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.

Dennis Preston


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