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Sound change in the American Midland


Research focus:

  • The phonetic and phonological systems of large urban areas in the US Midlands have not been sufficiently described.
  • Mechanisms driving ongoing sound changes in the US Midlands (and more broadly in American Englishes) have been widely studied, but are not yet fully understood.


  • I conducted sociolinguistic interviews in Kansas City, and measured the acoustic characteristics of vowels spoken during these interviews.
  • I apply a range of quantitative approaches to measure and model the vowel system Kansas City English.

Key findings:

  • Kansas City English is undergoing a number of sound changes, including a series of conditional mergers of back vowels before /l/, ‘Canadian raising,’ and short vowel retraction, which all challenge the community’s characterisation as a Midland dialect area (or challenge the characterisation of the Midland dialect area).
  • The pattern of short vowel retraction in Kansas City has been attested to in many American English dialects, and is typically assumed to be a ‘drag chain’ caused by the low-back merger. Kansas City data shows that this sound change is not operating as a ‘drag chain,’ meaning researchers must examine the causation of the sound change in other American Englishes more closely.
  • Changes in the phonological status of vowels advance perceptually (i.e., people stop recognising two vowels as distinct) more rapidly than they advance productively.

To find out more:

Strelluf, Christopher. 2019. Structural and social correlations with the Low-Back-Merger Shift in a U.S. Midland community. In Kara Becker (ed.), The Low-Back-Merger Shift: Uniting the Canadian Vowel Shift, the California Vowel Shift, and Short Front Vowel Shifts across North America [Publication of the American Dialect 104], 120–143. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Strelluf, Christopher. 2018. Speaking from the Heartland: The Midland vowel system of Kansas City. [Publication of the American Dialect Society 103.] Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Strelluf, Christopher. 2016. Overlap among back vowels before /l/ in Kansas City. Language Variation and Change 28(3). 379-407.