Date: Fri, 7 Apr 1995 09:45:00 EDT
From: "Dennis.Preston" 22709MGR[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]MSU.EDU
Subject: Southern Shuft
A polite request to comment on the apparent contradiction to the general rule
that tense vowels rise and lax vowels fall in the Southern Shift has not yet
provoked any of us to answer in detail. The full answer is perhaps too
detailed for the list, but I believe the following will resolve the apparent
The data which cause the confusion are those of the following sort: In the
Southern Shift TEAM sounds like TAME and TAME sounds like TIME (and TIME
sounds like TOM, but that is perhaps not important to this discussion).
It is important to add, I believe, that (at least to Northerners) BIT sounds a
little like BEET and BET a little like BAIT.
If all this is so, then isn't it the case that the tense vowels are falling
and the lax ones raising?
First, let us note that a better statement of the principle would be
that it is the peripheral vowels which tend to raise and the nonperipherals
which tend to fall. Granted, tense vowels, in general, tend to be more
peripheral than lax.
Second, however, notice that the tense properties of the vowels in TEAM, TAME,
and TIME (those which fall in the Southern Shift) derive from the glide
or second portion of the diphthong. The onset of the vowel itself can be (and
was obviously interpreted as) lax (or nonperipheral), at least more so than
the corresponding vowels in BIT, BET, and, perhaps, even BAT.
The Southern Shift is, therefore, based on a reinterpretation of the
peripherality (tenseness) of the diphthongal vowels which are traditionally
regarded as tense but, in this case, whose onsets are regarded as lax (or less
peripheral) than the nearby traditionally lax ones.
Since varieties of English other than Southern US (e.g., Australian) obey very
similar rules, this seems to be an accurate analysis.
All the complexities are not here since varieties may have competing
subsystems of change, some of them based on differing interpretations of
which items are tense versus lax (or, better, peripheral versus non
See Part B of Labov's New Principles of Linguistic Change (Oxford, Blackwell,
1994) for fuller details.
22709mgr[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]msu.edu
preston[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]pilot.msu.edu