Short-a in Columbus, from split system to nasal system: A cross-generational perspective*

Included via the link below are images of short-a systems of a variety of Columbus speakers. Included among the systems are those of speakers from both of the social class groups (blue and white collar) and all 4 of the generational groups analyzed instrumentally in my dissertation. In addition, the plots are split by speaker sex into two groups (men and women).

Note that clicking on the plots enlarges them, and that one can actually scroll through the images like a slide show (and in fact, the images have been laid out to facilitate doing so) on the linked page.

In these images we can see two things that have changed over the course of the 20th Century about the short-a system in Columbus since the end of the 19th Century.

A change from the split short-a system to the nasal short-a system

The first thing is that short-a changed from a split system, much like the type found historically in Eastern US cities such as New York and Philadelphia, to a nasal system. In the split system, /ae/ is split into two phonemes–/ae/ and /ae:/. In the nasal system, /ae/ is one phoneme with two principle variants:

a) a raised realization in words that end with a nasal sound (and where the /ae/ occurs immediately before that nasal sound)
b) a lower and somewhat retracted realization in words that do not end in nasal sounds (again, where the /ae/ immediately occurs before the non-nasal sound)

Generation 1 speakers (those born between 1896 and 1912) show the clearest examples of the split system, whereas Generation 4 speakers (those born between 1976 and 1990) show the clearest examples of the nasal system. Speakers born in Generations 2 (born c. 1924-1937) tend to show continuous short-a systems–that is, /ae/ realizations are essentially “spread out” across a field of possible realizations that fall somewhere between the split system and the nasal system.

Generation 3 speakers (born c. 1945-1968) show an interesting pattern of social class differentiation, with working class speakers tending to show stronger tendencies towards continuous systems, like Generation 2 speakers have, and middle class speakers tending to show stronger tendencies toward nasal systems, like those found among Generation 4 speakers. However, some middle class speakers in Generation 3 do not always have as large of gap between their nasal and non-nasal tokens as Generation 4 speakers do.

The reversal of the glide of /ae/ over time

The second thing we notice is the reversal of the glide of /ae/ over time, as revealed when one looks “across time” at the patterns of realization shown by the different generational groups in the plots. Looking across the images, when we compare generation 1 speakers (born 1896-1912) with generation 2 speakers (born 1924-1937) we also begin to see a pattern of “/ae/-rotation” where the realization of non-pre-nasal and non-pre-velar /ae/ in Columbus on average changes from that of a falling diphthong to a rising diphthong. Descriptively, this change is demonstrated in the raw Hz plots included here. This tend continues and intensifies in the speech of later generations (generations 3 and 4). Generation 3 (born c. 1945-1968) in particular shows the intensification of this trend. Generation 4 (born c. 1976-1990) tends to show the final outcome of the process in the plotted means for those speakers BAT and BAD subclasses.

Note that, unlike we have often come to expect in sociolinguistic studies, it is actually middle class men who “lead” on showing this sound change overall (and not working class women), as well as retraction of /ae/ more generally. It also the case that middle class women tend to lead over working class women, when their patterns are compared across the time window investigated, as well. (Essentially the whole of the 20th Century, using speaker birth dates as a way of tracking time for comparative purposes.)

*Note: This topic will be addressed in extensive detail in the near future in:

Durian, David. 2011. Chapter 5: The inception and development of the Canadian Shift in Columbus. A new perspective on vowel variation throughout the 20th Century in Columbus, OH. Doctoral dissertation, The Ohio State University.


About daviddurian

I am a sociolinguist with a Ph D in Linguistics from The Ohio State University. Currently, I work as the Lecturer at Rice University, where I teach undergraduate courses in both sociolinguistics and general linguistics. I also work on research projects investing language variation and change in US English a variety of cities. Specifically, at the moment, this includes Houston, Chicago, and Columbus, OH.
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