The Quiet Revolution of Midwestern Speech

For decades, the Midwest was the example of perfect, accent-less English. Now, increasing dialectic quirks are changing that perception, and with it, Midwestern identity. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang and Whitney Baxter for Midstory.

Before the Great Depression, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on TV who talked like someone in Toledo, Ohio. 

Author Edward McClelland writes that prior to the 1930s, the transatlantic dialect—a blend of American and British English—was the most popular dialect for both celebrities and politicians. The accent, however, was largely associated with the upper class, which lost respectability after the economic downturn of the 1930s. Meanwhile, the Midwest was booming, offering a reputation that resonated with middle class America—and, as it turned out, with the rest of the United States, too. 

At the same time, John Kenyon, an Ohio native and the most trusted expert in American pronunciation at the time, based his popular pronunciation guides on the speech patterns he recognized in non-immigrant, upper-middle-class Midwesterners. This shift in American economy and culture solidified the Midwest as the home of accentless, “standard” American English, a perception that still exists today. 

But in modern times, the “fall from grace” story of the Rust Belt resonates not only with economics and industry, but also with national speech patterns. Linguist Matthew Gordon points out that younger generations in the region are increasingly losing their unique accents, and that outsiders do not regard the dialect as highly as they once did. But the Midwest, and the language that comes out of it, is continuing to make its unique mark. 

Specifically, Toledo lies in a particular position that intersects with or borders a variety of the 24 unique dialectic regions in the United States. The “General American” and “Midland American” dialects make up most of Ohio are typically known for as accentless, standard American dialects. These dialects, however, still have several unique quirks. Both Midwesterners and outsiders are familiar with oft-joked-about vocabulary choices like using “pop” rather than “soda” or “Coke,” but other linguistic idiosyncrasies are more subtle.

Gordon points to other unique Midwestern pronunciations, like pronouncing “cot” and “caught” as well “Don” and “dawn” the same way. These pronunciations are one version of what linguists call a “merger,” in which the mouth creates shapes that result in some vowels being missed in words. Gordon also cites the “need plus past participle” construction, or using a statement like “the dog needs fed” instead of “the dog needs to be fed,” as a distinctive Midwestern quirk.  

But these Midland influences are not the only ones that can be seen in the speech in cities like Toledo. The Great Lakes dialect—also called the “Inland” dialect—runs through cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit, and is quietly challenging the long-held linguistic tradition that vowels in short words have a consistent pronunciation across dialects. The “Northern Cities Vowel Shift” is a relatively recent linguistic change that was discovered in the 1960s by linguists studying in Chicago and Detroit. The shift, which was named by the godfather of American linguistics,” Bill Labov, is known as a “chain shift,” in which sounds make an ordered and consistent change. 

In this case, speakers in the Great Lakes region are increasingly pronouncing all their vowels in new ways. The most distinct change is creating diphthongs—sounds made up of two vowels—in words with only one vowel present. This phenomenon is why you may hear Great Lakes residents make words like “bag” into “byeg.” 

These unique vowel shifts and pronunciations are relatively recent and also not usually noticed by those within the region, which might explain why they have not been accepted into the general idea of what the Midwestern dialect sounds like, especially for outsiders. While many still think of the Midwest as “accentless,” Gordon suggests that this conception might be based on an idea of the Midwest more than the actual reality of how Midwesterners speak. 

“No one goes to Toledo or Detroit to learn how to speak like locals,” Gordon said. “[Standard American English is] a much more imagined version of English.” 

Not only are outsiders thinking of “accentless” English in a new way, but the long-held belief that Midwesterners are unaware of their accent is also increasingly changing. Gordon has seen fewer Midwesterners referring to their accent as “normal,” instead embracing it as something uniquely their own. 

“I think in the Midwest, there might be a greater realization that they might not be so special,” Gordon said. “What’s changed in the last 20 years or so is that they’ve kind of woken up to this and there’s a greater awareness that these features are noticeable to outsiders.” 

But that does not mean the Midwestern dialect is going away, or losing what makes it special. Not only are Midwesterners more aware of their accent, but they are also actively trying to understand and celebrate the way they speak. Even as younger generations are moving away from typical Midwestern speech patterns and are more inspired by online slang than their regional dialects, Gordon sees a distinct effort of people trying to capture Midwestern speech through memes or handmade dialect charts and maps.

Whether it is interpreted through memes, national broadcasts or printed dialect guides of a bygone era, the way we speak continues to hold an important role in understanding both our regional identity and our personal experience of it—even if we don’t always realize it. 

“We utter hundreds of thousands of words every day and don’t really think about what we’re doing,” Gordon said. “Language does so much more than serve as a means of conveying information. Language is crucial to how we think about ourselves as people. In that sense, it’s important to recognize that language is doing so much more than we usually give it credit for.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Some argue Standard American English is or was centered around Iowa and some surrounding states. But I know western Iowans have a more rural dialect, northern Iowans have a stronger Upper Midwest dialect, and southern Iowans can sometimes sound a bit Southern (like many others on the edge of the Lower Midwest). On the other hand, the industrialized central-eastern Iowa, specifically what is called the Corridor, represents a dialectical island in the North Midland (particularly along with northwestern Illinois where Ronald Reagan was born and raised). Many early radio announcers and movie stars came from around this area.

  2. I was born in Western Pennsylvania. 50+ years ago, I moved to Minnesota. I have been tuned to accents as the public school system though I had a learning disability. I did arrive with knowing the difference between ‘Lend and Borrow’.
    There are some small town versions of the Upper Midwest English accent that drop the letter L (Cold shoulder = code shoder) and mispronouncing a short I and saying a short e. For example the word ‘milk’…. can be wrongly pronounced as ” Melk”… like the word ‘melt”.

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