Pacific Northwest English (also known, in the United States, as Northwest English)[1] is a variety of North American English that is geographically defined as being spoken within the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, sometimes also including Idaho and the Canadian province of British Columbia.[2] Current studies remain inconclusive about whether Pacific Northwest English is a dialect of its own, separate from Western American English or even California English or Standard Canadian English,[3] with which it appears to share its major phonological features.[4] The area contains a highly diverse and mobile population, which is reflected in the historical and continuing development of the variety.


The linguistic traits that flourish throughout the Pacific Northwest attest to a culture that transcends boundaries. Historically, this hearkens back to the early years of colonial expansion by the British and Americans, when the entire region was considered a single area and people of all different mother tongues and nationalities used Chinook Jargon (along with English and French) to communicate with each other. Until the Oregon Treaty of 1846, it was identified as being either Oregon Country (by the Americans) or Columbia (by the British).[5] As a result of the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush, the culture of the Pacific Northwest expanded northward into Yukon and Alaska, carried along by the thousands of people who were attracted to the gold fields in the north. Today, the English variety common to this shared culture can be heard by people from Eugene, Oregon to Fairbanks, Alaska.[6][dubious ]

Linguists immediately after World War II tended to find few patterns unique to the Western region, as among other things, Chinook Jargon and other "slang words" (despite Chinook Jargon being an actual separate language in and of itself, individual words from it like "salt chuck", "muckamuck", "siwash" and "tyee" were and still are used in Pacific Northwest English) were pushed away in favour of having a "proper, clean" dialect.[7] Several decades later, linguists began noticing emerging characteristics of Pacific Northwest English, although it remains close to the standard American accent.


The Pacific Northwest English vowel space. Based on TELSUR data from Labov et al. The /ɑ/ and /ɔ/ are indistinguishable in the F1/F2 means for three speakers from Vancouver, British Columbia, two speakers from Seattle, and three from Portland, Oregon

Commonalities with both Canada and California

  • Pacific Northwest English has all the phonological mergers typical of North American English and, more specifically, all the mergers typical of Western American English, including the cot–caught merger.
  • Younger speakers of Pacific Northwest English also show features of the Canadian/California Vowel Shift, which move front vowels through a lowering of the tongue:
    • /æ/ is lowered toward almost [a]; /ɛ/ toward almost [æ]; and /ɪ/ toward almost [ɛ]. Therefore, among younger speakers, hick can sound like heck, heck like hack, and hack like hock.[citation needed]
    • /ɑ/ is backed and sometimes rounded to become [ɒ]. Most Pacific Northwest speakers have undergone the cot–caught merger. A notable exception occurs with some speakers born before roughly the end of World War II.

Commonalities with Canada

These commonalities are shared with Canada and the North Central United States which includes the Minnesota accent.

  • Traditional and older speakers may show certain vowels, such as [oʊ] as in boat and [eɪ] as in bait, with qualities much closer to monophthongs than diphthongs as in the rest of the country.
  • There are also conditional raising processes of open front vowels. These processes are often more extreme than in Canada and the North Central United States.
    • 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 nasal consonants [m] and [n]. This is typical throughout the country.
    • /ɛ/, and, in the northern Pacific Northwest, /æ/, become [eɪ] before the voiced velar plosive /ɡ/: egg and leg are pronounced to rhyme with plague and vague, a feature shared by many northern Midwestern dialects and with the Utah accent. In addition, sometimes bag will be pronounced bayg.

Commonalities with California

  • Back vowels of the California Shift: The Canadian/California Shift developing in Pacific Northwest English also includes these additional features only reminiscent of California English, but not Canadian English (especially among working-class young-adult females):[8]
    • 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].[dubious ]
    • In speakers born around the 1960s, there is a tendency to move the tongue forward in the first element of the diphthong //. This is reminiscent also of Midland, Mid-Atlantic, and Southern U.S. English.[9] This fronting does not appear before /m/ and /n/, for example, in the word home.[10]
  • Absence of Canadian raising: For most speakers, both /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ remain lax before voiceless obstruents, although some variation has been reported. This likens the Pacific Northwest accent with Californian accents, and contrasts it with Canadian and some other American dialects (such as Philadelphia English).

Miscellaneous characteristics

Words and phrases

Pacific Northwest English and British Columbian English adopted a huge number of words from Chinook Jargon, as before the beginning of the 1900s essentially the entire population was at least slightly bilingual in the language. There are also several terms of English origin that originated in or are distinct to the region.[citation needed]

  • Sunbreak: break in the clouds during the dark, rainy winters typical west of the Cascade Mountains[13]
  • Salt chuck: the ocean (from Chinook Jargon, where it means "salt water; the ocean"). A term used on the radio.
  • Potlatch: a potluck (from Chinook Jargon, where it means "give, a gift")
  • High muckamuck: an important person or person of authority, usually a pompous one (from Chinook Jargon, where it means "eats a lot; much food")
  • Duff: another word for forest litter[14]
  • Fish wheel: a fish trap powered by a river current[14]
  • Spendy: expensive[15]
  • Rig: Any vehicle: car, truck, or SUV[16]

See also


  1. ^ Riebold, John M. (2014). "Language Change Isn't Only Skin Deep: Inter-Ethnic Contact and the Spread of Innovation in the Northwest" (PDF). Cascadia Workshop in Sociolinguistics 1 at University of Victoria. University of Washington. p. 7. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-10-23. 
  2. ^ Riebold, John M. (2012). "Please Merge Ahead: The Vowel Space of Pacific Northwestern English" (PDF). Northwest Linguistics Conference 28. University of Washington. p. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-09-28. 
  3. ^ Ward (2003:87): "lexical studies have suggested that the Northwest in particular forms a unique dialect area (Reed 1957, Carver 1987, Wolfram and Shilling-Estes 1998). Yet the phonological studies that could in many ways reinforce what the lexical studies propose have so far been less confident in their predictions".
  4. ^ Ward (2003:43–45)
  5. ^ Meinig, Donald W. (1995) [1st pub. 1968]. The Great Columbia Plain (Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classic ed.). University of Washington Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0-295-97485-9. 
  6. ^ Lang, George (2008). Making Wawa: The Genesis of Chinook Jargon. Vancouver: UBC Press. pp. especially 127–128. ISBN 978-0-7748-1526-0. 
  7. ^ Wolfram and Ward 2006, pg. 140
  8. ^ Ward (2003:93)
  9. ^ Conn, Jeff (2002). An investigation into the western dialect of Portland Oregon. Paper presented at NWAV 31, Stanford, California. Archived from the original on 2015-11-21. 
  10. ^ Ward (2003:44)
  11. ^ Labov, Ash, Boberg 2006
  12. ^ Labov et al. 2006. p. 68.
  13. ^ Champagne, Reid (2013-02-08). "Solar neighborhood projects shine in 'sunbreak' Seattle". The Seattle Times. Archived from the original on 2015-11-21. Retrieved 2013-05-29. [I]n this part of the world . . . sunshine is more frequently reported as ‘sunbreaks’. 
  14. ^ a b Raftery, Isolde (2014-12-23). A brief history of words unique to the Pacific Northwest. KUOW. Archived from the original on 2015-09-21. Duff = The decaying vegetable matter, especially needles and cones, on a forest floor.
    Fish wheel = A wheel with nets, put in a stream to catch fish; sometimes used to help fish over a dam or waterfall.
  15. ^ Do You Speak American? § Pacific Northwest. PBS. Archived from the original on 2015-07-23. As Portlanders continue to front their back vowels, they will continue to go to the coast (geow to the ceowst), not the beach or the shore, as well as to microbrews, used clothing stores (where the clothes are not too spendy (expensive), bookstores (bik‑stores) and coffee shops (both words pronounced with the same vowel). 
  16. ^ DeLange, Greg (2012-10-22). What Do You Call Your Vehicle?. Richland, Washington: KORD-FM. Archived from the original on 2015-09-12. This causes confusion sometimes when one of us calls everything with four wheels a ‘rig’ 


Further reading

External links