The Pacific Northwest English project investigates the features of English spoken in the Pacific Northwestern region of the United States (PNW), two hundred years after the introduction of non-indigenous speakers to the region. It is designed to make several scholarly contributions. First, linguists have long noted that the features that most distinguish speakers of different regional varieties of English (including those in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world where English is spoken) are vowels. Relatively few consonant differences exist. Vowel system differences have been clearly demonstrated for all 7 major North American dialects. This study fills a gap in dialectological research by providing a description of the vowel system(s) of the PNW in the tradition of urban dialectological studies conducted within the linguistic subfield of sociolinguistics.
Second, we are characterizing a phenomenon that has typically gone untreated in linguistics: the linguistic outcomes of ongoing dialect and language contact. The story of the Pacific Northwest (including Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah) is one of constant settlement and immigration. Although a few pockets of historically-isolated communities can be found, most of us live in places where, for generations, our voices intermingle with those of people of different backgrounds. The extent of contact between the specific mixture of Northwest Native American, European and Asian cultures makes us unique; not to mention the fact that speakers from other American dialect regions settled here. In fact, dialectologist Carroll Reed likened Washington speech in the 1950s to that of southern Illinois and Iowa. Although many consider the US West one large socio-cultural region, Reed asserted that the PNW is not merely an extension of northern California: people here use more Northern words and fewer Southern-Midland words than Californians do. The result: not a radical dialect, but an identifiable one with a characteristic sound system that contains elements of other regional accents. Regarding the lack of research into PNWE, the view has persisted, from the 1950s into the present day, that American speech west of the Mississippi River has no linguistic features to distinguish it from other dialects since longstanding English-speaking populations in this region have only relatively recently emerged (Reed, 1952; Cassidy, 1985; Carver 1987; Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, 1997).
However, this view is apparently based not so much upon hard evidence as upon assumption. Several scholars have suggested that notable divergences, if not actual distinguishing features, exist, but little has been done to follow up on their suggestions. This study is not so much a fishing expedition to "find" a unique Northwest way of talking as it an investigation of the linguistic outcomes of our history of ongoing cultural contact. We are interested in the timecourse of dialect evolution, however: for example, we may find that while older speakers, representing the first generations in their families to move West, retain features of their dialects of origin, their children or grandchildren's speech is a mixture of both the speech of their parents as well as of the predominating forms in the Northwest Today. We want to know which forms become predominant, and why.
Third, as sociolinguists refine methods for examining dialect contact, rich databases of recorded speech such as the one we are collecting will be required, which have demographic depth as well as breadth, and which include speakers from various ethnic backgrounds. Our database represents a multi-media archive of this point in time, and will make it possible for future generations to compare the present situation to future ones, as well as to other similar databases.
Interestingly, the progress of dialect research has in some ways paralleled the migration and settlement of North America. While New England, Eastern, Northern, Southern, and Midwestern varieties of NAE have been repeatedly studied, little linguistic pioneering into western varieties has occurred. At the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, it is long overdue that sociolinguistic research follow the Oregon Trail and systematically explore the English spoken in the Pacific Northwest (PNWE).