Glossographia

Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology, and writing systems

How do you pronounce Detroit?

Posted by schrisomalis on July 21, 2013

As you may know, I work at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.  Detroit’s been in the news a lot lately, regarding its bankruptcy and a whole lot of other things that, if I were to start talking about them at any length, would just send me off into a rage.  This would not be pretty.

So instead, let’s talk about the language of Detroit.  Detroit has two main English language varieties: first, the local variety of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has been studied by John Rickford, Geneva Smitherman, Roger Shuy, and others; and second, the variety of English that has undergone the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.    Here, Penny Eckert’s work is of the greatest significance, building on the work of Bill Labov, but with a specific focus on southeastern Michigan.    Most black Detroiters speak the first variety, and most white, locally-born Detroiters speak the second, with some exceptions.    Today I’m going to focus just on the second variety, but I’m not going to talk about the dialect as a whole.  Instead, I want to talk about variation, and some innovations I’ve noticed, in the speech of Detroit-area residents in the pronunciation of a single word – the place-name Detroit itself.

Now, if you’re like me, and like most North Americans, you probably pronounce Detroit something like /dɪˈtɹɔɪt/, or (for those unfamiliar with IPA, di-TROIT, two syllables, with second syllable stress and rhyming closely with adroit (sound sample).   You can hear a clear example of this pronunciation, for instance, in this commercial for the Detroit Zoo.  Other examples could be found pretty readily, so I won’t belabour the point.  This is the standard pronunciation of Detroit and the baseline for today’s discussion.

There is a second variant heard locally, which has first syllable primary stress rather than second-syllable stress, so, in other words, and where the unstressed first vowel becomes /i/, so, in other words, /ˈdiˌtɹɔɪt/ (DEE-troit).    The second syllable then has secondary stress (it can’t be entirely unstressed or the vowel would have to reduce).    You hear this pronunciation sporadically and without any particular association with any class or ethnic group, but it’s less common, and we’ll leave it alone.

Lately, however, I’ve been hearing a third pronunciation in a lot of commercials, local news, and the like, in which white Detroit-area residents pronounce their home city as /dɪˈtɹʌɪt/ or even /dɪˈtɹəɪt/, with the first part of the OI vowel unrounded and fronted almost to a schwa.    For the non-phonologically-inclined,  what seems to be happening is that di-TROIT starts to sound more like di-TRITE.  Here’s a good example from a Youtube video from Detroit Real Estate Investing.  If you’re not convinced, try loading up both this video and the one from the Detroit Zoo, and running them one after the other to compare a couple of times.    Still not convinced?  Try this video for America’s Best Value Inn, for another example.  Still not convinced?  Try this clip from a video made by a local man, with two very clear examples right in a row.

As far as I’ve heard, this variant is only used by people from the Detroit area who have the Northern Cities shift – i.e., it’s not used by people from Milwaukee or Cleveland or Buffalo.    It’s not, as far as I can tell, part of the standard analysis of the Northern Cities shift or the specific changes found in the Detroit area, after a lot of time poking around the sound files on Penny Eckert’s website.  I haven’t noticed this with any other words that contain the diphthong oi.   I wondered whether it might be typical of other words ending in oit or in oi followed by other voiceless stops (e.g. p, t, k).  But the problem is that very few words in English end in oit (really just exploit, which is moderately uncommon, and quoit and adroit, both of which are very rare) or oi followed by any voiceless stop consonant (we could add voip and hoick but that’s about it). So we don’t have a lot of other words to compare it to, without going and doing some sociolinguistic research.  (This is a hint to any of my future students who may be reading this post).

I can’t find any publication discussing this phenomenon – I’m not a phonologist and would love to hear from someone who could link this up to the Northern Cities shift more broadly.  I don’t have any explanation for it, but it’s widespread enough that it deserves some attention.   

But wait – we’re not done yet!  The reason I wondered about the role of voiceless stops is that while I work in Detroit, I live across the international border in Windsor, Ontario, which is essentially Detroit’s Canadian suburb, and I am a native speaker of Canadian English.   Most speakers of Canadian English, including myself, have what’s called the Canadian raising, in which the // diphthong of right and ripe, and the /aʊ/ diphthong of about and house, is raised to /ʌɪ/ or /ʌʊ/ before voiceless consonants and especially voiceless stops – which is why some Americans think that Canadians say aboot or aboat.  We don’t, but it might sound that way.    And because I, like most Windsorites, have a pretty strong Canadian raising, I pronounce right as /ɹəɪt/ or /ɹʌɪt/, starting with a mid-vowel.  Notice that this diphthong is exactly the same as the diphthong in the innovative pronunciation of Detroit.  In other words, the ‘oi’ of Detroit for some Detroiters is the same vowel sound as Canadians have in right or trite.  They start in completely different diphthongs – /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ – but end in the same place.

To make things even more complicated, there is a  fourth variant of Detroit used only, as far as I can tell, by older speakers of Canadian English.  This is a three-syllable version,  /dɪˈtɹɔɪ.ɪt/, or di-TROY-it, to rhyme (non-ironically, I promise!) with destroy it.   Most of the users of this variant are Ontario-born native speakers of Canadian English born in the 1950s or earlier.     It can be heard, most famously, in the song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by folk singer Gordon Lightfoot, as heard here.     It is also typical of the Canadian hockey commentator / blowhard / redneck Don Cherry.   I have certainly heard it in Windsor although I suspect it is more common in central and eastern Ontario than here in southwestern Ontario.  To this day, and despite all evidence to the contrary over the five years I’ve worked here, my mother (who is of a similar generation, born and raised east of Toronto) refuses to quite believe me that the two-syllable pronunciation is even acceptable or possible.    I don’t have any explanation for the emergence of this variant either, but it’s obviously been around for many decades.   I’d also love to know whether it’s found widely in any younger Canadian English speakers.

So, in summary, there are four distinct variants of the pronunciation of Detroit, all of which you might hear in the broader Detroit area on any given day:

  • /dɪˈtɹɔɪt/ (di-TROIT), used by locals and most other English speakers
  • /ˈdiˌtɹɔɪt/ (DEE-troit), used by locals sporadically
  • /dɪˈtɹʌɪt/ or /dɪˈtɹəɪt/ (di-TRITE), used by locals who have a strong NCVS
  • /dɪˈtɹɔɪ.ɪt/ (di-TROY-it), used by (some) older Canadians, including some in Windsor.

10 Responses to “How do you pronounce Detroit?”

  1. Frédéric Grosshans said

    I know the following answer to your question is totally off topic.
    I pronounce it [detʁwa], but as a French, I write the city name with a slightly different orthography : Détroit. And of course, as a French speaker, I have no idea where I put the stress.

    Coming back to the topic of your post, many North American place names are, like Detroit, recent borrowing from a foreign language (Los Angeles and Chicago come to mind). I guess that makes them specially subject to sound changes, in order to align them with the dominant language.

    • Dear Frédéric,

      Of course you are correct that that is the original French orthography and pronunciation. If an English speaker were to pronounce it that way, however, it would be perceived as very unusual. The only exception I know of is the Tour de Troit cycling event (http://www.tour-de-troit.org/) whose name is obviously modelled after the Tour de France. Most locals pronounce that event ‘tour day twah’. Of course, that spelling and pronunciation is fanciful, because Detroit is not ‘de troit’ but simply détroit (strait).

      • Frédéric Grosshans said

        As I said, I knew it was off topic. And I didn’t pretend it was the original pronunciation: given the origin of Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac in France and the time of foundation of the city, I guess the original pronunciation was closer to [detrwe]… But the name of the city being, in French, a common name with a perfectly ordinary phonology, it is probably less interesting to study than in English. By the way, how do the French-speaking Canadians pronounce the city name ? Their pronounciation of name from the English-speaking world is often closer to the English pronounciation that what I’m used to, but not always (e.g. Boston is [bostɔ̃] in Canadian French and [bostɔn] in European French)

        I’ve also always been surprised that the pronounciation of Detroit is so linked to the French orthography, as if the orginal pronounciation had been lost and never bin heard, while the initial of Chicago remained [ʃ], as per the French ‘ch’ rendering of the original native-american name, and never became [tʃ] (like the English ‘ch’).

        On a related note, L.A. also has had many pronunciations in English : http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/26/local/la-me-0626-then-20110626

  2. Gerard said

    The only place I’ve ever heard the fourth one is Hockey Night in Canada.

    • Definitely both Bob Cole and Don Cherry do it all the time, and I agree that that’s where a lot of younger Canadians are going to hear it these days. I think Ron Maclean says di-TROYT. But I can definitely confirm that it is standard among many older English-speaking Canadians, as the Gordon Lightfoot example shows.

  3. Jewel said

    Well, pardon my French, but nowadays, I would spell it Détruit (Destroyed). And I would be right to do so.

  4. ryan said

    My mother is a native -gander, from Shiawassee County, and her best friend lives in Traverse City. I think de-TRITE is old northern Anglo farm country dialect. I think you’d find a lot of older folk in rural Michigan and upstate New York would tighten up their OYs.

    On the other hand, a certain echelon of older Chicagoans sent their kids to LIE-ola University and now drive a sensible Tie-ota, so the oy>ai shift isn’t unheard of in Northern Cities.

    I suspect that Chicago’s eponym maintains not French, but actual Indian pronunciation. Notably, some older maps spell it Checauge, and that’s how many of the older natives pronounce the middle vowel. I used to proclaim that if Harold Washington (the first black mayor) and Ed Burke (his evil nemesis) could agree on she-caw-go, then I would say it that way too. At the point that Anglo-Americans began settling here, there were still a lot of Pottawattomie and very few French.

    • I agree that it’s definitely possible that it’s Michigan-specific, and I also agree that OY –> AI occurs in a variety of dialects, especially before another vowel – ‘Toyota’, ‘Loyola’, and even ‘coyote’ all before ‘o’. This is not a specifically Northern Cities phenomenon, though; I polled readers on ‘coyote’ a few years back and the vast majority of them regardless of dialect had moved to ‘kye-oh-tee’ (http://forthright.livejournal.com/152081.html). Also, this isn’t quite ‘de-TRITE’ with the ‘ai/ sound, although it could end up there – it’s de-TRITE only with TRITE pronounced Canadian-style with the ‘ai’ vowel raised. And I haven’t heard it in other instances of ‘ai’ before a consonant, even ‘exploit’ where the ‘oi’ comes before a /t/ . It would be interesting to see if there are older recordings of Michiganders saying ‘Detroit’ to find out if this is really a novelty or if it’s been around for a while.

  5. I was born in the 70s in SW Ontario, and have always said it De-TROY-it. This of course caused issued upon moving to Vancouver and becoming the object of ridicule from all my friends who have always called it De-troit. I had no idea it was said differently anywhere else.

  6. Jamie said

    I’m 28, from SW Ontario (Norfolk County) and have always said it as ditroyit. got into an argument with people (one from Welland and one from Montreal) on friday night about the pronunciation and like the writer’s mother i refuse to believe a two syllable pronunciation is even possible

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