Midland American English

Midland American English

The Midland dialect of American English was first defined by Hans Kurath (A Word Geography of the Eastern United States, 1949) as being the dialect spoken in an area centered on Philadelphia and expanding westward to include most of Pennsylvania and part of the Appalachian Mountains. Kurath and McDavid (The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States, 1961) later divided this region into two discrete subdivisions: the "North Midland" beginning north of the Ohio River valley area, and the "South Midland". Craig M. Carver (American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography, 1987) essentially renamed the North Midland the Lower North and the South Midland the Upper South. All these classifications were mostly based on lexical features.

Labov, Ash, and Boberg (The Atlas of North American English, 2006), based solely on phonology and phonetics, defined the Midland area as a buffer zone between the Inland North and the South; this area essentially coincides with Kurath and McDavid's North Midland, the "South Midland" being now reckoned as part of the South. Indeed, while the lexical and grammatical isoglosses follow the Appalachian Mountains, the accent boundary follows the Ohio River.

The (North) Midland is arguably the major region whose speech most closely approximates General American.[1]


General features


  • Midland speech is firmly rhotic.
  • A well-known phonological difference between the Midland and the North is that the word on contains the phoneme /ɔ/ (as in caught) rather than /ɑ/ (as in cot). (This only applies to Midland speakers not subject to the cot–caught merger, on which see below.) For this reason, one of the names for the North-Midland boundary is the "on line".
  • In some areas, words like "roof" and "root" (which in many other dialects have the GOOSE vowel /u/) are pronounced with the FOOT vowel /ʊ/.[citation needed]


The North Midland and South Midland are both characterized by:[2]

  • advanced fronting of /oʊ/: the phoneme /oʊ/ (as in boat) is fronter than in many other American accents, particularly those of the North; the phoneme is frequently realized as a diphthong with a central nucleus, approximating [ɵʊ].
  • advanced fronting of /aʊ/: the diphthong /aʊ/ (as in mouth) has a fronter nucleus than /aɪ/, approaching [æʊ].


  • A common feature of the greater Midland area is so-called "positive anymore": It is possible to use the adverb anymore with the meaning "nowadays" in sentences without negative polarity, such as Air travel is inconvenient anymore.
  • Many speakers, especially in the Western Pennsylvania area (see below), use the construction need + past participle, as in the car needs washed, where speakers of other dialects would say needs to be washed or needs washing.

(North) Midland

Based on Labov et al.; averaged F1/F2 means for speakers from the (North) Midland (excluding Western PA and the St. Louis corridor). The merger of /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ is not complete.

The North Midland region stretches from east to west across central and southern Ohio, central Indiana, central Illinois, Iowa, and northern Missouri, as well as Nebraska and northern Kansas where it begins to blend into the West. Major cities of this dialect area include Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus, Ohio, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.

In addition to the fronting of the diphthongs /oʊ/ and /aʊ/, the North Midland exhibits the following distinctive features:[3]

  • cot–caught merger in transition: parts of this area are currently undergoing a vowel merger of the "short o" /ɑ/ (as in cot) and 'aw' /ɔ/ (as in caught) phonemes. Many speakers show transitional forms of this so-called cot–caught merger, which is complete in approximately half of North America.
  • advanced fronting of /ʌ/: among younger speakers, the "wedge" /ʌ/ (as in strut) is shifting strongly to the front.

The /æ/ phoneme (as in cat) shows most commonly a so-called "continuous" distribution: /æ/ is raised and tensed toward [eə] before nasal consonants and remains low [æ] before voiceless stop consonants, and other allophones of /æ/ occupy a continuum of varying degrees of height between those two extremes.

Western Pennsylvania

Based on Labov et al.; averaged F1/F2 means for speakers from Western PA. The merger of /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ is complete for 11 out of 14 speakers;[4] /ʌ/ is backer and lower than in the rest of the North Midland.

The dialect of Western Pennsylvania is, for many purposes, an eastern extension of the North Midland; it is spoken also in Youngstown, Ohio, ten miles west of the state line. Like the Midland proper, the Western Pennsylvania accent features fronting of /oʊ/ and /aʊ/, as well as positive anymore. The chief distinguishing feature of Western Pennsylvania as a whole is that the cot–caught merger is almost complete here (it is complete in Pittsburgh), whereas it is still in progress in most of the Midland. The merger has also spread from Western Pennsylvania into adjacent West Virginia, historically in the South Midland dialect region.

The city of Pittsburgh is considered to have a dialect of its own often known as "Pittsburghese". This region is additionally characterized by a sound change that is unique in North America: the monopthongization of /aʊ/ to [aː]. This is the source of the stereotypical Pittsburgh pronunciation of downtown as "dahntahn". Pittsburgh also features an unusually low allophone of /ʌ/ (as in cut); it approaches [ɑ] (/ɑ/ itself having moved out of the way and become a rounded vowel in its merger with /ɔ/).

Erie, Pennsylvania was described as being in the Northern dialect region in the first half of the 20th century. However, unlike other cities in the North, Erie underwent the caught–cot merger and not the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and now Erie has at least as much in common linguistically with the rest of Western Pennsylvania as with the North. For this reason, Erie has been described as the only major city to change its affiliation from the North to the Midland.

South Midland

The South Midland dialect region follows the Ohio River in a generally southwesterly direction, moving across from Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and Southern Illinois to southern Missouri, Arkansas, southern Kansas, and Oklahoma, west of the Mississippi river. Although historically more closely related to the North Midland speech, this region shows dialectal features that are now more similar to the rest of the South than the Midland, most noticeably the smoothing of the diphthong /ɑɪ/ to [ɑː], and the second person plural pronoun "you-all" or "y'all." Unlike the coastal South, however, the South Midland has always been a rhotic dialect, pronouncing /r/ wherever it has historically occurred. South Indiana is the northernmost extent of the South Midland region, forming what dialectologists refer to as the "Hoosier Apex" of the South Midland; the accent is locally known there as the "Hoosier Twang" where Interstate 64 is usually referred to as Sixty-For or U.S. 41 is casually referred to as Forty-One.

The phonology of the South Midland is discussed in greater detail in Southern American English.

St. Louis and vicinity

St. Louis, Missouri is historically one among several (North) Midland cities, but it has developed some unique features of its own distinguishing it from the rest of the Midland.

  • A historical feature of the St. Louis dialect is the merger of the phonemes /ɔɹ/ (as in for) and /ɑɹ/ (as in far), while leaving distinct /oɹ/ (as in four). This merger is less frequently found in younger speakers, and leads to the stereotypical exaggeration of the St. Louis accent as "Interstate Farty-Far".
  • Some speakers, usually older generations, have /eɪ/ instead of Standard English /ɛ/ before /ʒ/: thus measure is pronounced /ˈmeɪʒ.ɚ/. Wash (as well as Washington) gains a /ɹ/, becoming /wɔɹʃ/ ("warsh").
  • The diphthong /ɔɪ/ in standard English becomes more like [ɑːɪ]. For example, words such as "oil" and "joint" are commonly pronounced awyul and jawynt, particularly among older speakers within the city and immediate suburbs.[citation needed]
  • The phoneme /ð/ is often replaced with /d/, especially among the white working-class urban populace. For instance, Get in that car over there sounds like Get in dat car over dere. This speech characteristic is common in most large, old cities of the East and Midwest, reinforcing St. Louis's cultural evolution alongside other northern industrial urban centers.[citation needed]
  • Some younger speakers have picked up features of the first stages of the Northern Cities shift; this vowel shift causes, among other changes, raising and tensing of the vowel /æ/, so that words like cat /kæt/ to become more like [kɛət]. A corridor of communities between Chicago and St. Louis is the only place that features of the Inland North have penetrated noticeably into the Midland, despite the long boundary the two regions share. However, St. Louis remains a Midland city in other respects. For example on rhymes with dawn rather than don, unlike the North. Indeed, the fact that on rhymes with dawn is more distinctive in St. Louis than in the rest of the Midland, since the cot–caught merger is prevented in St. Louis by the presence of the Northern Cities shift.


Cincinnati has a phonological pattern quite distinct from the surrounding area (Boberg and Strassel 2000).

  • The traditional Cincinnati short-a system is unique in the Midland. While there is no evidence for a phonemic split, the phonetic conditioning of short-a in conservative Cincinnati speech is similar to that of New York City, with the raising environments including nasals (m, n, ng), voiceless fricatives (f, soft th, sh, s), and voiced stops (b, d, g, t). Weaker forms of this pattern are shown by speakers from nearby Dayton, Springfield, and Mansfield. Boberg and Strassel (2000) reported that Cincinnati's traditional short-a system was giving way among younger speakers to a nasal system similar to those found elsewhere in the Midland and West.


  1. ^ {http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/dialectsofenglish.html
  2. ^ Labov et al., pp. 255–258 and 262–265.
  3. ^ Labov, pp. 262–268.
  4. ^ Labov et al., p. 263.
  • Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8

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