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Accent on Indiana

6 Dec


Like most Midwesterners, I always thought that only  other people had funny accents.  I imagined that I  sounded   like  Walter Cronkite. Growing up near St. Louis,  it took a long time before I realized that I pronounced “fork” as “fark” and that our first president was not George “Warshington”. Someone  once  said that all those “r’s”  they drop in Boston (where they say “paak yaa  caa ”  instead of  “park your  car” ) migrated  southwest  and are alive and well in Southern Illinois. 

According to Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois professor of  linguistics, our speech is the most important thing that people judge us on,  aside from physical appearance.  Accents are those noticeable  differences in speech sounds,  rhythm, stress, and emphasis.   Dialect refers to  broader variations   including things such as vocabulary,  syntax, and grammar. Both are related to  where we come from, our primary social group, native language, and social-economic status.  

A study in the  Journal of Employment Counseling  found that speakers with accents or dialects were routinely given  lower employability ratings by a panel of human resource  professionals.

Experts  disagree about just how many dialects there are in theUnited States. Typical estimates range  from 3 to over 24,  depending on what you consider to be a “language community”. Language communities  are   groups that share a common dialect and some radical scholars contend that there may be  thousands of  dialects  inAmerica.

On dialect maps,  Southern Indiana usually  falls in the  South Midlandregion. Dominated by Appalachia,  common speaking  conventions include   pronouncing  “th” as “f’  ( It’s my birfday”),   leaving out the word  “are”,   and placing  an  “a”  in front of words ending in “ing” and dropping the “g” (“I’m a-goin to town”). This  region has also  retained  a large number of words from the Elizabethan English  spoken at the time  of Shakespeare,  such as “reckon”,  “sorry”  (meaning inferior) , “trash”, “well” (meaning healthy),  and “guess” (meaning suppose).

According to Matt Campbell at East Central Oklahoma University,  about 59%  of Hoosiers routinely use the word “pop” as the generic name for a  soft drink, but there are some significant regional differences. Northern Indiana uses “pop” almost exclusively,    but in  Indianapolis and  Southern Indianathe more southern term,  “coke”, is often used. When I worked in Mississippi  I frequently  heard people refer  to Seven Up®  as “white coke”.

I noticed that  St. Louis and Eastern Wisconsin, where my wife Diane grew up,    both use the word, “soda”—  maybe that’s why we are compatible. But don’t ever ask Diane  where she is from,  unless you are prepared  to hear her formal presentation,  which includes the use of her hand as a visual aid to understanding the geography  of Wisconsin. The  base  of the thumb is Green Bay,  the thumb itself is  “DoorCounty” and she is from a knuckle.   When we visit the knuckle,  Diane’s accent changes abruptly and I have trouble following it when she and her brother start talking. I can discriminate  Wisconsinfrom   Minnesotabut I am still fooled by a U.P. Michiganaccent.        

At PBS’s Do you Speak American website(, linguistics professor  Dennis R. Preston  (who once taught  at  IUS)  reports that Americans believe  that some regions speak better English than others. He found that while some areas favor  their own speech and others  don’t, there is wide consensus that New York City and  the South are on the bottom of the barrel.

When we lived inFloridathere  was a jumble of accents because of all the transplants, although we always found the native southern accent charming. When our middle son was in kindergarten,  we moved and he unfortunately  was assigned  to a teacher fromNew Yorkat his new school. Her voice must have sounded harsh and demanding in comparison to the dulcet tones of his previous sweet southern teacher.  Her speech somehow communicated an urgency that put him under tremendous pressure. Before we were able to rescue him,  he pathetically kept bringing home stacks of pictures to color.  He felt like he had to work all night, just  to  keep up in the rat race that was his kindergarten class.

Professor Preston had Southern Indiana residents rate  all the states for  both  speech correctness and pleasantness. Southern Indiana residents ranked the state  of Indiana on top for  pleasantness  and ranked New York, Arkansas, and New Mexicoas the least pleasant.  However, for speech correctness,   curiously Southern  Indiana residents rankedWashingtonState  on top, with a score of  8 out of 10. I have no idea how they even talk out there.  Indiana was in the middle  with  6 out of 10,  and the southern states (except for Florida) were  rated  lowest with scores of 2  out of 10.

Southerners  don’t do very well on international  comparisons either.  A paper  presented  the International Communication Association  described a study  in which   Northeastern American  college students rated speakers from England, India, Jamaica, Russia, and the southern United States. They were rated  for attractiveness, friendliness, and intelligence. The posh-accented British speaker  ranked  highest in  all three categories. The American Southerner ranked lowest in both intelligence and attractiveness.  Despite some evidence that Southern speech patterns are spreading nationally, there still seems to be considerable prejudice.

Some career counselors even recommend that people  with “maximally perceived” accents or dialects, undergo accent  and dialect modification therapy in order to be more  competitive in the job market.  While it’s  very important to be able  to communicate effectively, this homogenization of our language  somehow just seems wrong. We need the color and spice of diversity.  Maybe we should be teaching tolerance instead of pronunciation.

  Well I reckon that’s all. H’it’s time to be a’goin for a coke, I guess.  And when youse go to bed tonight don’t be a’ forgetin to pull up the kivvers to keep warm.

Based on a News Tribune column.