Lecture 8 -- Summary Outline
Language and Society: What Your Speech Says about You
By Valerie Fridland
Your Shifty Vowels
Almost all major dialects of American English are undergoing massive
changes in their vowels. These changes differ from region to region
nd among ethnic and age groups in different regions. Because most
of the people we talk to speak the same dialect we do, we notice differences
only when they are unusual to us. These latest vowel shifts are not the first to
affect English, but they certainly represent some of the most striking changes
to our speech in quite some time. Perhaps most surprisingly, American
speech is becoming less similar, not more similar, regionally. In this lecture,
we’ll explore how vowel articulation comes to mark social differences, and
we’ll learn about vowel production.
I. Modern Vowel Shifts
A. Linguists have been studying vowel movements, often referred
to as vowel shows, since isolated vowel changes were first noted
in the 1970s. However, the extensive and interrelated shifts that
we currently recognize in U.S. dialects were not really identified
until the early 1990s as interrelated shift patterns. We also find that
Canada is being affected by vowel shifts that are different than
those in the United States.
B. We often think of regionally diagnostic terms or words as the main
markers of where a person is from-such terms as “y’alI” versus
“youse guys” or “soda” versus “pop.” However, vowel pronunciation
actually plays a more extensive role in making someone sound
like a Southerner, Westerner, or Northerner than we tend to think.
Despite this, we are rarely able to articulate exactly what the
differences in vowel sounds are.
C. Although speech samples from speakers in different parts of the
country sound different, pinpointing specifically what differs
among them is difficult. You might notice a particular word or two
that stand out as distinctive, but it isn’t the word that’s different; it’s
the way the vowels in it sound.
D. Obvious markers of region, such as y’aII or totally rad, make a
clear social claim Vowel sounds, in contrast, are typically below
the level of conscious awareness. Changes in vowel sounds are not
usually even noticed by those shifting them. Eventually, when we
meet people outside of our dialect region that don’t shift in the same
way, we may notice that they pronounce their vowels strangely,
but we probably don’t realize that they are thinking the same thing
E. Vowel shifts can progress rapidly across age, gender, and regional
groups without meeting the social roadblocks that many more
obvious language differences meet. For example, you don’t usually
hear people comment on the way someone else pronounces his or
her vowels, but the substitution of /v/ for /th/ or the deletion of an
/r/ (as in “brovah” instead of “brother”) is often seen as salient.
II. Vowel Articulation
A. Why is it that vowel articulation is so much more subtle yet makes
such a difference?
1. Vowel sounds are produced along somewhat of a continuum
in the mouth. There are fuzzy areas between what constitutes
different vowel qualities for speakers in different regions.
2. We can make an iw/ sound (as in cat) either raised (“ce-aet”)
or retracted (“cuht”) but still have someone understand that we
are saying cat. We then start to identify this subtle variation
with social distinctions.
3. For example, if Great Aunt Mary says “caht” while our
children say “ce-act,” this distinction may come to signal
age differences when we hear it, even though we may not
recognize it consciously. Yet again, we see how language-in
this case, vowel articulation-subtly indicates and reinforces
social categories-in this case, old versus young.
B. ln contrast to other speech sounds, vowels vary quite a bit, and
this variation provides us with an effective yet still linguistically
comprehensible way to recognize social differences.
1. Though there is some variation in how they are produced,
consonants are less variable than vowels. In general, to
make a consonant sound, you have to hit specific targets in a
2. Vowels are a more relational kind of articulation. If you make
a vowel sound a bit higher or lower in the mouth compared
to someone else, it doesn’t matter so much as long as you are
making it distinct from other vowel sounds. This continuous
rather than clear-cut distinction between vowel sounds makes
it harder to recognize exactly how the sound is different unless
you are linguistically trained.
3. But these subtle differences that simply develop through
shared use by a regional or ethnic group are then identified
as social indicators. Again, as we’ve been exploring with
language development more generally, we see that our
speech is a result of both social and linguistic pressures that
are a reflection of where we come from and who we speak
III. Vowel Normalization and Social Differences
A. Vowels are essentially created by vibrations within the vocal tract;
thus, the size of the vocal tract makes a difference in terms of the
frequencies produced by the shaping of the airflow through it. The
process people use to understand another speaker’s vowels when
they sound different is vowel normalization.
1. Normalization processes seem to be most efficient when
there is talker familiarity. That means that the more you
hear a particular speaker, the quicker and more efficiently
you normalize his or her speech. This is the reason you
understand the speech of those you talk to most often more
readily than those with whom you may not have much
2. Normalization may make it seem that variations in vowel
sounds are not very significant-because listeners are able
to accommodate for them. But when an entire group or
community starts to vary its vowel production in the same
way overtime, then the target for that vowel for children may
become shifted toward a new norm
3. The community as a hole changes in a linguistically patterned
way that opens up the opportunity for that shift to become a
marker of a particular social identity. Speakers outside that
community don’t shift consistently or at all toward the new
target, leading to a potentially socially significant difference
among groups of speakers.
B. Why might people start to produce a sound in a systematically
different way than they originally heard it? It seems that young
people are the critical link in introducing innovations into a
1. Adolescence favors social forces beyond class, including
the need for autonomy and independence. These are forces
that are often not as relevant as we age. Although adults are
economically status conscious, teenagers are status conscious
based on other factors. Athletic ability, urbanness, coolness-
all these are critical during maturation, as is the need to express
separation from adult norms.
2. These factors, it seems, help drive vowel changes, among other
types of changes. We will explore more about language and
youth in a later lecture, but we typically End that it is younger
people who are most advanced in sound changes entering a
C. If several communities adopt new norms for vowel production
over time-and do so in different ways-we end up with socially
diagnostic vowels indicative of membership in those communities.
This is exactly what seems to be happening in regional U.S. dialects
today. At the same time, some of the new positions for other vowels
in American English seem to be in the process of dialect leveling,
or losing local differentiation.
D. Because the same vowel sounds reoccur in many of the words we
use, any shift in vowel pronunciation generally affects the way we
say all words containing that vowel sound. A shift in our vowels
can, thus, drastically change a language over time.
IV. Vowel Production
A. Most American dialects have about ll single vowel sounds and 3
main diphthongs, although this inventory varies a bit depending
on a speaker’s dialect and on what is counted as a separate
vowel sound. These sounds are made by moving the tongue
front and back and up and down and by rounding or spreading
the lips. These movements create different shapes in the mouth,
which in ttn‘n create different resonances in the airflow that we
hear as different vowel sounds. This is what linguists refer to as
B. When discussing how we make vowel sounds, we typically refer to
a number of concurrent factors: tongue position (front or back of the
tongue lifted high, mid, or low in the mouth), jaw position (opened
or closed), and lip position (rounded or spread). The movements
of the tongue and lips work together to essentially make a tube.
Air moving through vibrates at different resonances, depending
on the shape made with this tube. Different shapes create different
C. We can more easily understand how these elements work together
by thinking about how vowel sounds are produced in the mouth.
Linguists typically arrange vowels on a trapezoid-shaped chart.
Vowels produced at the front part of the mouth are represented on
the left of the chart (toward the hypothetical open part of the mouth),
and vowels produced at the back of the mouth are represented on
the right side of the chart. The charts below show the front and back
D. Vowel shifting is part of the history of every language and results
in significant changes over time in the way sounds are pronounced.
Part of what makes vowel shifts have such an impact on the way
language systems develop is because of the interconnectedness of
the vowel space.
1. A change in the articulation of one vowel can encroach on the
way another vowel is produced. Or the movement of one vowel
can open up possibilities for another vowel sound to move into
the articulatory space it previously occupied.
2. This kind of simultaneous related shifting is called a vowel
chain shift, and such chain shifts can radically reorganize the
vowel space of a language or dialect. Indeed, such vowel shifts
result in the development of longstanding linguistic divergence
because they often affect which vowel categories are perceived
in a language.
E.As we know, English has shifted quite a bit over time-from its
Germanic vowel qualities to Old English, then to Middle English,
and finally to Modern English vowel categories. Now it seems as if
our vowels are shifting yet again.