Great Steak Break, Yeats


On Translation

How the Erie Canal changed our vowel sounds.


Arthur Bowen Davies, Along the Erie Canal, 1890. Click to enlarge

One thing you can learn from Timescapes, the surprisingly moving twenty-two-minute video at the Museum of the City of New York, is how big a deal the Erie Canal was. In the early nineteenth century, New York companies were already sending ships down the coast so reliably that it was cheaper for Southern merchants to send their goods to Europe via New York than to ship them directly. But everything in the Midwest—everything on the other side of the Appalachians—was stuck there, cut off from coastal and worldwide markets. It took weeks to get to Cleveland. Grain, bulky and relatively cheap, was especially not worth hauling east. The canal linking the Great Lakes to the Hudson, opened in 1825, was about twenty times faster than portage: shipping costs dropped 90 percent. It turned Manhattan into a modern metropolis, made New York the Empire State, and created America the economic superpower. Every major city in New York except Binghamton and Elmira is located along its trade route from Rochester and Buffalo through Schenectady, Utica, and Syracuse to Albany and New York City. Easy traffic made the Midwest “Northern” in the Civil War; before the canal, the Midwest had been predominantly settled by Southerners.

The canal was also the biggest thing to hit English-language short vowels in a thousand years.

If you’ve ever wondered why English spelling is so messed up, or why all the vowels in European languages like Spanish, Italian, and German are regular and different from ours, the answer—or a redescription of the question—is the Great Vowel Shift. Around 1400, all the long vowels in English started to change and several of them merged. No one knows why, though the Black Plague and Norman French overlords starting to speak English are two possible culprits.

Before the Shift, English words sounded like they would in easier European languages. (More or less. The Great Vowel Shift is a Linguistics 101 standby, so there is lots more information online, with audio clips.) Bite was pronounced BEE-tuh; meet was pronounced MATE; mate was pronounced MAH-tuh, with an a like in the modern word father; mouse was pronounced MOOSE; boot was pronounced BOAT; boat was pronounced BOUGHT. Then they all shifted, and merged—meat now sounds like meet; mate has the same vowel sound as day, so as though—except where they didn’t.

A few common words resisted the change. Head and bread, swear and bear, kept the old ea sound. Ireland was less affected by the Great Vowel Shift, which is why Yeats doesn’t rhyme with Keats, and why other Irish names keep the same vowel sound (Shea, Reagan), along with the rare exceptions (great, break). The cluster “ough”—cough, rough, though, through, ought—went completely haywire. All this flux took place just when spelling was being regularized, so written English preserves, if that’s the right word, the chaos.

The whole Silent E thing is an offshoot of the Shift, too. We all had to learn that silent e’s change the preceding vowel sound, but historically, that’s backward. What happened was that non-silent e’s made the preceding vowel long: in bit and bite, mat and mate, and other such pairs, the first vowel had the same sound but was longer, and the e’s were pronounced. Then the long vowels changed, and then the e’s became silent (mete sounds like meet, soon joined by meat). Short vowels, those without vestigial “-e” syllables, kept the older pronunciations: bed, mat, bit, cot.

But not anymore. Around the Great Lakes, from Syracuse to Milwaukee, a population of about 34 million people today has been giving English short vowels their first systematic change in a thousand years. The Great Vowel Shift has been joined by the Northern Cities Shift.

Think John Goodman, or the old “Bill Swerski’s Superfans” skits on Saturday Night Live. In Northern Cities Shift English, man is pronounced more like MEE-AN and cat like KEE-AT, which starts a chain reaction. Another sound rushes in to fill the empty short-a slot: job sounds like JAB; cot like CAT. Then another sound shifts to fill the empty short-o slot (bus becomes BOSS; but sounds like BOUGHT). Next step: desk turns to DUSK and bet sounds more like BUT; then bit fills in for BET; then head sounds like more like HAD, closing the loop. It’s hard to believe in bosses that hee-ave antennas on the tap when you read it, but you know it when you hear it.

These changes are almost entirely limited to whites—white and black pronunciation now differ more widely in the Northern Cities than in the South. And William Labov, the linguist who first identified the shift in 1972, has proposed that the shift goes with political polarization (among whites) as well. County by county, presidential voting patterns correlate closely with the extent of the vowel shifts, and at least some studies show that vowel-shifters sound more liberal:

Labov had students in Bloomington, Indiana, listen to a vowel-shifting speaker from Detroit and a non-vowel-shifter from Indianapolis. The students rated both speakers as equal in probable intelligence, education and trustworthiness. They also didn’t think they would have different attitudes about abortion (both speakers were female). But they did think the vowel-shifting speaker was more likely to be in favor of gun control and affirmative action.

The Shift has been going on for at least a century. As with the Great Vowel Shift, no one knows why it is happening. But Labov speculates that it was kicked off during the construction of the Erie Canal, which suddenly brought immigrants west and different dialect groups together. Past the western end of the canal, more than half the arriving immigrants, nine-tenths of those from Europe and the northern states, now arrived by water, most by way of Lake Erie. To the east, Rochester (much like Buffalo and other boomtowns) sextupled in population within ten years and increased twenty-four-fold in thirty, becoming “the Flour City” on floods of Midwestern wheat. Those Rochesterians came from all over; it makes linguistic sense that, in the chaos, they would start to pronounce what I call soda as PAAHP. The grid system of Manhattan blocks and the Chicago accent that would call them BLACKS were both born from the same 363-mile engineering marvel of German stonemasonry.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.