“Interstate Farty-Far” (St. Louis English)

St. Louis

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It’s easy to prematurely assume that certain rare American dialect features have become extinct. Such is the case with St. Louis‘ “Interstate Farty-Far” quirk, whereby words like “for” and “born ” are pronounced more or less as “far” and “barn” would be in most other American accents.

This indicates that St. Louis has preserved the historical split between the vowel in “force” and the vowel in “north.” I suspect that most Americans make limited distinction between the two by this point, but St. Louis seems to be a hold out.  Why St. Louis specifically does (or did) this, I have no idea. Nor do I understand why the vowel for “north” words is unrounded ɑ; for other accents that preserve the distinction, the difference tends to be between more open and more closed rounded vowels such as ɔ and o.

It should be noted that the city is a typical example of what might be called an “urban dialect microclimate.” Just as cities often have weather patterns strikingly different than the surrounding countryside, so too their accents can sometimes be strikingly discontiguous. St. Louis is located in the American Midland, meaning that its local accent should predicably be similar to the surrounding area, in between an Ozark Twang and the General American-ish accent of Nebraska.

Instead, St. Louis has an accent somewhat closer to cities like Chicago or Cleveland, probably owing to shared migration patterns. However, as other Great Lakes cities don’t have the “Farty-Far” feature (at least not to my knowledge), it’s unclear why it’s prevalent in this particular location.

(By the way, those with some knowledge of English Lexical Sets will note that “Interstate Farty Far” is likely not a real pronunciation; “four” is part of the “force” set, not the “north” set. This is perhaps an exaggeration similar to “New Joysey” or “N’Awlins,” although I cannot say for sure.)

Like many regional shibboleths, I long suspected that this one receded after World War II, perhaps still preserved by some elderly speakers. But I have heard at least one post-war-born St. Louisian use such pronunciations: Phyllis Smith, from the American version of The Office. (Although I find that this feature is less present in interviews, so it’s possible she plays it up somewhat for her character on the show.)

But I’ve never heard a St. Louis native born after 1970 use this term. So as entertaining a piece of local color as it is, “Interstate Farty-Far” probably doesn’t have much of a future.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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21 Responses to “Interstate Farty-Far” (St. Louis English)

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Interesting about the farty-fart aspect; it sounds lkike New Hampshire without the non-rhoticity. By bthe way, as you well know, no one in New Jersey (I’m a native) ever says “Joysey.” The closest is Jersey City, where you will often hear “Jehzey”; the “oy” diphthong is just another Jersey joke. We’re used to ’em. Fuhgedaboudit.

    • Sam Huddy says:

      The Jersey as “dʒɜɪ.zi” pronunciation did exist, but was already dying out during World War II. This pronunciation was not limited by any means to New Jersey, nor is the new, more British pronunciation “dʒɜ.zi.”

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    In parts of Kentucky and Tennessee the word “fire” can sound like the word “far.”

    • Charles Sullivan says:

      This makes for the regional joke: What do fire fighters returning from a blaze have in common with the three wise men from the Bible?
      Answer: They all come from afar [a fire].

  3. Chuck says:

    It’s funny you did a post on this, because I was just thinking about the “horse”/”hoarse” split yesterday. It should actually be “Interstate Farty-Four” as you note. Listen to this lady from ANAE. At about 24 seconds into that clip she says forty-four with clearly different vowels in forty and four. This book says they merge in the [ɒ ~ ɔ] area and ANAE seems to agree with this. To quote the latter (p. 277), “A similar merger is found in central Texas and Utah, but there the merger takes place primarily in low position, while in St. Louis, it is /ahr/ that rises to meet /ɔhr/.” Listen and see what you think. Maybe it has different allophones ranging from [ɑ] to [ɔ] depending on the phonetic environment. I’ve read about this being the case in the speech of some people with the cot-caught merger.

    P.S. It’s also funny that you mentioned Phyllis Smith, because I also noticed this feature in her speech and thought she was probably from St. Louis. It turned out she was.

  4. Sam Huddy says:

    My grandma who grew up in Cleveland always wishes me a “good marning” (roughly [mɒɹ.nɛnŋ]) like the “o” in “lot.”

  5. T says:

    This Econ teacher from Kentucky I had in high school used to have [ɒɹ] instead of both [ɔɹ] and [oɹ].
    I ‘z barn in Kintucky.

  6. Andrew Hyatt says:

    I’m from St. Louis, and I think I exhibit some of these. I don’t round “north” (I think). And I’ve confused people by my pronunciation of “our”, which sounds exactly like “or”.

    I don’t think I say “farty-far”, but my pronunciation is at least leaning in that direction. Then again, I’m not a linguist, so what my impression of what my accent is, and what it is, may be fairly separate.

    If anyone wants me to put up a video of me speaking anything, I’m happy to help!

  7. Rodger C says:

    The far/for merger is also found in part of Southern Kentucky (Cumberland watershed). In a store window on the poor side of London, KY I once saw a sign for FARMAL DRESSES. In that part of KY the monophthong in “fire” is higher than in “fire/for”–almost like “fair.”

  8. oneblankspace says:

    It’s not farty, it’s fardy. And it’s only recently that they have stopped calling I-64 fardy. You can still find Outer Forty Road along part of its length.

    And in St Louis, “hoosier” is a fightin’words-level insult meaning redneck.

    • Luke says:

      Well, that’s kind of a given seeing how it’s North American English we’re talking about.

  9. Stan says:

    My former supervisor is from St Louis. Often he would walk into my office after a physics lecture and ask, “why do the students snicker whenever I say ‘forty’?” In Georgia we’re certainly not used to that pronunciation of “forty”. He said “Mizzurah” as well, but that’s another topic.

  10. JS says:

    Parts of St. Louis, especially older people in those parts, have an accent a little bit like the New Orleans “Yat” dialect.

  11. Types says:

    This is something you will want to research before trying anything. Fortunately, croup is generally not serious and can be treated at home.

  12. Patrick says:

    The St. Louis baseball Cardinals have a radio announcer named Mike Shannon, who I think is in his 70’s now, who is a born and raised St. Louisan,with a somewhat blue collar background. God love him – he is liking a living, breathing, talking museum for this old St. Louis accent.

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  14. Jen says:

    25 years ago, when I first moved to St. Louis from Iowa I had to painfully get used to the nasally speech and phrases like “Highway Farty” and Interstate “Farty-four” (not “Farty-Far”) as well as my place of employment “Warsh U.” (Washington University). The most embarrassing was once when I was asked if I like “carn”? I had to ask “what?” about 5 times and finally my friend said in an exasperated voice “you know, carn-0n-the-cob!!” I wanted to melt into the floor.
    My hypothesis is that the linguistic influences in St. Louis accent are attributable to the Irish and German immigrants whose English pronunciation carried into the dialect. I have NO backing on that…pure opinion. The strong Catholic private school culture keeps the speech pattern alive, although many people who use it, laugh at it too.

  15. Mike S says:

    I think this has been preserved in some ways. Even some younger speakers will pronounce longer words with more syllables distinctly. Examples like “horrible,” “organization” or any thing with a “north” (e.g. North County) will have a VERY subtle “ar” pronunciation. I grew up in the outer suburbs, which is where many of the working class people moved to from the inner suburbs, so I still hear it.

  16. mkff says:

    Just wanted to add that I’m from St. Louis, 29 years old, and I say “farty-four.” So do my parents.