Nebraska is said to be the linguistic center of North America. Not because there’s some prestigious linguistics scholar residing there, but because linguistically this state is the very point where east, west, north and south collide.
The Cot/Caught Merger
The “don/dawn” and “cot/caught” pronunciation distinction found in other US states doesn’t quite apply to Nebraska. The influences – social, economic, cultural and religious – have all contributed to what might be considered today a typically distinct American English dialect there.
As the linguistic center of America, Nebraska is a unique state. Its people have four different American English dialects that are partly the result of how the state is split by two geographical and linguistic divisions, namely the north-south and the east-west divisions.
In fact, within Nebraska itself, linguists were able to determine those cities that confirm how Nebraska is indeed the linguistic center of the United States.
The city of Broken Bow, for instance, is said to have western linguistic influences, while a few miles to the east, St. Paul and Grand Island are said to have thoroughly eastern nuances in terms of dialect and accent.
As an example, the residents of these two more easterly cities distinguish between the words “cot” and ”caught,” having different pronunciations for each of them. By contrast, the West-influenced Broken Island does not distinguish between the pronunciation of the two words, which are for them homonyms (words having the same pronunciation). In this region, “cot” and “caught” are indistinguishable phonemically.
On the other hand, Nebraska’s cities of Ravenna, Gibbon, and Hastings, exhibit clear southern pronunciation influences.
The Pin/Pen Merger
A prime example of this influence is the comparison of the words “pin” and “pen.” In the southern influenced regions, the two are homonyms, and are pronounced in the same way. This is known as a “merger” according to linguists, where two otherwise phonemically different sounds (/i/ and /e/) are then blended to form a new distinctive sound that applies to both.
Language is Dynamic, Language is Organic
What’s fascinating about the cot/caught, pin/pen and don/dawn loss of sound distinctiveness is that people are not fully aware they’re merging the two vowels. Language subtly, indirectly, and very slowly changes. People shift from previous linguistic rules to create new ones, more fitting and accommodating to our time.
Nebraska offers a prime example of how subtle these linguistic changes are, and it’s interesting to bring this evolution to light. Language is a living organism, constantly changing and progressing.
Language learners have a lot to learn by looking at how Nebraska’s cities have so many variations in accent, and the fact that people using these linguistic variations are not always conscious of them.
From a linguistic point of view, Nebraska constitutes a prime example of the diversity and ever-changing face of language. The richness, variety and lack of uniformity that permeates Midwestern accents is a linguistic proof of language’s majesty.