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  • The Phonological Status of Western New England
  • Charles Boberg

The variety of American English spoken in western New England has received relatively little attention compared to other regional varieties of American English. In fact, though Western New England (WNE) has been identified as a separate dialect area in major studies of the dialect geography of American English, this status has been promulgated in part on data of limited quantity or problematic quality, and the character of WNE speech has remained essentially unknown (except, of course, to those who live there). The obscurity of WNE English is likely due to the absence of major cities in the region, as well as to its small geographic size. While most Americans have at least a stereotypical idea of what the speech of other dialect regions sounds like—for instance, the South, the West, the Mid-Atlantic, the Inland North, or Eastern New England (ENE)—few would have any idea at all of how people from WNE sound. Even many dialectologists would be hard pressed to identify a set of features that define and unify WNE as a region distinct from those around it; a commonly held view is that it is really part of the Inland North or a transition zone between ENE and the Inland North. This paper seeks to rectify this situation by presenting new data on the phonology of WNE, specifically on its phonemic inventory and the status of its low vowels. These data motivate a revised view of the place of WNE in the taxonomy of North American dialect regions and of its internal dialect geography. Moreover, because of the historical importance of WNE as the staging ground for settlement of the Inland North, these data have an added interest in that they might illuminate the origins of Inland Northern speech and particularly of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. They suggest that the initial conditions from which the Northern Cities Vowel Shift developed originate in WNE, rather than in the Inland North itself.

The Region and its Settlement History

The division of New England into Western and Eastern linguistic regions originates with the Linguistic Atlas of New England (LANE 1939–43). In the accompanying handbook, Kurath (1939) shows a bundle of isoglosses that [End Page 3] mark the western extent of several eastern words (29) and pronunciations (30); these are also summarized in a table (11). The words include comforter 'quilt', bonny-clapper 'sour milk', and white-bread 'wheat bread'; the pronunciations include a low-back rounded vowel in rod, /r/-vocalization in barn, and a low-central vowel [a] in calf. This bundle, shown below in figure 1 along with the cities that will be discussed in this article, runs northward from the mouth of the Connecticut River on Long Island Sound (east of New Haven) to the Canadian border. It passes between the Green Mountains of central Vermont and the Connecticut River, which marks the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and eastern Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut thereby fall in ENE, while western Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut (including the cities of Burlington, Rutland, Springfield, Hartford, and New Haven) fall in WNE. While this division and its implication of a distinct and unified WNE region have come to be accepted in many discussions of American dialects, careful scrutiny reveals that its status is uncertain.

It is not completely clear, for instance, whether Kurath saw the isogloss bundle separating ENE and WNE as a first-order boundary. The discussion of the dialect areas of New England in Kurath (1939) includes the statement that "New England has two major dialect areas, an Eastern and a Western" (8), which would seem to argue for first-order status. A map of settlement patterns (plate 1) illustrates his explanation of the ENE-WNE division: the settlement of New England proceeded from two original sources. ENE was settled from the Massachusetts Bay area (Boston, founded 1630), while WNE was settled from various centers in the lower Connecticut Valley and southwestern Connecticut, including Hartford (1635), Springfield (1636), and New Haven (1638). While both the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies received immigrants from diverse areas of England and many settlers in the...


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pp. 3-29
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Archived 2005
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