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(I hope all this background information I’m about to give is relevant.) I’m a teenager from the north side of Chicago with a mostly unplaceable General American accent. I have some general tendencies characteristic of the Inland North (no cot-caught merger, yes Canadian Raising in the PRICE set) but not others (my TRAP vowel is far closer to [æ] than the broader [eə̯] or [eæ̯], except when it precedes nasals). My father grew up in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. Both of his parents are from Iowa.

I think my dad’s accent is extremely similar to mine, but I have noticed an unusual feature his speech. Since my sister and I were younger, we always joked that our dad said “pillow” like “pellow.” In more precise terms, he had been realizing the phonemic sequence usually analyzed as /ɪl/ much closer to [ɛɫ] - though there’s a chance it doesn’t quite reach as low as a true cardinal 3. I believe this realization also applies to the name of our home state, “Ellinois,” and the most popular ice cream flavor, “vanElla.” The vowel might be lowered in some words a bit more than others.

Currently, I’m doubtful whether this constitutes an /ɪl ~ ɛl/ merger in my dad’s speech. He told me he would still pronounce the words “ilk” and “elk” differently, so if there is a merger at play, it definitely doesn’t occur in all /ɛl/ words. It seems plausible that the feature could be restricted to lexical items where the sequence is followed by another vowel. However, I think his vowel in “milk” is low as well, though it’s not quite as noticeable as in the aforementioned “pillow.” Later, I will ask him about the “billow-bellow” minimal pair - I predict that he won’t pronounce them the same, but it will definitely be more interesting if he does.

I don’t specifically remember hearing the lowered pillow vowel in anyone else’s speech before, but that certainly doesn’t mean I haven’t. My dad isn’t sure if his friends from Evanston pronounce these words like he does, and he found my suggestion that the feature could be a unique Evanston characteristic rather comical. It seems even less likely that he picked up the feature from his Iowan parents alone.

I’ve never seen this phonetic feature described before, and I have no idea where it comes from. Where does this exist, and with what type of speakers? Is it a common feature around the Great Lakes that I simply haven’t noticed because neither of us have very broad accents? How should it be analyzed?

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    A FILL-FEEL/HILL-HEEL merger has been attested for the US Inland South; and there is also a FULL-FOOL merger characteristic of US Midland states.
    – Michaelyus
    Apr 18, 2023 at 18:08
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    This I would characterise as a FILL-FELL merger, and possibly one of the last stages of the NCVS, the lowering of KIT.
    – Michaelyus
    Apr 18, 2023 at 18:14
  • @Michaelyus I’ve heard about those mergers, but I don’t think they exist in the Chicago area. I’m quite certain my dad doesn’t have them, but it is interesting all the havoc the liquids /l/ and /ɹ/ have wreaked on the English vowel system over the years.
    – Graham H.
    Apr 18, 2023 at 18:37
  • @Michaelyus It seems odd that my dad would have one of the last stages of the Northern Cities Shift but not show strong evidence of any of the earlier stages.
    – Graham H.
    Apr 18, 2023 at 21:20

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"Ellinois-lowering" is not idiosyncratic, and it is or has been a feature of northern Illinois and southern "Wesconsin" (at least), though not a downtown Chicago feature. The historical source of this shift presumably relates to migration histories, sometimes reduced to German influence. It has probably declined in popularity, but may still persevere in rural locations like Marengo. I know of persons from near Burlington who had this feature.

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    I come from DeKalb, IL (right on the Northern/Midlands isogloss bundle) and, while I've not noticed a lowering in /il/, a mild version of it is present in my own speech. Or at least it doesn't sound very odd, which downtown Chicago speech does.
    – jlawler
    Apr 18, 2023 at 23:09

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