnaKucsma / Wikimedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

I talk about “r” a lot here*. Seriously, if you take a look at this site’s analytics, you’ll find that the Google query that brings the most traffic is simply “r.” The consonant is one of the most important ways by which we distinguish English accents, so this shouldn’t be surprising.

Anyway, I was up in Montreal a few weeks back, where I got a great opportunity to listen to one of North America’s great non-English dialects. One of the things I’d long heard about Montreal French was that, unlike its Parisian cousin, it once featured a trilled [r] (similar to Spanish or Italian). I can’t say I heard a single instance of this on Montreal’s streets though; it seems pretty clear that, as of 2013, the uvular /r/ (i.e. [ʁ], [ʀ], or [χ]) rules the day. /R/, you see, isn’t just a large dialect marker in English; it’s a common marker in numerous Indo-European languages.

Montreal French, like American English, seemed to have undergone a transition after World War II when it comes to rhotics. Here’s a brief summary from Nagy, Moisset, and Sankoff’s On the acquisition of variable phonology in L2:

Before about 1950, the Montréal dialect had tongue-tip [r], r roulé, whereas Québec City and the rest of Eastern Québec had uvular [R], r grasseillé (Vinay 1950). As of the 1950s, Montrealers began to change to [R], such that by 1971, most speakers under 25 had uvular [R], not apical [r].

Just as New Englanders, New Yorkers, and American Southerns began to tack /r/ at the end of words where it was once non-existent, Montrealers began to shift from their traditional, regionally specific [r] to a more “Parisian” variant.

The Montreal French shift rather reminds me of another “r” divide: Puerto Rican Spanish‘s variation between the alveolar and velar /r/. Like /r/ in other languages, this correlates with sociological factors such as age. For instance, Jonathan Carl Holmquist conducted a study based on recordings made in the mid-1990s in which he found that rates of /r/ allophones differed between generations. In the town where his study was focused, speakers over 65 used [x] 90% of the time (the consonant more commonly used in other dialects of Spanish for “José”) Speakers under the age of 39, however, used this marked allophone only 28% of the time. (Again this seems to align roughly with the period after World War II.)

These are but two examples, of course. /R/ divides Brazilian from European Portuguese (along with dialects within those countries themselves), distinguishes various dialects of Latin American Spanish (beyond PR mentioned above), and separates dialects of German, Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish. Whether because /r/ is a consonant acquired relatively late in a child’s development (at least in English), or because of larger historical trends (the spread of uvular /r/ across several countries in Western Europe), it’s a salient marker in numerous parts of Europe and the Americas.

So given this site’s intense /r/ focus, it’s worth noting that English is not unique in this regard. It’s part of a larger phenomenon in which /r/ is an particularly unstable consonant, capable of changing radically in a generation. And as my Montreal example showed, you don’t have to travel very hard to find non-English examples.

*(I don’t mean R, the programming language).

Posted in Miscellaneous Accents and Dialects | Tagged | 17 Comments

Brits “Get Away With It”


David Croad / Wikimedia / CC BY 3.0

I’ve recently been watching Two Fat Ladies, a late-90s cooking show in which two rambunctious women travel the British countryside cooking regional food. One of the program’s perverse joys is its hosts’ sometimes shocking commentary.

Take, for instance, Clarissa Dickson Wright‘s opinion of pheasants:

Don’t let the fluffy bunny brigade every tell you [pheasants] are dear sweet creatures. They’re one of God’s nastiest animals. They come out of the egg trying to peck each other’s eyes out. And they have gang bangs! When all the cocks go round and they jump on this poor little hen pheasant and rape her to death. They are a very nasty bird indeed …

Certainly an easygoing, middle-aged RP-speaker wouldn’t talk about pheasant rape. But Dickson Wright likely means what it sounds like she means. Few would mistake the meaning of “gang bang,” and I doubt her use of “cock” is wholly zoological. Yet we Americans perhaps sometimes assume that Brits and other non-Americans mean something more genteel than their words suggest. Perhaps this is the origin of the observation that “[insert charmingly loutish Brit/Irishman/Australian] gets away with saying anything.” Perhaps I’m unfairly giving Dickson Wright a “fair pass.”

I talk a lot about phonetics and pronunciation here, yet I find the most inscrutable accent easier to comprehend than quirky lexical differences, foreign modes of politeness and cultural in-jokes. I believe most English speakers instinctually understand that different dialects demarcate semantic boundaries in different ways. So it’s not difficult to assume that “rape” and “gang bang” occupy slightly different tracts of lexical real estate than they do in American English. (Doubtful!)

My tendency to forgive seemingly outre statements is exemplified by yet another moment in which Fat Lady #2, Jennifer Patterson, walks into a West Country sausage shop and remarks something along the lines of “I love a good faggot. You never see really good faggots nowadays.”

Of course, the simplest explanation here is that Patterson, being born in the 1920’s, is simply using a British term for sausage a type of traditional meat dish. But this show delights in innuendo, so is it possible that she is trying to deliberately ruffle American feathers by using our pejorative term for “homosexual?” And is she aware of how offensive the term is? Rather than wrap my head around any of this, I just go with the first explanation (that she’s unaware of the American/contemporary term). Patterson’s use of the word probably is completely innocent, but the endless possibilities of what know, what she knows and what is intended have a way of unsettling an American listener.

All this reminds me, in a roundabout way, of an example sentence that linguist Alan Cruse often uses in this books:

The committee is wearing its hat.

Cruse finds this ungrammatical in British English. The more “acceptable” construction would be “The committee were wearing their hats.” But I must confess that I find “the committee is wearing its hat,” while a little odd, not nearly as unacceptable as Cruse does. Why the discrepancy? Is it just me? Is this because of the differences in plural concord between British and American English? Is it something else entirely?

I have no clue. I bring up Cruse’s example because it illustrates how in the dark we tend to be when encountering radically different dialects from our own. This even, in my opinion, extends to aspects of pronunciation. Why do some Americans recoil at a non-rhotic Boston accent but find this same feature the height of suave in an Englishman? Perhaps because our normal sense of what is stigmatized and what is not is thrown out of whack.


Posted in British English | Tagged , , | 20 Comments

The Day/Date Split

On rare occasions while writing a post, someone brings up my chosen topic in the comments and I end up discussing what I’m writing about before hitting “publish.” So this post repeats somewhat an excellent discussion I had recently with commenter “Fred Meyer.”

One of the most salient features of contemporary Philadelphia English is what might be called the “day/date split.” In a nutshell, for folks with marked Delaware Valley accents the vowel in words like “face” shifts in two different directions: for an “open” vowel like “day,” the vowel sounds (sort of) as if this word were “die.” For “closed” words like “date,” however, the vowel sounds sounds as if this word were “deet.” (By “sounds like,” I mean it sounds that way to many other Northern Americans; it’s obviously subjective).

I’m not entirely exaggerating about “date” sounding like “deet”. As I mentioned here the other day, I once mistook “slave driver” for “sleeve driver” when talking to a woman from the Philly area. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone quite reach the cardinal vowel [i], but there are definitely some strikingly close and peripheral pronunciations.

Anyway, if you’ve lived in various parts of the Northeast, you’ll likely notice that this feature is hardly confined to Philly. I’ve heard it in Northern New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester County, and (if my memory serves) Connecticut. My rough impression is that it is spreading, but I couldn’t tell you why or from what direction.

One finds something slightly similar in variants of Belfast English, in which “days” is pronounced close to dɛ:z, and “daze” diəz (not my personal impression, but John Wells‘). The Philly/NJ/NY version is different, though, because morpheme boundaries often don’t seem to matter. Around Philly, at least, I’ve heard people say the word “day” so it’s dɛɪ in one sentence, but pronounce “days” dez in the next.

So when did Northeasterners start saying “deet” or “det” instead of “date?” Labov, Rosenfelder and Fruehwald’s recent Philadelphia accent study seems to suggest the change has increased greatly over a good century (or at least according to the description on Penn’s website; I don’t have access to the article itself). In places like Long Island and New Jersey, the innovation strikes me as much more recent.

Indeed, this feature seems to be one of a number of splits that have emerged in the Northeast corridor over a period of several decades. There is Philly’s “ride-right split” (the latter is pronounced something like rəɪt), for instance, and younger people in New York suburbs seem to have an interesting split between “go” and “goat,” with the former pronounced gʌʊ (or some other open diphthong) and the latter got*.

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with these developments over the course of my lifetime. Will they fade? Will people in these areas start to pronounce all “face” vowels with a monophthong?

*In Southeastern Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed an unusual variation of this split, in which closed vowels tend toward a centralized monopthong, so “home” can approach something like hɵm. It’s pretty infrequent, though, and I have no idea if it will emerge as a widespread shibboleth.


Posted in American English | Tagged , | 15 Comments