mainstreaming vowel shifts

I was going to post this as a comment on Lisa’s last post, but this turned out to be waaay too long for a comment.

A number of things jump to mind as I read an reread the NYO article discussed here and by Mark and Ben on Language Log.  First, it’s not clear from the eye dialect in the original article whether the women in question are following the California Shift or the Northern Cities Shift.  I think the author might have conflated them, as he both alludes to a possible San Fernando Valley genesis of what he calls “The Affect”, and to Bert Vaux’s use of the Northern Cities Shift as an example of a (different) phonological change in progress.  Also, the author mixes up some of the directionality of the NCS, citing “block becomes black” (yes) and “bosses becomes buses” (it’s the other way around).

Why this matters is that generally these chain shifts are in opposite directions.  (I find it hard to describe clearly how vowels “move”, so I once developed animations of chain shifts and posted them here.  The links there have been dead for a while, but I have now fixed them.)  Like the Canadian shift, the California Shift involves a low-back merger (stock and stalk both are [stɑk], with a stepwise lowering and retraction of front lax vowels.  So bad becomes [bad], bed becomes [bæd] or [bʌd], and bid becomes [bɛd].  The low vowel dimension in the NCS, in contrast, shows advancement: stock advancing to [stak], and stack advancing and raising to [steæk].  The one thing that the two shifts might share is the bed [bʌd] component, which unfortunately is the example the NYO article uses (“obj-uh-ction”).

Second, Ben’s LL post offers a succinct discussion of both academic and pop-culture beliefs about the features in question (uptalk, vowel shift, creaky voice) and the potential Californian origin of some of them.  For what it’s worth, I hear uptalk from Californians in their 60s, but they may have adoped this innovation at some point in their adulthood.  Ben also mentions the role of the Moon Unit & Frank Zappa 1982 song “Valley Girl”, in which the younger Zappa provides spoken-word voiceover in classical Valley Girl between the elder Zappa’s choruses.  I probably can’t post the song because of copyright, but I’ll tell you that the voiceovers are rich with some of the typical features, notably the California vowel shift and sentence-final rising intonation (i.e. uptalk).  The lyrics are dated by some of the slang (“bag yer face, I’m sure! Barf me out!”), and most cool of all, despite its proliferation of discourse-marking like, most of its quotatives are forms of go: “he goes like bag yer face”, “and the lady like goes, oh my god, your toenails are like so grody”.  There’s one quotative like: “She’s like oh my god, like bag those toenails”.  Anyway, the song does what Ben argues the article does: unfairly associates the mode of speech with frivolity and immaturity.

That last point was lodged in my head as I watched NBC news last night, with Campbell Brown filling in for Brian Williams.  Generally her vowels showed no evidence of any particular vowel shift, but I noted a few examples of /ɛ/ retracting and lowering.  Like John Singler, I consider this gravy more than anything else.  I had to point it out, though, because it’s the kind of thing that is much harder to notice in the absence of other markers like uptalk and vowel lengthening. 

Here’s a link if you want to check it out.  I’ve transcribed the relevant passages below, included start times, and highlighted the retracted vowels in question.  Please note the following warning: given the tendency for perception to cover these up, it’s possible that if you listen you won’t hear what I heard.  It’s as if hearing the word expected in context primes you to believe there really is an [ɛ] there.  With that in mind, I must emphasize that the last example (together) is the most obvious.

and speaking of automakers tonight
there is word from washington
that the bush administration
is exp[æ]cted to release its new
fuel economy rules for pickup trucks, minivans …

When NBC nightly news continues
on this Wedneday evening
In d[æ]pth
the FDA considers tough new warnings…

Up n[æ]xt
what happens if you hold an el[æ]ction
and noone’s home

the national center for missing and exploited children
worked with the FBI, FEMA, the Red Cross and other agencies
to bring the children and their parents back tog[æ]ther.


5 thoughts on “mainstreaming vowel shifts

  1. Eric Bakovic

    I’ll look into the “more” tag issue. What browser/platform are you guys using? I’m having no problems on my Mac, using the rich text editor with Firefox or straight HTML with Safari (which for some reason does not support the rich text editor).

    If the problem is with the rich text editor, then one way around the problem (for the time being) may be to finish your post and then click on the HTML button and manually enter the tag exactly where you want it (the tag is “”).

  2. Bob Kennedy

    Thanks for putting the tag in, Eric.

    I wrote in notepad, and pasted into the edit field (Using IE on a PC). I then tried using the “more” button with the rich and non-rich editrors, and also tried editing the code directly by inserting !–more– between angle brackets.

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