You talk funny.
Well, sort of.
As Midwesterners, few born-and-raised Nebraskans would claim to have an accent. We don’t “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.” We don’t invite “y’all” to stay for supper. News anchors, we are told, strive to sound more like us because our speech is neutral, nondescript, “normal.”
We grow up believing that there’s nothing unique about the way we speak. But is that really true?
The experts say no. The markers that make our speech special are subtle, but they’re there, said Matthew Gordon, a professor of English at the University of Missouri.
We have slight variances in pronunciation and grammar, almost imperceptible in casual conversation. (Say “copy” and “coffee” to yourself right now and pay attention to the vowel sounds.)
We have a handful of words, unique to our part of the world, that can leave outsiders scratching their heads. (No, “runza” isn’t the only one.)
And, of course, we have Nor-fork.
To understand it all, first we have to look at a map.
Nebraska is divided among several different dialect regions, according to the Atlas of North American English. The eastern part of the state falls under the Midland region, which begins in the east, also swallowing parts of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. The Nebraska Panhandle belongs to a huge western dialect region that extends all the way to the California coast.
Even with these distinctions, linguists say, it’s important to remember that speech habits rarely abide by strict geographic borders.
“There’s no hard division between one area and another. Borders are really soft and pliable. People move and they travel, and when they move other places they take their dialects with them,” said Frank Bramlett, English professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and director of the school’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program.
It’s through these movements and changes that Nebraska and its Midland neighbors came to share some important, distinctive characteristics. One of the most notable of these, Gordon said, is known as “the cot/caught merger.”
Pronunciation and grammar
I slept on the cot.
I caught the baseball.
If the bolded words in these sentences sound the same to you, you’re not alone. More than 60 percent of Nebraskans would agree with you, according to the Harvard Dialect Survey, completed in 2003 by researchers Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. But for much of the country, the words sound different: “Cot,” said with the tongue low and the lips spread open; “caught,” said with the tongue slightly higher, and the lips narrower and rounded.
“I didn’t realize they actually could be different vowels until I took a linguistics class my freshman year of college,” said Gordon, who was born and raised in Lincoln.
Merging those sounds is widespread across Canada and the western U.S. and it appears to be moving eastward, according to an essay Gordon wrote for PBS’ “Do You Speak American?” project.
Now, it’s often found among speakers in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas as well as portions of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. St. Louis, however, is a notable exception.
The vowel merger crops up in other words too: “copy” and “coffee,” “clod” and “clawed,” “rot and wrought,” “tock” and “talk.” In his essay, Gordon writes of a fellow Nebraskan who told her grandmother a story about a friend named “Dawn.” The grandmother was confused: Why, she asked, would her friend’s parents name their daughter “Don”?
Another feature of Midland speech, Gordon said, is called the “positive anymore.” In most cases, the word “anymore” is used in sentences of negation: “I don’t do that anymore.” “We don’t live there anymore.”
But in most of Nebraska, as well as parts of other Midland states like Iowa, Kansas, Illinois and Indiana, “anymore” can also be used to qualify a positive statement in place of the word “nowadays”:
I don’t go to the movies. Anymore, I just watch Netflix.
He has plenty of free time, so he exercises a lot anymore.
But neither of these rise to a very high level of social awareness, even among speakers, Gordon said. There are a very limited set of language characteristics, like Bostonians dropping their Rs, that the average person will naturally perceive.
“You can’t ask someone to imitate a Kansas City dialect,” Gordon said. “Places like Des Moines, Kansas City and Omaha, there are no stereotypes of those places other than they talk about corn all the time. Or barbecue.”
But there are some very noticeable quirks of Nebraska speech. Consider the fact that we all agree that the city of Norfolk is pronounced “Nor-fork” (because of a postal mix-up around the time of the town’s founding) and Beatrice is “Bee-AT-ris.”
If nothing else, Gordon said, fluency in pronouncing local place names “works well as a marker of whether someone belongs or not.”
Race and language
However understated the markers may be, a conversation about dialects should include one important caveat, Gordon said: “A lot of the traditional discussion of regional dialects is really a discussion of the regional dialects of white speakers.”
Early linguistic research into American English focused overwhelmingly on whites, often ignoring African-American speakers, Bramlett said. For decades, linguists dismissed African-American Vernacular English as an illegitimate linguistic system.
“Now, of course, people understand it’s as legitimate as any other linguistic system,” Bramlett said.
In the years following the Civil War, the vast majority of the country’s African-Americans lived in the South. Beginning in the early 20th century, they began to move to northern cities in large numbers, escaping segregation and seeking better opportunities.
Still, many families brought their Southern speaking habits with them. Today, Gordon said, African-American speech in many places still reflects these Southern origins.
And changes — in either white speech or African-American speech — don’t always cross racial lines. The differences between them, given the country’s history, illustrates one important point about dialects: We speak like the people we talk with often.
“A crucial ingredient would be close, meaningful contact,” Gordon said. “In many areas, people can live on the same block or within a mile of each other and not ever have meaningful conversations and meaningful discussions. That could happen in terms of racial division or socioeconomic division.”
Beyond nuances of pronunciation and grammar, there are entire words in the Midland lexicon that have a distinctly regional flavor. The Dictionary of American Regional English, a compendium of print and online reference material that documents words, phrases and pronunciations that vary from place to place, lists 13 words that have unique meaning to Nebraskans and their neighbors.
Some are obvious: A “runza” is, of course, our beloved meat pocket; a “sandhiller” is someone who lives in the Sand Hills.
But some are more … out there. A “doodinkus” is another word for an unspecified gadget, like “doohicky.” To buy something “on pump,” means to buy it on credit. See a gray squirrel scampering up a tree? To some of us, that’s a “timber squirrel.”
Differences in regional word choice have also led to some of the great debates of our time. Crawfish? Crayfish? Crawdad? (The Cornhusker State prefers the last by a wide margin.)
Then there’s the always raging pop versus soda argument. In Nebraska at least, it appears to be settled: More than 75 percent of residents drink “pop,” according to the Harvard Dialect Survey.
Local words fall in and out of use as the years go by, the regional dictionary notes. And indeed, Bramlett said, that language will change is one of the few absolutes linguists abide by.
This has led to a common belief that local and regional dialects are disappearing as mass media exposes us more and more to a uniform way of speaking.
Who we are
So, is it true?
Some localized dialects are fading, Bramlett said. This can be due to many factors, including population movement, but the media’s role in it is minor, Gordon said. Still the broad regional dialects will stick.
The reason: Even when they grow up, people tend to stay close to home.
“They tend to stay in the same region,” Bramlett said. “Even though someone from Kansas will move to Omaha, that person’s not moving very far from home. The Kansas dialect and the Omaha dialect are slightly different, but the regional identity is maintained.”
But what identity?
The reason Nebraskans and other Midwesterners think of themselves as having no accent, Gordon said, is largely because we don’t think about ourselves much in the first place. And neither does the rest of the country.
In another study documented in the PBS project, linguist Dennis Preston writes of having asked more than 100 people from Michigan to draw and label on a map where they thought the country’s dialect regions were. Almost all of them made note of the South, the Great Lakes region and the Northeast. A much smaller percentage had anything to say about Nebraska and its surrounding states.
Much of our perception of language is tied to our regional stereotypes, Gordon said. However impolite, if asked, most people could imitate the slow drawl of a Southern sheriff or the tough talk of a New York City gangster.
In our minds, colorful characters living in colorful places have colorful language. And us?
“What is a stereotype of the Midwestern? They’re boring. Nothing exciting. Very little diversity. Our stereotype of the language kind of fits with that,” Gordon said. “But when linguists look at these things, they notice, well, there are actually interesting linguistic features really with every region. Including the Midwest.”
So maybe we shouldn’t get so caught (or cot) up in it.