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Pacific Northwest English

The Pacific Northwest dialect of North American English combines elements from the regional dialects of the American West, the American Upper Midwest, and Canadian English, and is geographically defined within the U. S. states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and (central and western) Montana, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia. Western Alberta, southeastern Alaska, Wyoming, and far northern California are also often included in definitions of the dialectal region. The area contains a highly diverse and mobile population, which is reflected in the historical and continuing development of the dialect. The sound system of Pacific Northwest English also shares similarities with that of General American, California English, and western Canadian English.[1]


The linguistic traits that flourish throughout the Pacific Northwest attest to a culture that transcends national boundaries in the region. Historically, this hearkens back to the early years of colonial expansion by the British and Americans, when the entire region was considered to be a single, unified area. Until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, it was identified as being either Oregon Country (by the Americans) or Columbia (by the British).[2] As a result of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, the culture of the Pacific Northwest expanded northward into Yukon and Alaska, carried along by the thousands of people who were attracted to the gold fields in the north. Today, the dialect common to this shared culture can be heard by people from Eugene, Oregon to Fairbanks, Alaska.[3][dubious ]

Although residents of the Pacific Northwest shared many cultural traditions and norms, it was not until the latter 20th century that their dialect became recognized officially as distinct. Linguists who studied English as spoken in the West before and in the period immediately after the Second World War tended to find few if any distinct patterns unique to the Western region.[4] However, several decades later, with a more settled population and continued immigration from around the globe, linguists began to notice a set of emerging characteristics of English spoken in the Pacific Northwest. However, Pacific Northwest English still remains remarkably close to the standard American accent, which shows, for example, the cot–caught merger (although this phenomenon is not universal).


File:Pacific Northwest English vowel space.PNG
The Pacific Northwest English vowel space. Based on TELSUR data from Labov et al.; F1/F2 means for 3 speakers from Vancouver, BC; 2 speakers from Seattle, WA; and 3 speakers from Portland, OR. Note that /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ are indistinguishable.

As a variety of North American English, Pacific Northwest English is similar to most other forms of North American speech in being a rhotic accent, which is historically a significant marker in differentiating English varieties. It is found in the range of British Columbia, Alberta, Washington, Oregon, northern California, Idaho and western Montana.

  • The vowels in words such as Mary, marry, and merry are merged to the open-mid front unrounded vowel [ɛ].
  • Most speakers do not distinguish between the open-mid back rounded vowel [ɔ] and open back unrounded vowel [ɑ], characteristic of the cot–caught merger. A notable exception occurs with some speakers born before roughly the end of WWII.
  • Traditionally diphthongal vowels such as [oʊ] as in boat and [eɪ], as in bait, have acquired qualities much closer to monophthongs in some speakers.
  • /ɛ/ can sometimes become 'short I' /ɪ/, so that elk sounds more like ilk. However, this process is more or less limited to speakers in eastern Washington and Oregon, and western Idaho, who either perceive or produce the pairs /ɛn/ and /ɪn/ close to each other,[5] resulting in a merger between pen and pin.
  • The Pacific Northwest also has some of the features of the Canadian and California vowel shifts, which both move vowels in roughly the opposite direction to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift of the U.S. Great Lakes.
    • /æ/ is lowered in the direction of [a].
    • /ɑ/ is backed and sometimes rounded to become [ɒ]. Thus, to a Seattleite, a speaker from Chicago—where the vowel is sometimes fronted towards [a]—may say "cot" more like "cat".
  • There are also conditional raising processes of open front vowels.
    • Before the velar nasal [ŋ], /æ/ becomes [e]. This change makes for minimal pairs such as rang and rain, both having the same vowel [e], differing from rang [ræŋ] in other varieties of English.
    • Among some speakers in Portland and southern Oregon, /æ/ is sometimes raised and diphthongized to [eə] or [ɪə] before the non-velar nasal consonants [m] and [n]. This feature is rarer further north, where /æ/ tends to remain the same before non-velar nasal consonants, except for occasional schwa-like qualities (co-articulation of tongue and palate), resulting in [æə].
    • /ɛ/, and, in the northern Pacific Northwest, /æ/, become [eɪ] before the voiced velar plosive /ɡ/: egg and leg are pronounced as ayg and layg, a feature shared by many northern Midwestern dialects and with the Utah accent. In addition, sometimes bag will be pronounced bayg.
  • The close central rounded vowel [ʉ] or close back unrounded vowel [ɯ] for /u/, is found in Portland, and some areas of Southern Oregon, but is generally not found further north, where the vowel remains the close back rounded [u].[dubious ]
  • Some speakers have a tendency to slightly raise /ai/ and /aw/ before voiceless obstruents. It is strongest in rural areas in British Columbia and Washington, and in older and middle-aged speakers in Vancouver and Seattle. In other areas, /ai/ is occasionally raised. This phenomenon is known as Canadian raising and is widespread and well known throughout Anglophone Canada and other parts of the northern United States.
  • Consonant phonology is more conservative, as with other varieties of English. The most notable divergence from standard speech is a fairly widespread pronunciation of the "str" consonant cluster as [ʃtɹ], "shtr".

Words and phrases

Pacific Northwest English and British Columbian English have several words still in current use which are loanwords from the Chinook Jargon. There are also several terms of English origin that originated or are distinct to the region.

See also


  1. ^ Boberg, Language Variation and Change
  2. ^ Meinig, D.W. (1995) [1968]. The Great Columbia Plain (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classic ed.). University of Washington Press. p. 104. ISBN 0-295-97485-0. 
  3. ^ Lang, George (2008). Making Wawa: The Genesis of Chinook Jargon. Vancouver: UBC Press. pp. especially 127–128. ISBN 978-0-7748-1526-0. 
  4. ^ Wolfram and Ward 2006, pg. 140
  5. ^ Labov, Ash, Boberg 2006
  6. ^ Reid Champagne (February 8, 2013), "Solar neighborhood projects shine in ‘sunbreak’ Seattle", The Seattle Times, retrieved 2013-05-29, [I]n this part of the world...sunshine is more frequently reported as “sunbreaks.” 
  7. ^ a b c A brief history of words unique to the Pacific Northwest, KUOW-FM, December 23, 2014 
  8. ^ American Varieties: Pacific Northwest, PBS


  • Boberg, C: "Geolinguistic Diffusion and the U.S.-Canada Border: Language Variation and Change", Language Variation and Change, 12(1):15.
  • Wolfram, W. and Ward, B., eds: "American Voices: How Dialects Differ from Coast to Coast", pages 140, 234-236. Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  • Labov, W., Ash, S., and Boberg, C: "The Phonological Atlas of North American English", page 68. Mouton de Gruyter, 2006.

Further reading

External links