American Dialect: The Northern Cities Shift and the Great Lakes Region

The dialect of the inland north, or the Great Lakes region, has the distinction of being “normal” American speech. As such, it is often difficult to categorize and people from the region are often not recognized as having a distinct dialect at all. Of course they do have one; all people speak with a distinct dialect. It is just that in this case there is not much to distinguish it from what is considered “standard” American speech. But there is one very distinctive feature of the accent of the region. It is one of the more distinctive pronunciation patterns in American speech. It is known as the:

The Northern Cities Shift
The shift is evident is a swath of territory stretching from the Hudson River valley in New York, across northern Ohio and Indiana, to Chicago and Detroit, encompassing the rust-belt cities of the northern Midwest. The shift is a distinctive pronunciation of short vowel sounds that was first identified by linguist William Labov and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. Now, not everyone in the region displays the shift; many opt for “normal” American pronunciation. Some people only display the shift with specific vowels, opting for the standard pronunciation for the others. But if one spends any significant time in the region, one can begin to identify the shift.

In the Northern Cities Shift, the short a sound is raised and fronted so that it becomes a short i, and then becomes a diphthong, dropping and backing to its standard sound. Bad is pronounced /biy-ud/ and cat is pronounced /kiy-ut/. The name Ann is indistinguishable from Ian. This shift in the short a occurs in Philadelphia speech as well, but only before specific consonant sounds. In the Northern Cities it is universal.

The short o takes the place vacated by the short a. Cot is pronounced /cat/ and pop is /pap/.

Since the short i was bumped out of its position by the short a, it has to go somewhere. It takes the place of the short u. Bit becomes /but/ and kid becomes /kud/. The short u, in turn, takes the /ou/ sound, buses becomes /bosses/.

Residents of Illinois also shift the short e sound before the consonant l. So they pronounce their state as /ell-annoy/ and the drink /melk/ instead of /milk/. This particular vowel shift is found elsewhere in the United States, but it is most prominent in Illinois.

While the accent of the Midwest is difficult to distinguish from standard American English, like any region it has a distinctive vocabulary. The following is a selection of terms used in the region.

Baga, n., clipping of rutabaga, (Mich., Wis., & Minn.).

Bank barn, n., a barn built into the side of a hill, allowing access on two levels (Penn., Ohio, Ind., Md., Va.). Also basement barn.

Belling, n., a noisy celebration for newlyweds, a shivaree (primarily Ind., but also western Penn., W.Va., Ohio, & Mich.).

Berm, n., the shoulder of a road (Penn., W.Va., Ohio, & Ind.).

Booya, n., a meat and vegetable stew (Mich., Wis., & Minn.).

Brush cut, n., a crew cut hairstyle (N.Y. & Mich.).

Buckeye, n., nickname for a resident of Ohio, the “Buckeye State.” The name is from the American horse chestnut (Æsculus glabra), called a buckeye because it is said to resemble a stag’s eye. In the 1820s, settlers throughout the Ohio River valley began referring to themselves as buckeyes. Eventually, use of the name became restricted to the state of Ohio.

Canadian soldier, n., a mayfly, so called from the belief that they invade in swarms from the north (Ohio).

Carry-in, n., a potluck meal (Ill., Ind., & Ohio).

Cathole, n., a deep place in a river (Mich.).

Cincinnati chili, n., a style of chili invented in the 1920s by Athanas Kiradjieff, founder of the Empress Chili parlor in Cincinnati. More watery than most chilis, it is traditionally served as a sauce for spaghetti. Three-way chili adds a cheese topping to the chili. Four-way adds onions to the mix. And five-way adds kidney beans.

Clout, n. & v., political influence or power, to exercise such power. Originally Chicago (1937), now widespread. From the sense meaning a heavy blow.

Clove, n., a mountain pass or gap, from the Dutch kloof, klove (N.Y. Hudson River valley).

Cork ball, n., a bat and ball game, a variant of baseball with at least four players per team and a small ball of cork (southern Ill.)

Devil’s night, n., mischief night, 30 October, a night where children and teens play pranks. In the 1980s in Detroit, Devil’s Night acquired a very malicious tinge when it became characterized by a large number of arsons (Mich.).

Devil’s strip, n., verge of grass and trees between the sidewalk and the road (Ohio).

Doodle, n., a small pile or bundle of hay, grain, or something else (Ind., Ohio, western Penn.).

Dope, n., syrup poured on ice cream (Ohio).

Egypt, prop. n., an area of southern Illinois between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. From allusion to Cairo, Ill. and the alluvial land nearby, evoking the Nile region.

Fish tug, n., a fishing boat (Mich.).

Goetta, n., /get-ta/, a dish similar to scrapple, oatmeal and ground meat molded into a loaf, then sliced and fried (Cincinnati, Ohio).

Gulf, n., a gulch (N.Y.).

Hard road, n., a paved road (Ill.).

Haw horse, n., the left-most horse in a team (Ind., Ill., Ohio).

Hawk, n., a cold, winter wind (Chicago, esp. African-American).

Hilliken, n., a rural or rustic person, a hillbilly (Ohio).

Hoodlebug, n., a small railroad (Ohio).

Hoosier, n., nickname for a resident of Indiana, also a rural or rustic person. The origin is unknown. The term dates to 1826. Various theories on its origin exist. One is that it is from an English dialectical word meaning high hills, but only one citation of this word’s existence has been found in England and none in America. Another is that is from an early settler with that name. Others say it is from the greeting “who’s ‘ere.”

Hutspot, n., dish of potatoes and other vegetables, and sometimes meat, cooked in a meat sauce (Mich.).

Juneberry, n., a serviceberry (Mich., Minn., Wis., and Penn.)

Kill, n., a river or natural waterway, from the Dutch kil (N.Y.).

Lawyer, n., a burbot, an eel-like, fresh-water fish. One 19th century wag said the name is because, “he ain’t of much use, and is the slipriest [sic] fish that swims” (Mich., Minn., Wis.). Also lake lawyer.

Lunch roll, n., a type of jelly doughnut (Mich.).

Michigan basement, n., a partial or unfinished basement, often with a dirt floor. Often added to an existing house as a furnace room.

Pitch-in dinner, n., a potluck meal (Ind.).

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