Review of The Atlas of North American English

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Aug 11 12:55:05 UTC 2006

Forwarded from Linguist-List,

AUTHORS: Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles
TITLE: The Atlas of North American English
SUBTITLE: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. A Multimedia Reference
Mouton de Gruyter 2005

Reviewed by Matthew J. Gordon, English Department, University of Missouri
- Columbia

Between 1992 and 1999 a team of researchers led by William Labov conducted
a series of interviews over the telephone with some 800 people across the
United States and Canada. The samples of speech recorded during these
interviews constitute the database on which the Atlas of North American
English (ANAE) is based. This work consists of (a) the print version of
the Atlas, an oversized volume (11.5'' x 16'') which runs over 300 pages
and contains 129 four-color maps, (b) a CD-ROM packaged with the Atlas and
containing data files and interactive maps with sound clips; and (c) a
website available by subscription which also includes interactive maps and
longer sound clips as well as additional materials. This review is focused
on the bound, ''hard-copy'' of the Atlas.

ANAE contains twenty three chapters organized into six sections, labeled
Parts A-F. Part A ''Introduction and methods'' opens with an introductory
chapter that outlines the goals and scope of the project. This discussion
puts ANAE in the context of American dialectology, suggesting that the
current project builds on the tradition of scholars such as Hans Kurath
and Raven McDavid though it departs significantly from that research
especially in terms of methodology. Key aspects of the ANAE methodology
which distinguish this project from traditional dialect geography include:

- the linguistic focus lies with active sounds changes especially those
affecting vowels;

- acoustic measurements are used for much of the analysis;

- the survey targeted urban people with two speakers sampled for most
small cities and four or more for larger metropolitan areas;

- the sample of speakers is intentionally skewed to include young women
from each location since previous research has found them in the vanguard
of many sound changes.


Chapter 2 sketches the phonological framework through which ANAE
approaches North American vowels. The system employed divides vowels into
the familiar short and long classes and further divides the latter
according to diphthong type (i.e. upgliding vs. ingliding) in a manner
that is reminiscent of earlier structuralist approaches such as Trager and
Smith (1957). Rather than using phonetically descriptive symbols (e.g. the
IPA alphabet), phonemes are represented with symbols that reflect the
phonological classification (e.g. /o/ is the vowel of LOT; /ow/ is the
vowel of GOAT; /oh/ is the vowel of THOUGHT) - I use ANAE's symbols in
this review, but I include guide words in all caps from the lexical sets
formulated by Wells (1982). This classification provides a theoretical
''initial position'' of the vowels, that is, a starting point from which
the changes documented by ANAE take off. Many of those changes involve
either a chain shift or a merger, and so Chapter 3 reviews general
principles governing these types of change. This material digests the more
thorough treatment offered by Labov (1994). More methodological details
about the project are included in Chapters 4 ''Sampling and field
methods'' and 5 ''Methods of acoustic analysis.''

Part B is concerned with ''Mergers and contrasts.'' Chapter 7 discusses
one of two consonantal features studied here: post-vocalic /r/. The ANAE
results suggest that vocalization of post-vocalic /r/ remains a stable
sociolinguistic variable in eastern New England and New York City where it
occurs more commonly among working class speakers and in informal speech
contexts. In the South, by contrast, /r/-vocalization appears to be
receding at least among White speakers. The other consonantal feature
examined is the phonemic distinction between /w/ and /hw/ (e.g. wear vs.
where) which is taken up in Chapter 8 on ''Nearly completed mergers.'' As
the chapter title suggests, ANAE finds few people who maintain this
contrast.  The same status describes some of the vocalic features examined
here including the merger of the vowels in 'dew' and 'do' and those of
'hoarse' and 'horse.' There are of course several cases of mergers that
appear to be actively spreading, and these are discussed in Chapter 9.
ANAE examines several conditioned mergers including the well known merger
of short /i/ and short /e/ before nasals (e.g. 'pin' vs. 'pen') and the
mergers of various tense and lax vowels before /l/ (e.g. 'pool' vs.
'pull'; 'feel' vs.  'fill'; 'sale' vs. 'sell'). Much more significant to
the dialect picture that ANAE paints, however, is the unconditional merger
of the LOT and THOUGHT classes: the low back merger, which makes
homophones of 'cot' and 'caught,' 'Don' and 'dawn,' etc. ANAE's
apparent-time analysis, comparing speakers by age, indicates that this
merger is an active change in many regions though surprisingly their
results suggest that the territory in which the merger predominates has
not expanded in recent decades.

Part C consists of a single chapter that contains a series of maps
illustrating ''the geographical distribution of differences of vowel
quality'' (77). Vowel quality is determined by instrumental measurements
of the frequencies of the first and second formants (F1 and F2), and the
raw measurements have been normalized to allow for cross-speaker
comparison.  For each of eighteen vowel classes, two maps are presented:
one displaying differences in the mean F1 for each of 439 survey subjects
and the other displaying differences in the mean F2 for those subjects. In
each map the means have been divided into four ranges by applying an
algorithm that identifies natural breaks in the data. The caption for each
map highlights some of the apparent patterns but no isoglosses have been
added in keeping with the authors' goal of presenting the results with
''the minimum of theoretical interpretation'' (77).

Part D offers an overview of North American dialects by laying out a set
of features that defines the picture of regional differences. Chapter 11
sketches that overall picture by introducing the regional divisions that
ANAE considers significant and the pronunciation features that define
those divisions. This chapter concludes (148) with a summary map giving
the labels and boundaries for all the dialects proposed, in this way
providing a convenient overall view that is likely to be excerpted for
generations of introductory textbooks to come. The ANAE picture reaffirms
some of the regional boundaries established by earlier studies (e.g.
Kurath and McDavid 1961) such as the divisions between eastern and western
New England and between the North and the Midland. Nevertheless, other
familiar divisions are not evident in ANAE's results such as the
separation of the South from the South Midland. The other two chapters in
this section offer more details about key vocalic variables of broad
geographic relevance. Chapter 12 considers the fronting of back vowels,
and Chapter 13 examines patterns involving the treatment of short-a (i.e.
the vowel of TRAP) and short-o (i.e. the vowel of LOT).

The dialect picture sketched in Chapter 11 is elaborated in Part E where
each of the major regions is treated in a separate chapter. These chapters
typically offer some historical perspective on the region at issue, and
the features that define that region are explored in as much
sociolinguistic detail as is possible given the limits of the ANAE sample.
Chapter 14 examines the North where the focus is the complex pattern of
vowel changes known as the Northern Cities Shift. Another putative chain
shift, the Canadian Shift, is one of the features discussed in Chapter 15
which, of course, treats Canada. Chapter 16 takes on New England and
quickly subdivides that region according to key features including the low
back merger and the vocalization of /r/. New York City and the
Mid-Atlantic states are the subject of Chapter 17 where the focus is on
the variable treatment of short-a which has split into two phonemes in
this region. The South is explored in Chapter 18 and once again a series
of apparently coordinated vowel changes is the focus as the Southern Shift
is investigated. The region with the greatest internal diversity is the
Midland, the subject of Chapter 19. One of the features that unites this
region is the fronting of /ow/ though the discussion here also highlights
many localized features including the monophthongization of /aw/ heard in
Pittsburgh. The final chapter in the section examines the West, a region
characterized by fronting of /uw/ and the low back merger.

Part F contains three thematically unrelated chapters under the heading
''Other views of regional differences.'' Chapter 21 departs from the
phonological focus of the rest of book to examine a few lexical and
grammatical features including terms for 'carbonated beverage' (e.g.
'pop', 'soda', 'coke', etc.) and ''positive anymore'' (e.g. Cars sure are
expensive anymore). The data on these features is quite limited since they
were not a principal target of the study design. Still, their inclusion
here expands the Atlas's perspective albeit slightly. Chapter 22
reconsiders the speech of the 44 African American subjects in the study.
Because the sample was not systematically stratified by race or ethnicity,
the authors do not have strong conclusions to offer regarding possible
linguistic differences along these lines. Nevertheless, they are able to
highlight evidence in their data of race-based patterns. The final
chapter, 23, summarizes the main findings and briefly evaluates the
project's significance.


This is a book that every scholar working on American dialects or sound
change in general has been eagerly anticipating. The authors have for
years provided previews of their findings in articles, conference
presentations, and on the project's website. They and other researchers in
this area have no doubt made this one of the most frequently cited
''forthcoming'' works in the history of the field. This scholarly audience
is not likely to be disappointed with the finished product. The scope and
quality of this study ensure its landmark status.

Clearly ANAE has the most to offer those researchers who work on
phonological variation in American English. The approach to sampling taken
by ANAE - covering the entire continent with a small number of speakers
from each location and concentrating on urban centers - invites more
in-depth follow-up studies. Armed with the framework provided by ANAE,
researchers can examine urban speech in greater detail with a more
sociolinguistically diverse sample or they can investigate the speech
patterns of the rural areas that lie between the cities surveyed by ANAE.
In this way, a full evaluation of the validity of the dialect boundaries
posited by Labov and his colleagues must await this future research.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the authors have taken certain steps
to facilitate comparative studies. Consider, for example, the maps in
Chapter 10 (Part C), which offer F1 and F2 comparisons for each vowel.
These maps present the basic material that the ANAE authors draw their
regional classifications from, but much of the information in these maps
is for various reasons not taken up in the construction of the broader
picture. If the authors were interested solely in arguing for a particular
view of North American dialects, the inclusion of all of these 38
full-page maps would be a waste of space (and resources). Fortunately,
their aim is not so narrow. The systematic profiling of height and
frontness differences for each vowel seems to have been done here in the
spirit of providing as complete a speech record as possible, the same
spirit that guided earlier work in dialect geography and can be seen, for
example, in the vowel ''synopses'' of individual informants included by
Kurath and McDavid (1961).  It is likely that follow-up research will take
advantage of the full record that ANAE offers just as has happened with
the record left by Kurath and McDavid and others who worked in the
linguistic atlas tradition (see e.g.  Thomas 2001). Further contributing
to this likelihood is the fact mentioned above, that ANAE authors have
made available, on the accompanying CD-ROM and through the website, much
of their raw data, the measurements of F1 and F2 for each vowel from each
of over 400 speakers together with demographic details about them.

ANAE does, of course, argue for a particular view of North American
dialects, and central to any judgment on that view is an assessment of the
linguistic features that define the various regions. Despite the brief
detour taken in Chapter 21, ANAE is a study of pronunciation, and the
regional picture is based exclusively on phonological variables. One might
criticize this focus as overly narrow though much of the previous work on
American dialects (e.g. Carver 1987) was based on a comparably narrow set
of linguistic features. Indeed the phonological patterns studied here are
certainly of greater structural significance than the lexical variables on
which many previous studies concentrated. A kind of structuralist
reasoning is in fact critical to much of ANAE's argumentation. Vowels are
seen as organized by subsystems rather than as individual elements. Thus,
observed sound changes are commonly viewed in terms of relations among
subsystems of vowels rather than as isolated developments. To explain the
resistance of much of the South to the low back merger, for example, the
authors note that one element in this merger, /oh/ (the vowel of THOUGHT),
is commonly produced as a back upgliding diphthong. This development is
not simply a phonetic change but a switch in the vowel's
subclassification, a switch that the author's argue is made possible by
the position of a related element: the /aw/ diphthong of MOUTH. The
nucleus of this vowel is typically fronted in the South which creates an
opening in the back of vowel space for the diphthongized /oh/ to fill. The
fronting of /aw/ in turn is treated as part of a more general pattern
affecting the other back upgliding diphthongs, /ow/ and /uw/. The value of
viewing sound change through a structuralist prism stems from the
inference of such general patterns, many of which have been developed and
defended in earlier work (e.g. Labov 1994). Ideally the patterns are
useful not only for explaining observed changes but also for predicting
future developments. So, for example, if /oh/ retains its membership in
the class of back upgliding diphthongs in the South, it should eventually
be subject to fronting. The data from ANAE and other studies, however,
suggest a different path as among young Southerners /oh/ seems to be
losing its diphthongal character and merging with /o/ (the vowel of LOT).
Understanding why Southern speech is taking this direction of change over
other structural alternatives requires greater consideration of historical
and sociolinguistic trends than is possible with the ANAE data.

Many readers will be interested more in the regional divisions proposed by
ANAE than by the structural forces at play in the vowel system. On this
score, we might question some of the particular phonological patterns that
are identified by ANAE as characteristic of certain regions. It is easy to
accept, for example, the North as a dialect region defined by the Northern
Cities Shift since this pattern involves several structurally related
features all of which occur in heavy concentration in this area and almost
exclusively there. The evidence for some of the other regional divisions
is less convincing. For example, the West is defined primarily as an area
in which the low back merger predominates and in which /uw/ is fronted but
/ow/ is not. Both the low back merger and fronted /uw/ are heard in other
regions including some neighboring the West, but the authors argue that a
particular configuration involving these changes and the absence of other
changes found in adjacent regions justifies the designation of the West as
a separate region. Still, they are upfront about tenuousness of this
definition of the region (303). More importantly they incorporate into
their analysis a metric of the strength of the proposed dialect boundaries
by including calculations of how uniformly the linguistic features are
distributed within a region and how often they occur outside that region.
These figures indicate that not all of the proposed isoglosses should be
given equal weight. Unfortunately the maps displaying these isoglosses do
not reflect such differences.

As these comments suggest, this book has a tremendous amount of analytical
detail to offer interested readers. Still, the authors and editors seem to
suspect that few people are likely to read the book from cover to cover,
and they have taken steps in the design to make ANAE quite easy to browse.
For example, directly beneath each map is a paragraph-long caption that
highlights key patterns in the data. In this way, they spare the reader
from having to hunt down the relevant discussion in the text, though
readers who wish to locate that discussion are aided by the placement of
symbols in the margins of the text designating the section where a
particular map is treated. While such steps improve the usability of ANAE,
it would be a mistake to think this book is accessible to general readers
or anyone lacking training in phonetics. For example, one of the
isoglosses that defines the North in ANAE is the ''ED measure'' which
identifies speakers for whom the mean F2 of /e/ (the vowel of DRESS) minus
the mean F2 of /o/ (the vowel of LOT) is less that 375 Hz. To appreciate
this criterion one has to know the relative positions of the vowels in
articulatory space, the relevance of F2 as a measure of frontedness, and
the movement of these vowels in the Northern Cities Shift, in which /e/ is
typically backed and /o/ is fronted. Finally, accessibility of a different
kind is an issue for specialists and non-specialists alike due to the
book's price. At $749, ANAE is probably out of economic reach to most
individual buyers. However, readers who have access to the online edition
through their institutions can download the entire book as a PDF file from
the project's website.

In sum, ANAE is a welcome addition to scholarship in American dialectology
as well as in the sociolinguistic study of language change. The picture it
paints of North American dialects in part confirms regional divisions
established by previous research and also uncovers new patterns resulting
from emerging trends. To be sure, the methodology of this project - the
concentration on urban speech, the focus on vowel pronunciation, the
reliance on acoustic measurements, etc. - produces a limited view of North
American speech. Still this study remains unprecedented in its broad
scope, and the authors succeed in laying out a useful framework for
examining phonological variation on this continent. ANAE is a landmark
study that will shape research trends for years to come.


Carver, Craig M. 1987. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kurath, Hans and Raven I. McDavid, Jr. 1961. The Pronunciation of English
in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change, Volume 1: Internal
Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, Erik R. 2001. An Acoustic Analysis of Vowel Variation in New World
English. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Trager, George L. and Henry Lee Smith. 1957. An Outline of English
Structure. Washington: American Council of Learned Societies.

Wells, J.C. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University

ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Matthew J. Gordon (Ph.D. University of Michigan, 1997)
teaches English linguistics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is
the author of Small-Town Values, Big-City Vowels: A Study of the Northern
Cities Shift in Michigan (Duke UP 2001), and co-author with Lesley Milroy
of Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation (Blackwell 2003).


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