Accent on the Accent

The United States of America is a big country, with large variations between its various areas. One of my favorite part of this variety has been the many regional accents through which locals pronounce American English. My English friends will undoubtedly snicker at how American English is, itself, one gigantic funny accent, but then I will ask them why they pronounce “aluminum” with five syllables (“al-you-MIN-ee-um”) and they usually go off muttering something about being right.

I grew up midwest – where nobody had an accent – it was like the place where Chicago, Michigan and the east coast all mushed together and turned all of the vivid colors to gray. Or at least I never thought I had an accent until my cousins in the Philadelphia area accused my sister and me of having enough of an accent that they could laugh at it. But sis and I knew the truth – that THEY were the ones with an accent.

I knew that accent because my father grew up there. My father never completely lost that Philly accent, which came through when he said words like water (pronounced “wooder”) and orange (pronounced “ahrange”). I was once at a nice restaurant when the middle-aged waiter asked if we needed more wooder. He was taken aback when I asked if he was from the Philly area and he admitted that he grew up there. I cannot really speak it myself (it is sometimes called Delco for Delaware County) and is supposed to be one of the hardest accents to pick up. But I sure know it when I hear it.

New York accents are much more common on television and in the movies. I love a good old fashioned New Yawk accent. Where people “woawk theah doawgs” (walk their dogs). Really, the list of fun accents in the northeastern U.S. is almost without limit – Boston? Maine? Rural New England? I love listening to people from those areas say things – but especially New York. In fact, let’s do that for a moment:

Growing up in northeast Indiana, we were closest to a couple of other well-known accents. One was Michigan, the land of really flat “a”s. Another is Chicago where they do those flat “a”s in another way (Chic CAA go). And where they ask for something behind the counter with a “Gimme wunna dose – not dose, dem dare.”)

A little farther away is Wisconsin and Minnesota – two other places I love hearing the natives. The Minnesota accent was shared with the world in the 1990’s movie “Fargo”. See if you don’t agree:

Having occasionally visited my mother’s aunt and uncle at their Minnesota dairy farm, I got some first hand exposure to Uncle Gerhard who was always ready with a “By golly” to finish a sentence.

I had cousins who moved from northwest Ohio to eastern Tennessee, and I learned an entirely different family of accents. One time our family went on a vacation across the deep south and stopped for a night at a hotel in Atlanta. I was amazed that I heard exactly nobody speaking with that classic southern accent. Until the next morning with a maintenance guy offered me a good morning (“Mowre-nin’). I smiled and said that he was the first guy I have heard since I got here who had a genuine accent. His reply was classic: “Ain’t nobody fr’m A-lana, ev’one’s a trayns-playnt.”

Just like the trayns-playnts from A’lana, I fear that we are losing the regional accents in this country. Television seems to demand a way of speech that is like a homogenized vanilla. People on TV evidently have to work hard at losing the accents they grew up speaking. And now, I hear young people being interviewed in different parts of the country and quite often they sound like they are from down the street instead of in Massachusetts or New York or A’lana. Too much television?

I say that we all need to become proud of our regional dialects and not hide them under a pillow on the sofa. For myself, I have been making an effort to shake off the Indianapolis drawl I have picked up (from the place once described as the northernmost southern city in America) and am flattening my “A”s a bit. And proudly saying “pop” instead of “soda”. I know, as a northeast Indiana native I don’t have a lot to work with, but it should stand out with my east coast cousings.

COAL Update: When raising a growing family, go big or go home.

44 thoughts on “Accent on the Accent

  1. I was told years ago, that the flat midwestern accent was the delivery most acceptable to broadcast radio and tv use age. I wonder if any of that is true today. You are correct about Chicago, which is also very similar to Milwaukee, although the “dem, dese, dose”, thing I never heard growing up in Chicago, but heard all over in Milwaukee when we moved here, and is most prevalent among the less educated, and those not far removed from being “off the boat”. I’ve always said I can tell if the talent in a tv or radio commercial is local or from “out state” in Milwaukee by whether they say Wis-can-sin (local), or Wis-con-sin (not from here).

    Liked by 2 people

    • In Indiana, our “almost Chicago” is “The Region” in the northwest corner of the state. Although an old school roomate who was a native always pronounced it more as “da region” And up there it is always “Chi-caa-go” and not “Chi-caw-go”.

      I have always been disappointed when I go to visit a distant place and turn on the local news, only to hear people who don’t sound anything like those who live there. But as you say, that seems to have been a job requirement for broadcasters, who go from place to place.

      Old movies are interesting because many of the old actors often seemed to retain at least some of their native accents. And even now, it is funny to see a tv show or a movie set in California where there are so many speaking with a bit of New York in their delivery.


  2. Between my junior and senior year of high school I took a two week course in radio, television, and film at a university. It was a great experience with much emphasis on speech patterns and accents. Did I mention it was in Terre Haute?

    Most of the students were from Indiana or the Chicago area. I, being from the far s’thurn tip of Illinois, was an outlier. Everyone picked up on what they perceived as my semi-southern accent. I knew this (media?) bias was real when the television instructor stated that of the accents within the US, the one from Indiana, particularly Indianapolis, was such it was considered neutral or, if you prefer, free of any accent.

    Knowing I have my own personal versions of “wooder” and such I have tried to clean things up, but that’s no fun. And the map showing the Gulf accent running up through Southeast Missouri and into Illinois is spot-on.

    All that said, I will point out St. Louis has its own unique challenge in language. US 40 is generally pronounced as “Farty”. That’s not good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is true that accents of those who are “not from around here” always stick out. Indiana is interesting because other than the Chicago area, most of the difference is from north to south and with very little difference from east to west. You don’t have to go very far south of Indianapolis for a little bit of southern accents start to show up. And Terre Haute is one of those places (at least compared to what I grew up hearing).

      The St, Louis thing is a little familiar. My mother in law was an Indianapolis native and had a similar thing. There was “south” and there was “narth”. I had not known that you took that course – that would have been interesting.


  3. Whenever I go back to South Bend, I’m struck to hear how they talk there, and realize how much my own tone and word choice has changed since I left in 1985. Terre Haute in particular did a lot to the way I talk, as all around me was the Appalachian influence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I also find it interesting how our own speech patterns will change after we are transplanted into other areas. My relatives from Ohio who moved to Tennessee eventually sounded quite southern when they came back on visits. And I am sure my father sounded like a midwesterner to those in Philadelphia when he went back to visit.


  4. It would be fun for you to take the New York Times Dialect Quiz, which pinpoints exactly where you live in the U.S. depending on your answers to 25 questions about what you call certain things and how you pronounce certain words. We used to take it in class and the quiz nailed us every time–Newark/Paterson New Jersey! Trouble is, I think now you have to subscribe to the Times in order to take the quiz (not free anymore).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I started going down a rabbit hole on YouTube – there are these “word challenges” where people from different parts of the country read off a list of words. I have not seen that quiz, but it would be interesting.


  5. I also love usage differences! When I lived in Oregon, things weren’t expensive or pricey, they were ‘spendy’. When I lived in DC, people didn’t sleep late, they ‘slept in’ (to which I always replied: “slept in what, pajamas, a hotel room?”).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is an enjoyable topic. I grew up in Indiana with an Italian mother who had an accent. When people asked me where my accent was from (they thought Canada maybe), I told them it was learning to speak from my mother who didn’t pronounce the words properly. Sweater… Sweather… Throat… troat… I’m sure I could think of more. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is a topic I have paid attention to over the years.

    Process and Project. There is Pro’-cess not Prah-cess. We say Pro (long O sound) in Canada, for the most part. Proo-ject, not Prah-ject. Pro rhymes with Crow or Program.

    You could order a Root Beer, which rhymes with fear, or go to Buffalo NY and order a Root Bee-ya, rhymes with skier. Western New York accents, which I love to listen to, are different than those in say Rochester or Albany, and much different than NYC. There seems to be some Italian intonations in the New York City – Brooklyn accents.

    I read Chicaw-go above, and it made me think of a Chicago native friend who calls it Chi-car-go.

    Here in Canada, Nova Scotia accents are very different from New Brunswick, and different again from Newfoundland. Listening to an old family tape recently with my Mom speaking in her Nova Scotia accent. She would say ‘fast’ and ‘last’ with ah sounds, like “fah-st”. A very “ah” sound, rather than an a like in Mad.

    Personalities like Jim Carrey, Lorne Green, Lorne Michaels, Geddy Lee, or John Roberts are from Canada, and have very neutral sounds. Mike Myers too. But give Rick Mercer a listen to hear his Newfie tones.

    British music artists usually sing in a neutral accent, not that of the UK. Gets better listening and revenue I’m sure.

    Personally, I find Ontario to be very similar in accents with California, Arizona, Florida, and possibly Michigan, but very different from those of West Virginia, or Virginia with the drawls.

    I find it amazing that two people from Texas can have such different accents and phraseology. One is all “How y’all doin’ tuhday?”, and the other is just as neutral as can be. I have confused people from Texas with the drawl with people from Missouri and other parts of midwestern US, as sounding the same.
    I would also say that people from Massachusetts can be so different from one another. Boston natives are completely different from those in towns a hundred miles west but still in MA.

    Accents in the UK differ widely from region to region also. Cockney is very different from Manchester, and again from Somerset. Glasgow and Edinburgh are quite different.

    Reading comments above about Indiana were not surprising. I know people from there who say “collar” when they are saying “color” (or colour if you would).

    Let’s not get started on the U in colour, labour, favour, favourite, and all that. Spell check has just underlined this whole sentence as incorrect, or just about.

    Now all we need is for JP to set up a video call for us to participate so we can here each other’s non-accents, because everyone speaks with an accent after all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember the joke about how to tell someone from New Jersey vs. Canada. One says: “Eh, get off the fender.” and the other says: “Get off the fender, Eh.” But now I can’t remember which is which?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Lee, I get the Texas thing, also prevalent in much of the south…I dated a delightful woman from a major city in Alabama once, while in DC, and she had a soft, educated southern lilt that would melt ice. I asked her why she didn’t sound like an outtake from Hee-Haw (not in those words of course), and she stated: “…not my side of the tracks…”. BTW, most of us in the upper Midwest don’t consider Missouri midwest at all. That’s the “upper south”. I think you’ll find that since the end of WW II, southern Ohio, southern Pennsylvania, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, and most of Missouri are far more identified with the south, and the southern diaspora for post war employment! With all proclivities like language following along…


    • Your “root beer” example is a good one, but I think of the differences in the way people pronounce “root”. In Philadelphia they would say “rewt beer”. In northeast Indiana we used to say “root” in a way that rhymed with “foot”. Then there are the others who use everything those two “o”s have to offer, with “roooot beer”.

      I had someone point out early on that many Canadians say “oot” as in “he came in and went back oot”. I have not spent enough time there to get to know the regional variants of Canadian accents, but it is a big country and I am sure there are plenty.


  8. Unless you are from the East Coast, Canadians tend not to have accents, or if we do I’m told it’s a “very soft” accent, whatever that means. But yes, my Michigan cousins did that “a” thing. I love a southern accent. There was a lady who moved here from Mississippi with her Canadian husband, who got hired by the local Tim Hortons until she got her nursing assistant papers, and she would have everyone smiling in the coffee lineup with her accent and her southern sayings. My next favorite accent is a nice British one, not too posh though, and not like the Queens who always sounded like she had a mouth full of marbles. I remember the mini-van era and the first time I rode in one thinking it was very spacious and cool. I feel very fortunate with my cars, as I’ve never had many problems with any of the cars I’ve owned, (other than the Fiero), other than the regular 6 month maintenance/brakes/tires etc and I’ve kept them all for over ten years, because I didn’t have problems, but my brother I swear every new car he owned had a transmission problem just past the warranty. Some people just have bad luck with cars.

    Liked by 1 person

    • PS. Getting a cochlear implant for your daughter must have been a scary time, It was perhaps advanced technology at the time? I only know two people who have had them here, one a teenager and one a man in his 40’s who worked in a chemical plant who suddenly lost his hearing one day and they couldn’t figure out why, but then we have long waiting lists for everything in Canada.

      Liked by 1 person

      • We got hers not long after they were approved for use in children. She was born with a hearing loss, but had an inner ear defect that led to her losing all of her hearing by the time she was maybe two. It was not a pleasant time. But she has adapted amazingly well, and has become very comfortable with who she is.

        Implants were very controversial at the time because the deaf community was very much against their use. I still think there are feelings within that community that people who get implants are not “one of us” but I don’t know if that attitude is as strong as it once was.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Certain southern US accents do indeed have a lot of lilt and grace to them. I will join you as a fan of British accents.

      You are right about some people just having bad car luck with cars that are supposed to be good. And there are also those who have great luck with cars that are supposed to be bad. I once worked in an office building with a lady who had once owned a Yugo, and said it was her favorite car of all time.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Whenever I get on da phone wit my brother in WisCONsin I pick de accent right bak up, hey. Central WisCONsin and da U.P. sound da same, ya know. When I passed da turd stop an go light I had go find a bubbler to get a drink at, once.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Plenty of corner bars still left in Milwaukee. 40 years ago, you used to bring your factory paycheck in there to get cashed and have a few wid da boys; maybe da ol lady would even meet you dere for a fish fry. If not, what you brought home and slapped down on the table for her to pay the mortgage and food bills with, was “table money” ( a term I’ve heard in the northeast as well). BTW, what Herb is referring to here, as a “Bubbler to get a drink” is Milwaukee-ese for a street water fountain.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Some people really have an ear for accents. Around 1980 in Seattle, when there was no internet to look everything up, I was speaking at a seminar and one of the attendees told me I grew up in the northeastern part of the country which was correct. Of course, I thought I had no accent at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. As a native Philadelphian who is married to a Midwesterner, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Yes, I saw “wooder” – and may other Philadelphia anomalies (my wife’s favorite is that Philadelphians pronounce “radiator” as RAH-diator as opposed to RAY-diator). My sister actually trained herself to un-learn much of her Philadelphia accent; I have no interest in doing so, even if some people in the wilds of the Midwest have no idea what I’m talking about sometimes.

    My wife has a fierce Midwestern non-accent. Her father, however, was from an area of Missouri known as Little Dixie, which was settled by southerners in the 1820s, and still retains much of its Southern characteristics today. He spoke as if he was from North Carolina. Small linguistic islands like that are quickly disappearing though.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I am surprised how quickly people can pick up Southern dialect … not only the accent, but the idioms as well. I worked at a diner the entire time I attended college and every Summer when I worked full time, being around all Southern co-workers, I slid back into that way of speaking in no time.

    My Canadian accent and precise, Oxford-English pronunciation of words and sentences wreaked havoc with my life when we moved here in 1966. The teacher made me read in front of the class while he both criticized and mocked how I pronounced words and my classmates snickered and likewise picked on me. It was not a good time. I quickly changed my ways, dropping all my Canadian idioms and pronunciations … my mother to her dying day used all the words and phrases that she used her entire life, refusing to give in. People exaggerate Canadian accents but it is more the words, not the dialect so much in my opinion. I sometimes listen to the Mitch Albom Show and he is from Philly and does pronounce orange as you wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think kids really need to fit in, so I could see how ditching an accent from somewhere else would be important. As we get older (or maybe it’s just me) I revel in differences like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it was not cool to speak differently than your peers back then – you didn’t want to stand out, but I couldn’t help it until I “unlearned” what I grew up saying/doing. I love hearing a Deep South dialect (and the idioms) or a Boston dialect as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. This sounds like you got your money’s worth out of your Club Wagon JP. You need a good “snow car” in the Midwest and for all the driving you do in conjunction with your job. It’s pretty amazing (to me anyway) that you drove 145,000 miles in eleven years. I likely won’t drive that many miles in my lifetime. P.S. – I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’ve driven almost 500 miles since early September and have happily crossed the 9,999 mile mark that you and fellow blogger Ruth joked about when I took pics of the dashboard to show how cold it was at the Detroit River during a Polar Vortex.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When we were in the peak years of work travel and car pools, we would put 15k miles/year on our good car and 10k/yr on our second car. This went on for several years. I used to joke with Marianne that the year we had a 2nd grader, a 1/2 day kindergartener and a 3rd in a 1/2 day preschool at another location, she could not have put more seat time in the car if she had been a cab driver.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s funny. I had a boss who had triplet girls and a boy one year older. When they were teenagers, each of them was very active in sports, plus his wife and the girls were involved in Girl Scouts. He would bemoan the fact that if it wasn’t very early ice rink time, it was sports or activities the girls were interested in and the girls were not involved in the same sports activities.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. When we moved to South Carolina a few months ago, a Starbucks barista started her conversation with me by asking, “Are you visiting or just passing through?” To which I replied, “Now how would you know I’m not from here?” She just smiled and didn’t say a word and I realized I’d already answered my own question. Who knew a person from Colorado has an accent? Not me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now Dave, isn’t that the most Colorado thing in the world – to move to South Carolina and head right for a Starbucks? They don’t even serve grits there. 🙂

      I have never thought about a Colorado accent, but maybe the absence of a South Carolina accent is the thing that stands out?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Guilty as charged with the Starbucks habit. The good news is we only have two in our small town so the local options are much more convenient. But I’ll still have to have a few of those Chestnut Praline lattes over the holidays.

        Liked by 1 person

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