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Review of  The Atlas of North American English

Reviewer: Matthew K Gordon
Book Title: The Atlas of North American English
Book Author: William Labov Sharon Ash Charles Boberg
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 17.2299

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AUTHORS: Labov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles
TITLE: The Atlas of North American English
SUBTITLE: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change. A Multimedia Reference Tool
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2005

Matthew J. Gordon, English Department, University of Missouri - Columbia

Between 1992 and 1999 a team of researchers led by William Labov conducted
a series of interviews over the telephone with some 800 people across the
United States and Canada. The samples of speech recorded during these
interviews constitute the database on which the Atlas of North American
English (ANAE) is based. This work consists of (a) the print version of the
Atlas, an oversized volume (11.5'' x 16'') which runs over 300 pages and
contains 129 four-color maps, (b) a CD-ROM packaged with the Atlas and
containing data files and interactive maps with sound clips; and (c) a
website available by subscription which also includes interactive maps and
longer sound clips as well as additional materials. This review is focused
on the bound, ''hard-copy'' of the Atlas.

ANAE contains twenty three chapters organized into six sections, labeled
Parts A-F. Part A ''Introduction and methods'' opens with an introductory
chapter that outlines the goals and scope of the project. This discussion
puts ANAE in the context of American dialectology, suggesting that the
current project builds on the tradition of scholars such as Hans Kurath and
Raven McDavid though it departs significantly from that research especially
in terms of methodology. Key aspects of the ANAE methodology which
distinguish this project from traditional dialect geography include:

- the linguistic focus lies with active sounds changes especially those
affecting vowels;

- acoustic measurements are used for much of the analysis;

- the survey targeted urban people with two speakers sampled for most
small cities and four or more for larger metropolitan areas;

- the sample of speakers is intentionally skewed to include young women
from each location since previous research has found them in the vanguard
of many sound changes.


Chapter 2 sketches the phonological framework through which ANAE approaches
North American vowels. The system employed divides vowels into the familiar
short and long classes and further divides the latter according to
diphthong type (i.e. upgliding vs. ingliding) in a manner that is
reminiscent of earlier structuralist approaches such as Trager and Smith
(1957). Rather than using phonetically descriptive symbols (e.g. the IPA
alphabet), phonemes are represented with symbols that reflect the
phonological classification (e.g. /o/ is the vowel of LOT; /ow/ is the
vowel of GOAT; /oh/ is the vowel of THOUGHT) - I use ANAE's symbols in this
review, but I include guide words in all caps from the lexical sets
formulated by Wells (1982). This classification provides a theoretical
''initial position'' of the vowels, that is, a starting point from which the
changes documented by ANAE take off. Many of those changes involve either a
chain shift or a merger, and so Chapter 3 reviews general principles
governing these types of change. This material digests the more thorough
treatment offered by Labov (1994). More methodological details about the
project are included in Chapters 4 ''Sampling and field methods'' and 5
''Methods of acoustic analysis.''

Part B is concerned with ''Mergers and contrasts.'' Chapter 7 discusses one
of two consonantal features studied here: post-vocalic /r/. The ANAE
results suggest that vocalization of post-vocalic /r/ remains a stable
sociolinguistic variable in eastern New England and New York City where it
occurs more commonly among working class speakers and in informal speech
contexts. In the South, by contrast, /r/-vocalization appears to be
receding at least among White speakers. The other consonantal feature
examined is the phonemic distinction between /w/ and /hw/ (e.g. wear vs.
where) which is taken up in Chapter 8 on ''Nearly completed mergers.'' As the
chapter title suggests, ANAE finds few people who maintain this contrast.
The same status describes some of the vocalic features examined here
including the merger of the vowels in 'dew' and 'do' and those of 'hoarse'
and 'horse.' There are of course several cases of mergers that appear to be
actively spreading, and these are discussed in Chapter 9. ANAE examines
several conditioned mergers including the well known merger of short /i/
and short /e/ before nasals (e.g. 'pin' vs. 'pen') and the mergers of
various tense and lax vowels before /l/ (e.g. 'pool' vs. 'pull'; 'feel' vs.
'fill'; 'sale' vs. 'sell'). Much more significant to the dialect picture
that ANAE paints, however, is the unconditional merger of the LOT and
THOUGHT classes: the low back merger, which makes homophones of 'cot' and
'caught,' 'Don' and 'dawn,' etc. ANAE's apparent-time analysis, comparing
speakers by age, indicates that this merger is an active change in many
regions though surprisingly their results suggest that the territory in
which the merger predominates has not expanded in recent decades.

Part C consists of a single chapter that contains a series of maps
illustrating ''the geographical distribution of differences of vowel
quality'' (77). Vowel quality is determined by instrumental measurements of
the frequencies of the first and second formants (F1 and F2), and the raw
measurements have been normalized to allow for cross-speaker comparison.
For each of eighteen vowel classes, two maps are presented: one displaying
differences in the mean F1 for each of 439 survey subjects and the other
displaying differences in the mean F2 for those subjects. In each map the
means have been divided into four ranges by applying an algorithm that
identifies natural breaks in the data. The caption for each map highlights
some of the apparent patterns but no isoglosses have been added in keeping
with the authors' goal of presenting the results with ''the minimum of
theoretical interpretation'' (77).

Part D offers an overview of North American dialects by laying out a set of
features that defines the picture of regional differences. Chapter 11
sketches that overall picture by introducing the regional divisions that
ANAE considers significant and the pronunciation features that define those
divisions. This chapter concludes (148) with a summary map giving the
labels and boundaries for all the dialects proposed, in this way providing
a convenient overall view that is likely to be excerpted for generations of
introductory textbooks to come. The ANAE picture reaffirms some of the
regional boundaries established by earlier studies (e.g. Kurath and McDavid
1961) such as the divisions between eastern and western New England and
between the North and the Midland. Nevertheless, other familiar divisions
are not evident in ANAE's results such as the separation of the South from
the South Midland. The other two chapters in this section offer more
details about key vocalic variables of broad geographic relevance. Chapter
12 considers the fronting of back vowels, and Chapter 13 examines patterns
involving the treatment of short-a (i.e. the vowel of TRAP) and short-o
(i.e. the vowel of LOT).

The dialect picture sketched in Chapter 11 is elaborated in Part E where
each of the major regions is treated in a separate chapter. These chapters
typically offer some historical perspective on the region at issue, and the
features that define that region are explored in as much sociolinguistic
detail as is possible given the limits of the ANAE sample. Chapter 14
examines the North where the focus is the complex pattern of vowel changes
known as the Northern Cities Shift. Another putative chain shift, the
Canadian Shift, is one of the features discussed in Chapter 15 which, of
course, treats Canada. Chapter 16 takes on New England and quickly
subdivides that region according to key features including the low back
merger and the vocalization of /r/. New York City and the Mid-Atlantic
states are the subject of Chapter 17 where the focus is on the variable
treatment of short-a which has split into two phonemes in this region. The
South is explored in Chapter 18 and once again a series of apparently
coordinated vowel changes is the focus as the Southern Shift is
investigated. The region with the greatest internal diversity is the
Midland, the subject of Chapter 19. One of the features that unites this
region is the fronting of /ow/ though the discussion here also highlights
many localized features including the monophthongization of /aw/ heard in
Pittsburgh. The final chapter in the section examines the West, a region
characterized by fronting of /uw/ and the low back merger.

Part F contains three thematically unrelated chapters under the heading
''Other views of regional differences.'' Chapter 21 departs from the
phonological focus of the rest of book to examine a few lexical and
grammatical features including terms for 'carbonated beverage' (e.g. 'pop',
'soda', 'coke', etc.) and ''positive anymore'' (e.g. Cars sure are expensive
anymore). The data on these features is quite limited since they were not a
principal target of the study design. Still, their inclusion here expands
the Atlas's perspective albeit slightly. Chapter 22 reconsiders the speech
of the 44 African American subjects in the study. Because the sample was
not systematically stratified by race or ethnicity, the authors do not have
strong conclusions to offer regarding possible linguistic differences along
these lines. Nevertheless, they are able to highlight evidence in their
data of race-based patterns. The final chapter, 23, summarizes the main
findings and briefly evaluates the project's significance.


This is a book that every scholar working on American dialects or sound
change in general has been eagerly anticipating. The authors have for years
provided previews of their findings in articles, conference presentations,
and on the project's website. They and other researchers in this area have
no doubt made this one of the most frequently cited ''forthcoming'' works in
the history of the field. This scholarly audience is not likely to be
disappointed with the finished product. The scope and quality of this study
ensure its landmark status.

Clearly ANAE has the most to offer those researchers who work on
phonological variation in American English. The approach to sampling taken
by ANAE - covering the entire continent with a small number of speakers
from each location and concentrating on urban centers - invites more
in-depth follow-up studies. Armed with the framework provided by ANAE,
researchers can examine urban speech in greater detail with a more
sociolinguistically diverse sample or they can investigate the speech
patterns of the rural areas that lie between the cities surveyed by ANAE.
In this way, a full evaluation of the validity of the dialect boundaries
posited by Labov and his colleagues must await this future research.
Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the authors have taken certain steps
to facilitate comparative studies. Consider, for example, the maps in
Chapter 10 (Part C), which offer F1 and F2 comparisons for each vowel.
These maps present the basic material that the ANAE authors draw their
regional classifications from, but much of the information in these maps is
for various reasons not taken up in the construction of the broader
picture. If the authors were interested solely in arguing for a particular
view of North American dialects, the inclusion of all of these 38 full-page
maps would be a waste of space (and resources). Fortunately, their aim is
not so narrow. The systematic profiling of height and frontness differences
for each vowel seems to have been done here in the spirit of providing as
complete a speech record as possible, the same spirit that guided earlier
work in dialect geography and can be seen, for example, in the vowel
''synopses'' of individual informants included by Kurath and McDavid (1961).
It is likely that follow-up research will take advantage of the full record
that ANAE offers just as has happened with the record left by Kurath and
McDavid and others who worked in the linguistic atlas tradition (see e.g.
Thomas 2001). Further contributing to this likelihood is the fact mentioned
above, that ANAE authors have made available, on the accompanying CD-ROM
and through the website, much of their raw data, the measurements of F1 and
F2 for each vowel from each of over 400 speakers together with demographic
details about them.

ANAE does, of course, argue for a particular view of North American
dialects, and central to any judgment on that view is an assessment of the
linguistic features that define the various regions. Despite the brief
detour taken in Chapter 21, ANAE is a study of pronunciation, and the
regional picture is based exclusively on phonological variables. One might
criticize this focus as overly narrow though much of the previous work on
American dialects (e.g. Carver 1987) was based on a comparably narrow set
of linguistic features. Indeed the phonological patterns studied here are
certainly of greater structural significance than the lexical variables on
which many previous studies concentrated. A kind of structuralist reasoning
is in fact critical to much of ANAE's argumentation. Vowels are seen as
organized by subsystems rather than as individual elements. Thus, observed
sound changes are commonly viewed in terms of relations among subsystems of
vowels rather than as isolated developments. To explain the resistance of
much of the South to the low back merger, for example, the authors note
that one element in this merger, /oh/ (the vowel of THOUGHT), is commonly
produced as a back upgliding diphthong. This development is not simply a
phonetic change but a switch in the vowel's subclassification, a switch
that the author's argue is made possible by the position of a related
element: the /aw/ diphthong of MOUTH. The nucleus of this vowel is
typically fronted in the South which creates an opening in the back of
vowel space for the diphthongized /oh/ to fill. The fronting of /aw/ in
turn is treated as part of a more general pattern affecting the other back
upgliding diphthongs, /ow/ and /uw/. The value of viewing sound change
through a structuralist prism stems from the inference of such general
patterns, many of which have been developed and defended in earlier work
(e.g. Labov 1994). Ideally the patterns are useful not only for explaining
observed changes but also for predicting future developments. So, for
example, if /oh/ retains its membership in the class of back upgliding
diphthongs in the South, it should eventually be subject to fronting. The
data from ANAE and other studies, however, suggest a different path as
among young Southerners /oh/ seems to be losing its diphthongal character
and merging with /o/ (the vowel of LOT). Understanding why Southern speech
is taking this direction of change over other structural alternatives
requires greater consideration of historical and sociolinguistic trends
than is possible with the ANAE data.

Many readers will be interested more in the regional divisions proposed by
ANAE than by the structural forces at play in the vowel system. On this
score, we might question some of the particular phonological patterns that
are identified by ANAE as characteristic of certain regions. It is easy to
accept, for example, the North as a dialect region defined by the Northern
Cities Shift since this pattern involves several structurally related
features all of which occur in heavy concentration in this area and almost
exclusively there. The evidence for some of the other regional divisions is
less convincing. For example, the West is defined primarily as an area in
which the low back merger predominates and in which /uw/ is fronted but
/ow/ is not. Both the low back merger and fronted /uw/ are heard in other
regions including some neighboring the West, but the authors argue that a
particular configuration involving these changes and the absence of other
changes found in adjacent regions justifies the designation of the West as
a separate region. Still, they are upfront about tenuousness of this
definition of the region (303). More importantly they incorporate into
their analysis a metric of the strength of the proposed dialect boundaries
by including calculations of how uniformly the linguistic features are
distributed within a region and how often they occur outside that region.
These figures indicate that not all of the proposed isoglosses should be
given equal weight. Unfortunately the maps displaying these isoglosses do
not reflect such differences.

As these comments suggest, this book has a tremendous amount of analytical
detail to offer interested readers. Still, the authors and editors seem to
suspect that few people are likely to read the book from cover to cover,
and they have taken steps in the design to make ANAE quite easy to browse.
For example, directly beneath each map is a paragraph-long caption that
highlights key patterns in the data. In this way, they spare the reader
from having to hunt down the relevant discussion in the text, though
readers who wish to locate that discussion are aided by the placement of
symbols in the margins of the text designating the section where a
particular map is treated. While such steps improve the usability of ANAE,
it would be a mistake to think this book is accessible to general readers
or anyone lacking training in phonetics. For example, one of the isoglosses
that defines the North in ANAE is the ''ED measure'' which identifies
speakers for whom the mean F2 of /e/ (the vowel of DRESS) minus the mean F2
of /o/ (the vowel of LOT) is less that 375 Hz. To appreciate this criterion
one has to know the relative positions of the vowels in articulatory space,
the relevance of F2 as a measure of frontedness, and the movement of these
vowels in the Northern Cities Shift, in which /e/ is typically backed and
/o/ is fronted. Finally, accessibility of a different kind is an issue for
specialists and non-specialists alike due to the book's price. At $749,
ANAE is probably out of economic reach to most individual buyers. However,
readers who have access to the online edition through their institutions
can download the entire book as a PDF file from the project's website.

In sum, ANAE is a welcome addition to scholarship in American dialectology
as well as in the sociolinguistic study of language change. The picture it
paints of North American dialects in part confirms regional divisions
established by previous research and also uncovers new patterns resulting
from emerging trends. To be sure, the methodology of this project - the
concentration on urban speech, the focus on vowel pronunciation, the
reliance on acoustic measurements, etc. - produces a limited view of North
American speech. Still this study remains unprecedented in its broad scope,
and the authors succeed in laying out a useful framework for examining
phonological variation on this continent. ANAE is a landmark study that
will shape research trends for years to come.


Carver, Craig M. 1987. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kurath, Hans and Raven I. McDavid, Jr. 1961. The Pronunciation of English
in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Labov, William. 1994. Principles of Linguistic Change, Volume 1: Internal
Factors. Oxford: Blackwell.

Thomas, Erik R. 2001. An Acoustic Analysis of Vowel Variation in New World
English. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Trager, George L. and Henry Lee Smith. 1957. An Outline of English
Structure. Washington: American Council of Learned Societies.

Wells, J.C. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matthew J. Gordon (Ph.D. University of Michigan, 1997) teaches English
linguistics at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He is the author of
Small-Town Values, Big-City Vowels: A Study of the Northern Cities Shift in
Michigan (Duke UP 2001), and co-author with Lesley Milroy of
Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation (Blackwell 2003).

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 3110167468
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: xvii, 320
Prices: U.S. $ 620.00
U.S. $ 749.00