Parallel shifts vs chain shifts: More information needed?

Recent work by several sociolinguists who work on sound change issues has suggested that parallel shifts may not be as similar to classical chain shifts as some discussions have suggested (e.g., Boberg, 2005; Durian, 2009). However, given that dialects in which parallel shifting is a strong feature (e.g., the US West, US Midland, and Canada) have generally been studied less extensively than those in which chain shifts are the most salient feature (e.g., the US Northern Cities and US South), this is perhaps not surprising, given that this also means comparatively less is also known about parallel shifts for the purposes of comparison and contrast with chain shifts. Given the openness of the terrain still yet to be explored, I will be taking on parallel shifting to a significant degree in my dissertation (on the US Midland city Columbus, OH), and intend to dedicate at least full one chapter to the subject of “how they work.”

One article that personally highlights for me the relevant issues is a recent article on the Canadian Shift in Montreal by Charles Boberg. In particular, Boberg’s conclusions raise some interesting questions on the nature of parallel shifts as well as chain shifts, and how both operate.

Boberg, Charles. 2005. The Canadian Shift in Montreal. Language Variation and Change, 17:133–154.

Look for more on this subject in my dissertation. As I get closer to have a presentable draft of the relevant chapter(s), I may post the draft material here for reader comments.

For now, see also:

– Durian, David. 2009. Purely a chain shift? An exploration of the Canadian Shift in the US Midland. Paper presented at NWAV 38.
– Gordon, Matthew J. 2001. Small-town values and big-city vowels: A study of the Northern Cities Shift in Michigan. Publication of the American Dialect Society 84. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


About daviddurian
I am a sociolinguist with a Ph D in Linguistics from The Ohio State University. Currently, I work as the Lecturer at Rice University, where I teach undergraduate courses in both sociolinguistics and general linguistics. I also work on research projects investing language variation and change in US English a variety of cities. Specifically, at the moment, this includes Houston, Chicago, and Columbus, OH.

2 Responses to Parallel shifts vs chain shifts: More information needed?

  1. Matt Gordon says:

    I don’t think we know much about the mechanisms that drive “classical chain shifts” either. The assumption with a chain shift is that contrast preservation is somehow at work, though there are widely different views about the nature of this work (e.g. Martinet vs. Labov). In most parallel or solidarity shifts, contrast preservation isn’t obviously a factor. Anyway, on the ground it can be very hard to find evidence of contrast preservation in a putative chain shift like the NCS. In my dissertation book, I discussed some problems with applying the chain-shift label to the NCS. The case is strongest for the bottom half of the shift, but even there the chronology isn’t clear. For the top half, the case is weaker, and I suggested (very tentatively) that it’s more of a parallel shift than a chain shift.

    • daviddurian says:


      Hi. I don’t know if you happened to see my paper last year at NWAV (I did a repeat at ADS, too)–but I argued essentially the same thing for the Canadian Shift as you did for the NCS–bottom part case is strongest for a chain shift (although here the chronology is stronger), top part parallel shift. If you haven’t read this (the global reader “you”), the quick punch line for the present discussion is Boberg basically makes the same argument for CS in Montreal here, too.

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