Wave Theory
Why There’s So Much Repetition
in our textbook AmericanVoices
Review: Why are there so many
languages and dialects in the world?
Review: Why are there so many
languages and dialects in the world?
 People move
 Languages (and dialects) change
These assumptions make some
• Each language and dialect change occurs in an area defined by
the boundaries of communication.
• Each change can be defined by a line called an “isogloss”. An
isogloss may be a closed circle or a line that stops at a river or
mountain boundary.
“Pardon my redundancy.” –W. C. Fields
In this Power Point Presentation, we will consider three specific
changes in relation to two major vowel shifts, all described in our
textbook American Voices.
The three specific changes are r-dropping, Don/Dawn merger, and
Ann/Ian merger; the two vowel shifts are the Northern Cities
Shift and the Southern Shift.
By treating these changes as Wave Theory phenomena, we will be
able to make sense of the fact that many chapters in our text book
describe the same changes in one dialect after another.
r-dropping in the Northeast
The habit of dropping the r after a vowel began in the south of
England after the American Revolution, and spread to
America through the ports of Boston, New York and
Washington, D.C., and continued spreading along the
Atlantic seaboard, spreading North to Maine and South to
Florida and the Gulf states. The r-dropping isogloss is thus a
very large, closed circle that crossed the Atlantic ocean. But
in the North, it stopped at the Connecticut River and went
no further west.
r-dropping in the South
 And even in the South, r-dropping moved only along the
Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf States as far west as Texas. But
in the upper South, r-dropping did not move east of the
Appalachian mountains. Thus the speech of Appalachia
(Chapter 3), Smokey Mountains (Chapter 4) and Memphis
(Chapter 8) retain their /r/s steadfastly in all positions.
 To this day, in Kentucky and Tennessee, exactly as in
Massachusetts and Connecticut, a physical boundary
separates the eastern “r-less” half, and the western “r-full”
half, of these states.
Connecticut River boundary
The river makes a nice symbol for a boundary, but in reality, the
migration pattern is the most important factor. The ScotsIrish moved through Boston and moved westward and then
southward following the mountain valleys. It is their “r-full”
speech that eventually predominated in the North, Midwest
and the West.
However, this does not mean r-full speech did not have to fight
to survive. Consider the commencement address delivered
by Henry James in 1905 at Bryn Mawr College.
Henry James, defenderr of the ahts
“There are, you see, sounds of a mysterious intrinsic
meanness, and there are sounds of a mysterious intrinsic
frankness and sweetness; and I think the recurrent note I
have indicated, fatherr and motherr and otherr, waterr
and materr and scatterr, harrd and barrd, parrt, starrt
and (dreadful to say) arrt (the repetition it is that drives
home the ugliness), are signal specimens of what
becomes of a custom of utterance out of which the
principle of taste has dropped.”
--quoted in Alan Metcalf, HowWe Talk, p. 65.
Henry James, defenderr of the ahts
Notice I described James as “DEFENDERR of the ahts”
using that nasty, ugly /r/ sound in defender. This
represents James’ own speech as a “proper Bostonian”
An interesting difference between Bostonian and Southern
r-less speech is the fact that Southerners drop their /r/s
even more than in Boston and New York.
In the South, glottal stop is added before every
word beginning with a vowel: Ø >Ɂ /#__V.
(Let h represent deleted /r/.)
 Boston: Pahk yoah carr in Hahvahd Yahd.
 Atlanta: Pahk yoah cah ɂin Hahvahd Yahd.
 Both Boston and Atlanta have a rule dropping /r/ before a
consonant. In Boston, /r/ occurs between two vowels in the
phrase carr in (with smooth onset for in); by contrast, in
Atlanta the sequence is pronounced cah ɂin (with glottal
onset preceding in), in perfect conformity with the rule.
New word to describe Henry James
He was a good writer but a lousy
linguist. We could perhaps describe
him as a “snarb” (pronounced
cot/caught merger
 This isogloss is almost as big as the “r-full” isogloss discussed
above. It starts in Northern Main and includes Eastern New
England and New Jersey, and spreads westward to include
the Northern half of the East and Midwest (but not Athens!),
and the entire West.
 The text book mentiones this merger as affecting several
dialect regions, inlcuding: Maine (p. 73), Canada (p. 97),
Midwest (pp. 103, 107), Ohio (p. 121), California (p. 140),
and Portland, Oregon (p. 152).
The Portland writer states:
“One characteristic of this area is the
cought/cot merger.” (p. 152)
To be fair ..
 ...the writer acknowledges on the next page that the merger
occurs in all Western cities and Canada, not just Portland.
 Indeed, the merger is found from Maine to Seattle, and from
Canada to California.
 However, there is one important area in between that does
NOT undergo the caught/cot merger. Instead, this area
undergoes a whole series of vowel changes that seem to be
designed to participate in the change while at the same time
preventing the merger.
The series of changes is called the
Northern Cities Shift
 The dialect area is called the Inland North.
 Professor William Labov has call this isogloss “The most
profound dialect boundary in the United States.
 The Northern Cities Shift began in the 1950s in upstate New
York (Syracuse, Buffalo) and spread westward to Cleveland,
Detroit, and Chicago and surrounding areas. Its influence
seems to be expanding and strengthening.
Line the Inland North dialect area,
the South also underwent a vowel
 The Northern Cities Shift affected all short vowels in the
 The Southern Shift affected all long vowels in the system.
 We will be responsible for remembering only TWO of the
changes in the Southern Shift.
First change: hide and mine sound
like hahd and mahn.
 The vowel change combines with Southern
r-dropping to cause the merger of hide and
hard: both come out as “hahd”.
Second change: way and stay
sound out their spelling.
 This causes merger of way and why: both come out way.
 I told him to go away [away].
 Way to go! sounds like: Why to go!
 “Oh say can you see”... sounds like: Oh sigh can you see...
The two changes prevent merger.
 Say sounds like sigh, but no problem
because sigh is now sah.
 High sounds like hah, but no problem
because hay now sounds like high.
Review: Wave Theory brings two
ideas together.
 Languages and dialects change.
 People move.
Wave Theory Predictions
 Thus, each dialect change will spread over an area defined by
the open lines of communication at the time of the change.
 Many such changes, occurring at different times within the
same general range as earlier changes, will cause a dialect
area to emerge that is unique in the combination of changes it
LING 280
Winter 2009

Wave theory - Ohio University