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 /aɪ/ 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.