South of the Border with the Canadian Shift

Date: April 20, 2012 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Rebecca Roeder

I am an American sociolinguist who began my research on vowel change in the Midwestern United States then spent time living in Toronto and studying vowel change in Ontario English. I have returned to the United States and am currently engaged in sociophonetic research on both Canadian and American varieties of English. I was honored by the invitation to contribute an entry to the Strathy Blog, and it seemed appropriate that my contribution should highlight recent American research on a vowel change that straddles the border between the United States and Canada—the Canadian Shift.

The Canadian Shift is a change in vowel quality whereby the front vowels in words like KIT, DRESS and TRAP are retracting and lowering in the acoustic space. This shift is happening in regions of Canada and the United States that also exhibit a merger between the back vowels in words such as LOT and THOUGHT (that is, these two words have the same vowel for speakers in these regions whereas in other areas the two vowels are distinct). The Canadian Shift was first documented and named in Canada by Clarke et al (1995). Clarke et al immediately noted the similarity between the Canadian and California vowel spaces, and subsequent research has provided more evidence of a common pattern (e.g. Hagiwara 2006). Here’s a link to a picture and explanation of the Northern California system on Penny Eckert’s website: Aiello (2009) suggests that Northern and Southern California represent the same general vowel system.

Evidence of Canadian Shift-like vowel configurations has also been noted recently in two cities that lie on the edges of the area categorized by The Atlas of North American English as the Midlands. In his work on vowel change in Ohio, David Durian has documented the shift as a change-in-progress in Columbus. His research is part of the Century of Language Change in Columbus (CLCC) Project at the Ohio State University, and more information on these findings is available on the project website: A comparison of phonetic data from my own work on the Canadian Shift in Toronto (Roeder and Jarmasz 2010) to the findings of Durian (2008, 2009) for Columbus indicates strong similarities between the trajectories of change over apparent time in those two cities, including 1) a connection between retraction of the merged LOT/THOUGHT vowel and retraction of the TRAP vowel and 2) concurrent DRESS vowel retraction. KIT vowel retraction, documented by Boberg (2005) as a part of the Canadian Shift in Montreal, is also attested by Durian in Columbus speech. With each new set of data comes an accompanying theoretical explanation that informs the larger conversation around this pervasive vowel change.

In related research, Douglas Bigham (2009) presented evidence that pronunciations of the KIT, DRESS and TRAP vowels in young adult speakers in the southern tip of Illinois are very similar to those found in California. As with other research on the Canadian Shift, Bigham (2010) finds a connection between TRAP vowel retraction and the LOT~THOUGHT merger. Furthermore, he proposes a model of change to explain the contrast between community-wide cross-generational vowel shifting and individual-level variation in production of the TRAP, LOT and THOUGHT vowels that offers a convincing explanation of why a retracted TRAP vowel sometimes appears in the speech of a local speaker whose LOT and THOUGHT vowels are not fully merged.

The new evidence provided in these studies challenges the Labov et al (2006: 221) observation that no North American region outside of Canada “shows a high concentration of the complete set of Canadian Shift features”. Given the widespread distribution of this pattern across areas of North America that have experienced extensive dialect mixing in the relatively recent past—the Western U.S., the edges of the U.S. Midlands region, and Canada—there has been talk of renaming the shift to the “Third Dialect Shift”, after the North American dialect distribution proposed by Labov (1991). But the larger question continues to revolve around a theoretical explanation for the observed changes. Despite variation between regions in the phonetic realization of each vowel, a common phonological explanation is likely, and a number of compelling ideas have already been put forward. My current research is focused on the relationship between phonetics and phonology in the Canadian Shift, and my ideas are informed by the excellent and exciting work being done on this topic by my colleagues on both sides of the U.S. ~ Canada border.


Aiello, Angela. 2009. A Phonetic Examination of California. MA Thesis, University of Southern California, Santa Cruz.

Bigham, Douglas S. 2009. Northern California Vowels in Southern English. Paper presented at the American Dialect Society Annual Meeting, Anaheim, CA.

Bigham, Douglas S. 2010. Correlation of the Low-Back Vowel Merger and TRAP-Retraction. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: 15,2: Article 4.

Boberg, Charles. 2005. The Canadian Shift in Montreal. Language Variation and Change 17:133–154.

Clarke, Sandra, Ford Elms, and Amani Youssef. 1995. The third dialect of English: Some Canadian evidence. Language Variation and Change 7:209–228.

Durian, David. 2008. A New Perspective on Vowel Variation Throughout the 20th Century in Columbus, OH. Paper presented at New Ways of Analyzing Variation 37, Houston, TX.

Durian, David. 2009. The Canadian Shift in the U.S. Midland: purely a chain shift? Paper presented at New Ways of Analyzing Variation 38, University of Ottawa.

Hagiwara, Robert. 2006. Vowel production in Winnipeg. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51:127–141.

Labov, William. 1991. The three dialects of English. In P. Eckert (ed.), New Ways of Analyzing Sound Change. New York: Academic Press: 1–44.

Labov, William, Sharon Ash, and Charles Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Roeder, Rebecca and Lidia-Gabriela Jarmasz. 2010. The Canadian Shift in Toronto. Revue canadienne de linguistique/ Canadian Journal of Linguistics 55: 387–404.