When Apple ceremoniously unveiled its new tablet computer in early 2010, the company took a lot of flak—justifiably so—for the product's new name, what with its not-so-subtle associations with a certain category of feminine hygiene products. It was as if there weren't any women present at the meeting where the name was picked.

Steve Jobs presents the iPad

It would also appear that there wasn't anyone from Chicago at that meeting. Or Cleveland. Or Rochester, NY. Or any one of the 34 million people living in a large swath of the country extending from just west of Albany, NY to Milwaukee and dipping down south as far as St. Louis, Missouri.  If there had been, it would have become apparent that "iPad" is pretty much how these folks pronounce the name of Apple's older product, the iPod. Somehow, this seems to have bypassed the Apple people hunkered down in Cupertino, California.

Replacing "a"s for "o"s is just part of a sweeping and accelerating dialect change that has contemporary linguists riveted. It all began in the early 1800's when the linguistic ancestors of this new dialect began to pronounce "a" in a funny way: To ears from the East or West Coasts, "mat" began to be pronounced a bit like "mee-aht". This meant that for many speakers of the northern cities, there were no English words at all being pronounced with the abandoned "a" sound. Since vowels evidently abhor a vacuum, this empty slot was eventually filled by the "o" sound, so that "pod" came to be pronounced like "pad" used to be. What ensued next was much like a free-for-all game of musical chairs involving vowels: "desk" has ended up being pronounced kind of like the former "dusk", "head" like "had", "bus" like "boss", and "bit" like erstwhile "bet".

Linguists call this particular sound shuffle the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Dialectal chain reactions of this sort—triggered by one sound change, and then spreading to other sounds—are fairly common, but don't often happen on quite the epic scale as the Northern Cities Shift. In fact, this dialect change is comparable to the Great Vowel Shift that occurred in the transition from Middle English to Modern English between 1400 and 1600. (Ever wonder why a word like "beet" uses the same letter for its vowel sound as the word "bed"? The two words used to be pronounced with more or less the same vowel sound).

map of the Northern Cities dialect region

A map of the Northern Cities dialect region

Dialectal variation of this sort is no mere linguistic garnish—it can and does lead to very real confusion. And since the change is still in progress, even speakers within the same geographic region can find themselves on opposite sides of the Great Vowel Divide. Linguist Bill Labov blames dialect shifts for about a quarter of all misunderstandings between speakers, and has documented some juicy consequences of cross-dialect communications. In one incident, a gas station manager in Philadelphia called city services to report a "bomb on my bathroom floor" and was startled when eight firefighters and three sheriff's deputies showed up to escort a homeless transient off the premises-turns out the manager was calling to report a bum on the bathroom floor.

And in controlled experiments, Labov found that listeners from Birmingham, Alabama had so much difficulty understanding the shifty vowels of a speaker from Philadelphia, that some vowels were correctly identified as little as 6 percent of the time.

All of which goes to show that if you're calling an Apple distribution center in Chicago or Philadelphia, you'd best make sure that whoever's on the other end of the line speaks the same variety of English you do as you order your brand new iPad. Or was that an iPee-ahd?


W. Labov. Forthcoming. Principles of Linguistic Change, Volume 3: Cognitive and Cultural Factors. Wiley-Blackwell.

Draft chapters (along with much fascinating material) can be downloaded from Dr. Labov's website.

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