University of Rochester

In Class

What Accent?

A linguistics class wonders where the vowels have gone. By Scott Hauser
Sasha Eloi ’05
SOUND ANALYSIS: Sasha Eloi ’05 uses sound analysis software as part of an advanced phonetics and phonology class.

When Sasha Eloi ’05 was consider-ing whether she wanted to go to college in a certain city in upstate New York, the Coral Springs, Florida, native had a tongue-in-cheek conversation with an alumna.

“She told me I’d have to learn how to say Rochester correctly,” Eloi says.


“It’s Raaaah-chester,” she mimics, drawing out the first syllable and turning it into a combination of “ah” and “yah” that would be familiar to most longtime residents of the area.

More than four years later, Eloi, a budding linguistics scholar who plans to pursue graduate work in sociolinguistics, is not only thoroughly familiar with the “correct” pronunciation, she also can explain many of the subtleties behind it.

She and a handful of like-minded students in the College spent much of last spring analyzing the way Rochesterians pronounce certain words as part of a research project in an advanced linguistics class on phonetics and phonology. They wanted to know whether residents of the Flower City exhibit traits of what linguists call the “Northern Cities Vowel Shift.”

In nonscholarly terms, the students wondered, Do Rochesterians have an accent?

“We all have accents,” Joyce McDonough, associate professor of linguistics, tells the class as they prepare to analyze some of the data that they would use to determine whether they could identify signs of a vowel shift. “That’s not really a news bulletin.”

But she says the relationships between phonology—the sound patterns that make up a language—and phonetics—the way people actually pronounce those sounds when they use the language—are harder to pin down.

“Language is a system that’s constantly in flux,” she says. “Dialects aren’t disappearing, but they are changing, and they are changing in very systematic ways.”

To analyze whether native Rochester speakers exhibit the systematic changes that are the hallmarks of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, the students conducted small field studies over the course of the semester in which they recorded native and nonnative speakers as members of the two groups repeated a specific set of phrases and questions. Using sound analysis software, the students compared the frequency, amplitude, and other sound data, looking for statistical differences between the two groups.

“That made the class more interesting because we were able to do the work and had to figure out the results,” Eloi says.

The results fell in line with work led by linguistics pioneer William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania that argued in the 1970s that people in cities around the Great Lakes have shifted the way they pronounce what linguists call the low vowels.

According to the shift theory, speakers in cities like Rochester pronounce low vowels—sounds that are produced with the mouth open and the tongue down; think of a doctor asking you to say, “Ahh”—in ways that are closer to the pronunciation of the high vowels or the sounds when the tongue is raised in the front of the mouth—like “ee”—or in the back of the mouth—like “ooh.”

“Rochester is a canonical example of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift,” McDonough says of Labov’s hypothesis.

Figuring if Rochester speakers fit into the shift requires a combination of the rigorous data analysis of a mathematician as well as an understanding of the less than rigorous nature of humans and their behavior.

That appeals to Mike Alwill ’04, who majored in mathematics and who took the class as a Take Five scholar focusing on linguistics.

“It’s nice to get to apply the knowledge as you’re learning it to a real-world situation,” he says.

McDonough says the field of linguistics often draws students who are interested in looking at questions from both a scientific and humanistic perspective.

“Students who come in from different disciplines bring different skills,” she says. “We’re often in the position of introducing the rigors of science to the humanities majors, and for the science majors, the art of science comes out.”

McDonough, who specializes in the phonetic and phonological structure of Native American languages, has used a research-oriented approach in the class for several years to help students understand that one of the intriguing aspects of scholarship is discovering more questions.

“With the study of language, you walk into a phenomenon that you have no hope of figuring out completely,” she says. “I always tell my students, ‘This is not about answers; it’s about asking the next best question.”

She also hopes the class helps students understand that while the issue of accents and pronunciation are often freighted with overtones of class, culture, race, and other social hot buttons, everybody speaks English “correctly.”

“There’s no repository of the right way to speak English,” she says. “English exists as a community of speakers.”

That sense of community will become more important in the future, McDonough says, because the majority of the world’s 6,000 languages are expected to have no native speakers within a century or two.

Says McDonough: “If the students can walk out of this class and understand that there’s this thing called the Rochester accent and that it can be studied and measured, then they are more likely to be sensitive to the fact that there’s a great diversity of languages and that they are all equally worthy.”