My friends have told me I don’t seem like I’m from Michigan. I was born and raised in a quiet town on Lake Michigan and both of my parents are natives of the western side of the state. I’m not sure what it even means to “seem like” I’m from Michigan, but there are a few things about me that are distinctly Midwestern.
The most obvious tell is how I say certain words. Bagel is baahg-el not bay-gul. Milk is melk. Bag, like bagel, also gets an eh sound inserted into it.
My boyfriend, who is from New York, takes particular issue with how I say bagel. Over and over he’ll instruct me to say “bay-gul, like the water feature and the bird.” I’ll entertain him and try to pronounce bagel “correctly,” but the truth is, I can’t even hear the difference between baahg-el and bay-gul.
Linguists sometimes call Midwestern accents, formally known as the Inland North accent, “general English” or the “neutral English” accent. But this notion is increasingly untrue. Since the 1950s, the Great Lakes Region of the Midwest has been experiencing what linguists have dubbed the “Northern Cities vowel shift,” giving rise to a new and distinct Midwestern accent. Before, it would’ve been difficult to hear someone speak and immediately identify that they were from Michigan or Wisconsin or Indiana. But now, depending on the speaker, it can be quite obvious. If current trends continue, Midwest accents may no longer be the desired “neutral English.”
This isn’t the first time English speakers have shifted their pronunciation of vowels: between 1400 and 1700, the English language underwent what’s known as The Great Vowel Shift, a linguistic event that radically altered the way words were pronounced.
The most distinct characteristic of the Northern Cities vowel shift is the lengthening and lifting of certain sounds: the short A sound turns into a vaguely Canadian ah. Speakers with particularly strong Midwest accents will pronounce job like jab, for example. Californian and Canadian accents are also both the result of vowel shifts. In the California vowel shift, ‘u’ is moving towards a ‘y’ or ‘e’ sound, so that rude begins to sound like reed. Canadian accents are also the result of lengthening and the eh and ah sounds becoming more prominent in speakers’ pronunciation. This is why Canadian accents sound very similar to the “Yooper Accent” found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
But the Midwest accent may prove to be short-lived. Regional dialects as a whole are declining, demonstrative of a larger, inherently problematic, aim towards a “neutral’’ accent. In 1980, 80% of Texans had a Southern accent. In 2013, that number had declined to just one-third of Texas’ population. In cities across the country known for their distinctive accents — Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, among others — local varieties of English are fading in favor of generic “newscaster” accents, a voice that exists without a sense of place or time, that could be spoken by any American, anywhere.
The Midwest accent has emerged at an unlikely time, where regional accents are fading and linguistic heterogeneity threatens the development of new ones. What does it mean for the Midwest accent to lose its status as the “standard” American accent? And what do the speaker’s regional flourishes — or lack thereof — actually tell us about them?
The line between an accent, a dialect and a language isn’t incredibly clear. All three linguistic concepts are wrapped up in a deeper question of what constitutes “proper” English. Cindy Blanco, a senior scientist at Duolingo, writes that accents are concerned with pronunciation, whereas dialect “refers to a whole group of language features, including pronunciation, but also differences in vocabulary, grammar, and how the language gets used (like the rules of what counts as polite).” The Midwest accent follows most of the same grammatical structure as American English, which is considered to be a dialect of the English language. African American Vernacular English is the most well-known dialect spoken in the U.S., but other, smaller ones exist, such as Cajun Vernacular English, which is spoken primarily in Louisiana.
Notably, dialects are distinct from the way that English as a second language speakers talk. Chicano Vernacular English incorporates elements of Spanish but is defined as an “ethnic dialect that children acquire as they acquire English in the barrio or other ethnic social settings … Chicano English is spoken only by native English speakers.” Thus, while ESL speakers’ accents are distinct from regional accents and dialects, contact with ESL speakers can drive linguistic innovation within English. New York City, Miami and the Southwest all have their own unique varieties of Chicano Vernacular English.
While these varieties of English are real and important, Blanco explains that “‘standard’ accents and dialects are kind of a myth.” Everyone has an accent, and what variety of English is considered to be “correct’’ is often more about power and cultural supremacy than any inherent linguistic feature.
At an early age, I recognized that my parents had clear ideas about what constituted “correct” English. My dad speaks with what can best be described as a rural accent with Midwestern flourishes. Most research on rural accents specifically focuses on rural Southern accents, or Appalachian accents; but the variety of English my dad spoke didn’t seem to fit neatly into academic categories.
Still, there was a distinctive style to it. He would use “ain’t’’ constantly and frequently speak in double negatives like “he didn’t do nothing.” As a child, I would instinctively replicate these linguistic features, much to the dismay of my mother, who spoke in something closer to so-called “Standard American English.” It quickly became clear to me what linguistic features were okay for me to adopt. It was fine to say bahg and or to tell people I was from Meechigahn, but saying I “didn’t do nothing today” would invariably result in a firm correction.
I learned, very quickly, that there was a deep politics to language. My mother and my teachers didn’t want me to speak like my dad because people who spoke like that were “uneducated” or “poor” or “backwards.” But it was okay for me to pick up Midwestern pronunciations — not because they were more correct, but because they didn’t come with any baggage. My speech patterns — the accepted ones I learned to deploy — didn’t deviate from generic English in a way that indicated something about my intelligence or ideological affiliations. And the Midwestern stereotypes that do exist are largely positive. Midwesterners, in the popular imagination, are friendly, dependable and often live simply, opting to stay in the small town they were born in. There are definitely worse traits to be associated with.
For speakers of other English varieties, navigating social implications isn’t so simple. If I had picked up more of my dad’s speech patterns, I’d be associated with “hillbillies, rednecks, crackers and white trash.” Dialects that are predominantly spoken by Black and Latinx people, like AAVE or Chicano Vernacular English, are heavily stigmatized, and these negative stereotypes often translate into material consequences. A study from the University of Chicago found that individuals who spoke in AAVE or with a rural accent were less likely to get job offers after an interview. Researchers have found that Southern accents similarly harm applicants’ job prospects. In 2014, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, one of the country’s top science institutes, began offering classes to help Southerners learn to “speak with a more neutral American accent.”
In a way, it’s easy for me to embrace my Midwestern accent. Beyond the occasional snide remark that I’m saying a word incorrectly, I can go about my life unaware of the many ways I do (and don’t) speak differently than the so-called “regular American.”
I have conflicting feelings about how my parents enforced ideas about “proper English” during my childhood. There’s nothing wrong with the way my dad speaks. Looking back, hearing people constantly demonize the speech patterns I picked up from him caused me to wrongly internalize those negative stereotypes. In another sense, I’m grateful to my parents for teaching me to speak in a way that doesn’t come with assumptions about my intelligence, my politics or my employability.
Given this, holding onto my Midwestern accent feels like a small act of defiance. There is early evidence that the changes brought on by the Great Lakes Vowel Shift are reverting back to their pre-shift pronunciations, particularly among younger English speakers. Maybe it’s because we live in an age of linguistic hegemony, where everyone is expected to sound the same. Maybe it’s because Midwesterners subtly recognize that there are inherent politics to language, and whatever sense of regional identity an accent can foster will likely be offset by linguistic discrimination. Either way, the nascent Midwestern accent is already threatening to disappear entirely.
When I insist I am pronouncing a word correctly, when I stretch out my vowels into a quintessential eh, it feels like an assertion of my identity. I’m not sure if my distinctive pronunciations will fade, or even if the Midwestern accent will continue to exist. Linguistic diversity and regional variations make speech interesting; they add a richness to the English language that’s lost when we all regress to a “standard” dialect.
I won’t tell people to just embrace their regional accents or to learn to love the dialect they speak in. The reality is more complex than that. But the next time you comment on someone’s pronunciation or jump to correct their grammar, I urge you to remember what’s gained.
Statement Correspondent Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.