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Pacific Northwest English is a dialect of the English language spoken in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest, defined as an area that includes part of the northwest coast of the United States and the Canadian province of British Columbia, is home to a highly diverse populace, which is reflected in the historical and continuing development of the dialect. As is the case of English spoken in any region, not all features are used by all speakers in the region, and not all features are restricted in use only to the region. The sound system of Pacific Northwest English resembles that of General American, California, and western Canadian English,[1] all of which show the cot-caught merger.



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.[2] 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 event is not universal, especially among the elderly in the Seattle area).

Hear Pacific Northwest English


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, 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.
  • 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 of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift of the U.S. Great Lakes.
    • /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,[3] resulting in a merger between pen and pin.
    • /æ/ is lowered in the direction of [a].
    • /ɑ/ is backed and sometimes rounded to become [ɒ]. Thus, for example, to a Seattlite, a speaker from Milwaukee—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, some times 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].
  • 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.


Pacific Northwest English and British Columbian English have several words still in current use which are loanwords from the Chinook Jargon, which was widely spoken throughout the region by all ethnicities well into the middle of the 20th Century. Skookum, potlatch, muckamuck, saltchuck, chechako, and other Chinook Jargon words are widely used by people who do not speak Chinook Jargon. These words tend to be shared with, but are not as common in, the states of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and, to a lesser degree, Idaho and western Montana.

See also



  • 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

  • Vowels and Consonants: An Introduction to the Sounds of Languages. Peter Ladefoged, 2003. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics. Suzanne Romaine, 2000. Oxford University Press.
  • How We Talk: American Regional English Today. Allan Metcalf, 2000. Houghton Mifflin.

External links



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