Inland Northern (American) English, also known in American linguistics as the Inland North or Great Lakes dialect, is an American English dialect spoken primarily by White Americans in a geographic band reaching from the major urban areas of Upstate New York westward along the Erie Canal and through much of the U.S. Great Lakes region. The most distinctive Inland Northern accents are spoken in Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse. The dialect can be heard as far west as eastern Iowa and even among certain demographics in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Some of its features have also infiltrated a geographic corridor from Chicago southwest along historic Route 66 into St. Louis, Missouri; today, the corridor shows a mixture of both Inland North and Midland American accents. Linguists often characterize the western Great Lakes region's dialect separately as North-Central American English.
The early 20th-century accent of the Inland North was the basis for the term "General American", though the regional accent has since altered, due to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift: its now-defining chain shift of vowels that began in the 1930s or possibly earlier. A 1969 study first formally showed lower-middle-class women leading the regional population in the first two stages (raising of the TRAP vowel and fronting of the LOT/PALM vowel) of this shift, documented since the 1970s as comprising five distinct stages. Evidence in the mid-2010s has suggested a reversal of some features of the Northern Cities Shift in certain locations.
The dialect region called the "Inland North" consists of western and central New York State (Utica, Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Jamestown, Fredonia, Olean); northern Ohio (Akron, Cleveland, Toledo), Michigan's Lower Peninsula (Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing); northern Indiana (Gary, South Bend); northern Illinois (Chicago, Rockford); southeastern Wisconsin (Kenosha, Racine, Milwaukee); and, largely, northeastern Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley/Coal Region (Scranton and Wilkes-Barre). This is the dialect spoken in part of America's chief industrial region, an area sometimes known as the Rust Belt. Northern Iowa and southern Minnesota may also variably fall within the Inland North dialect region; in the Twin Cities, educated middle-aged men in particular have been documented as aligning to the accent, though this is not necessarily the case among other demographics of that urban area.
Linguists identify the "St. Louis Corridor", extending from Chicago down into St. Louis, as a dialectally remarkable area, because young and old speakers alike have a Midland accent, except for a single middle generation born between the 1920s and 1940s, who have an Inland Northern accent diffused into the area from Chicago.
Erie, Pennsylvania, though in the geographic area of the "Inland North" and featuring some speakers of this dialect, never underwent the Northern Cities Shift and often shares more features with Western Pennsylvania English due to contact with Pittsburghers, particularly with Erie as their choice of city for summer vacations. Many African Americans in Detroit and other Northern cities are multidialectal and also or exclusively use African-American Vernacular English rather than Inland Northern English, but some do use the Inland Northern dialect.
The dialect's progression across the Midwest has stopped at a general boundary line traveling through central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois and then western Wisconsin, on the other sides of which speakers have continued to maintain their Midland and North Central accents. Sociolinguist William Labov theorizes that this separation reflects a political divide and a controlled study of his shows that Inland Northern speakers tend to be more associated with liberal politics than those of the other dialects, especially as Americans continue to self-segregate in residence based on ideological concerns. President Barack Obama, for example, has a mild Inland Northern accent.
|Diphthongs||aɪ ɔɪ aʊ|
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||Inland Northern realization||Example words|
|/æ/||eə~ɪə||bath, trap, man|
|/ɑː/||a~ä||blah, bother, father, |
lot, top, wasp
|ɒ~ɑ||all, dog, bought, |
loss, saw, taught
|/ɛ/||ɛ~ɜ~ɐ||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||ə||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||ɪ~ɪ̈||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||ɪi~i||beam, chic, fleet|
|/ʌ/||ʌ~ɔ||bus, flood, what|
|/ʊ/||ʊ||book, put, should|
|/uː/||u~ɵu||food, glue, new|
|/aɪ/||ae~aɪ~æɪ||ride, shine, try|
|ɐɪ~əɪ~ʌɪ||bright, dice, fire|
|/aʊ/||äʊ~ɐʊ||now, ouch, scout|
|/eɪ/||eɪ||lame, rein, stain|
|/ɔɪ/||ɔɪ||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||ʌo~oʊ~o||goat, oh, show|
|/ɑːr/||aɻ~ɐɻ||barn, car, park|
|/ɪər/||iɻ~iɚ||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɛər/||eəɻ~eɻ||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜːr/||əɻ~ɚ||burn, doctor, first, |
herd, learn, murder
|/ɔːr/||ɔɻ~oɻ||hoarse, horse, war|
|/ʊər/||uɻ~oɻ||poor, tour, lure|
|/jʊər/||jɚ||cure, Europe, pure|
When followed by /r/, the historic /ɒ/ is pronounced entirely differently by Inland North speakers as [ɔ~o], for example, in the words orange, forest, and torrent. The only exceptions to this are the words tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, borrow and, for some speakers, morrow, which use the sound [a~ä̈]. This is all true of General American speakers too.
A Midwestern accent (which may refer to other dialectal accents as well), Chicago accent, or Great Lakes accent are all common names in the United States for the sound quality produced by speakers of this dialect. Many of the characteristics listed here are not necessarily unique to the region and are oftentimes found elsewhere in the Midwest.
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift or Northern Cities Shift is a chain shift of vowels and the defining accent feature of the Inland North dialect region, though it can also be found, variably, in the neighboring Upper Midwest and Western New England accent regions.
The first two sound changes in the shift, with some debate about which one led to the other or came first, are the general raising and lengthening (tensing) of the "short a" (the vowel sound of TRAP, [æ] in General American), as well as the fronting of /a/ (the sound of LOT and PALM in this accent, [ɑ] to [ä] in General American). Inland Northern /æ/ raising was first identified in the 1960s, with /æ/ coming to be articulated so that the tongue starts from a position that is closer than it used to be, and then often glides back toward the center of the mouth, thus producing a centering diphthong of the type [ɛə] or [eə] or at its most extreme [ɪə]; e.g. naturally [ˈneətʃɹəli]. As for /a/ fronting, it can go beyond [ä] to the front [a], and may, for the most advanced speakers, even be close to [æ]—so that pot or sod come to be pronounced how a mainstream American speaker would say pat or sad; e.g. coupon [ˈkʰupan].
The fronting of /a/ leaves a blank space in Inland North speakers' pronunciation that is filled by lowering /ɒ/ (the "aw" vowel in THOUGHT, [ɔ] in General American varieties that resist the cot–caught merger), which comes to be pronounced with the tongue in a lower position, closer to [ɑ] or [ɒ]. As a result, for example, people affected by the shift may pronounce caught the way speakers without the shift say cot, with both using the vowel [ɑ]. However, a cot–caught merger is robustly avoided in many parts of Inland North, due to the prior fronting of /a/. In other words, cot is [kʰat] and caught is [kʰɒt]. Even so, however, there is a definite scattering of Inland North speakers who are in a state of transition towards a cot–caught merger; this is particularly evident in northeastern Pennsylvania. Younger speakers reversing the fronting of /a/, for example in Lansing, Michigan, also approach a merger.
The movement of /æ/ to [ɛə], in order to avoid overlap, presumably initiates the further movement of the original /ɛ/ vowel (the "short e" in DRESS, [ɛ] in General American) towards either [ɐ], the near-open central vowel, or almost [æ]. As the vowel [ɐ] is pronounced with the tongue farther back and lower in the mouth than in the sound [ɛ], this change is called "lowering and/or backing".
The next change is the movement of /ʌ/ from [ɜ] toward a very far back position [ɔ]. /ʌ/ is the "short u" vowel in STRUT. People with the shift pronounce bus so that it sounds more like boss to people without the shift.
The final change is the backing and lowering of /ɪ/, the "short i" vowel in KIT, toward the schwa /ə/. Alternatively, KIT is lowered to [e], without backing. This results in a considerable phonetic overlap between /ɪ/ and /ə/, although there is no phonemic KIT–COMMA merger because the weak vowel merger is not complete ("Rosa's" /ˈroʊzəz/, with a morpheme-final mid schwa [ə] is distinct from "roses" /ˈroʊzɪz/, with an unstressed allophone of KIT that is phonetically near-close central [ɨ]).
Before /r/, only /a/ undergoes the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, so that the vowel in start /start/ varies much like the one in lot /lat/ described above. The remaining /ɒ/, /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ retain GenAm-like values in this position, so that north /nɒrθ/, merry /ˈmɛri/ and near /nɪr/ are pronounced [noɹθ, ˈmɛɹi, niɹ], with unshifted THOUGHT (though somewhat closer than in GenAm), DRESS and KIT (as close as in GenAm). Inland Northern American English features the north-force merger, the Mary-marry-merry merger, the mirror–nearer and /ʊr/–/ur/ mergers, the hurry-furry merger, and the nurse-letter merger, all unremarkable in most of the US. Those mergers ban TRAP and STRUT from ever occurring before /r/.
William Labov et al.'s Atlas of North American English (2006) presents the first historical understandings about the order in which the Inland North's vowels shifted. Speakers around the Great Lakes began to pronounce the short a sound, /æ/ as in TRAP, as more of a diphthong and with a higher starting point in the mouth, causing the same word to sound more like "tray-ap" or "tray-up"; Labov et al. assume that this began by the middle of the 19th century. After roughly a century following this first vowel change—general /æ/ raising—the region's speakers, around the 1960s, then began to use the newly opened vowel space, previously occupied by /æ/, for /a/ (as in LOT and PALM); therefore, words like bot, gosh, or lock came to be pronounced with the tongue extended farther forward, thus making these words sound more like how bat, gash, and lack sound in dialects without the shift. These two vowel changes were first recognized and reported in 1967. While these were certainly the first two vowel shifts of this accent, and Labov et al. assume that /æ/ raising occurred first, they also admit that the specifics of time and place are unclear. In fact, real-time evidence of a small number of Chicagoans born between 1890 and 1920 suggests that /a/ fronting occurred first, starting by 1900 at the latest, and was followed by /æ/ raising sometime in the 1920s.
During the 1960s, several more vowels followed suit in rapid succession, each filling in the space left by the last, including the lowering of /ɒ/ as in THOUGHT, the backing and lowering of /ɛ/ as in DRESS, the backing of /ʌ/ as in STRUT (first reported in 1986), and the backing and lowering of /ɪ/ as in KIT, often but not always in that exact order. Altogether, this constitutes a chain shift of vowels, identified as such in 1972, and known by linguists as the "Northern Cities (Vowel) Shift" or NCS: the defining pattern of the current Inland Northern accent.
Migrants from all over the Northeastern U.S. traveled west to the rapidly industrializing Great Lakes area in the decades after the Erie Canal opened in 1825, and Labov suggests that the Inland North's general /æ/ raising originated from the diverse and incompatible /æ/ raising patterns of these various migrants mixing into a new, simpler pattern. He posits that this hypothetical dialect-mixing event, which initiated the larger Northern Cities Shift (NCS), occurred by about 1860 in upstate New York, and the later stages of the NCS are merely those that logically followed (a "pull chain"). More recent evidence suggests that German-accented English helped to greatly influence the Shift, because German speakers tend to pronounce the English TRAP vowel as [ɛ] and the LOT/PALM vowel as [ä~a], both of which resemble NCS vowels, and there were more speakers of German in the Erie Canal region of upstate New York in 1850 than there were of any single variety of English. There is also evidence for an alternative theory, according to which the Great Lakes area—settled primarily by western New Englanders—simply inherited Western New England English and developed that dialect's vowel shifts further. 20th-century Western New England English variably showed NCS-like TRAP and LOT/PALM pronunciations, which may have already existed among 19th-century New England settlers, though this has been contested. Another theory, not mutually exclusive with the others, is that the Great Migration of African Americans intensified White Northerners' participation in the NCS in order to differentiate their accents from Black ones.
Recent evidence suggests that the Shift has begun to reverse in at least some of the Inland North, such as Lansing, Michigan, and Ogdensburg, Rochester, and Syracuse, New York, in particular with regard to /a/ fronting and /æ/ raising (though raising is persisting before nasal consonants, as is the General American norm). Several possible reasons have been proposed for the reversal, including growing stigma connected with the accent and the working-class identity it represents.
See also: Regional vocabularies of American English § The North
Note that not all of these terms, here compared with other regions, are necessarily unique only to the Inland North, though they appear most strongly in this region:
Individual cities and sub-regions also have their own terms; for example: