Midwestern English is Not “Dictionary Standard”

In a recent columnMarilyn Vos Savant (a columnist with an alleged record-setting IQ) wrote:

I’ve retained 99+ percent of my Midwestern ‘accent,’ which sounds like no accent at all because nearly all the words are pronounced according to dictionary standards.

A reader understandably objected to this (flagrantly wrong) statement, and Savant clarified in a later column:

I understand what you’re expressing, but Midwestern speech is widely considered to be closest to the way English is spoken in this country (i.e. without a regional accent) because, as I mentioned, nearly all the words are pronounced according to dictionary standards.

No. American “dictionary standard” (which isn’t really a thing to begin with) usually reflects “General American English” (GenAm), a rather hypothetical and amorphous “standard.” You can, admittedly, find accents quite close to “classic” GenAm in the Midwest, in the Western section of what William Labov calls the North Midland*. This constitutes a narrow band roughly encompassing Northern Missouri, Southern Iowa, Southern South Dakota, most of Nebraska, and northern Kansas.

But “midwestern English” encompasses many unique dialects, not all of which sound like the folks who read you the morning news. Beyond the GenAmish accent just referenced, one finds the Great Lakes (Northern Cities Vowel Shift-influenced) accent, the German/Scandinavian-influenced accents of Northern Minnesota and North Dakota, and the “South Midland” accent found in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. That’s a broad (and non-exhaustive) list of categories, excluding the sub-dialects and urban dialect islands one finds throughout the region.

Speaking of which, it is worth noting that Vos Savant hails from St. Louis, a city with an isolated local accent located outside Labov’s Western-North Midland region. It’s possible her accent is a “mild” or “modified” version of St. Louisian, falling within the range of General American English. But one can such accents in many US regions days (just note the distribution of “unmarked” speakers on Labov’s map). GenAm isn’t exclusively a “midwestern thing” anymore.

There is almost certainly some truth to the notion that General American English has Midwestern origins. The term is associated with the dialect-levelling that occurred during the 20th Century. Since this entailed “Southern” accents becoming less “Southern,” “Northern” accents becoming less “Northern,” and “Eastern” accents becoming less “Eastern” (goodbye, “toidy-toid street!”), it’s not surprising that the English spoken smack dab in the nation’s middle might be described as kind of de facto standard.

At the end of the day, though, I’m less bothered by Vos Savant’s suggestion that her accent is “standard English” so much as I’m bothered her narrow definition of what constitutes a “midwestern accent.” Just as attempts to describe Midwestern monoculture ignore the the region’s unique individual parts, speaking of a supposedly monolithic “Midwestern English” as if it were the way “normal” Americans talk ignores the area’s wonderful linguistic diversity.

*I’m basing this on the fact that this area generally avoids overtly Southern or Northern features, and also largely eschews features of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift.


About Ben

Ben T. 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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24 Responses to Midwestern English is Not “Dictionary Standard”

  1. Peter S. says:

    Certainly, “warsh” and “gararge” are Midwesternisms which are not pronounced according to dictionary standards. Not all Midwesterners use these pronunciations, but in my experience, anybody who uses them comes from the Midwest.

    • Nico says:

      I’m not from the Midwest, but I’ve been known to say “warsh”, “Warshington”, and “carwarsh” on occasion. Others substitute a -> o along with the intrusive r. For me though, that intrusive r only occurs in “wash” and all related words.

  2. Erickson says:

    I’m glad you posted this. I have a cousin a year older than me who grew up in the same town in central Illinois as me. If you would’ve asked me if either of us had accents when I was boy, I probably would’ve looked at you like you were nuts. Of course we didn’t! Anyway, I’ve been living in the South for 6 years now and that cousin recently came to visit me down here. Guess what? Now I notice his accent! Keep in mind that we grew up in the same town. I don’t know if anyone else has experienced that, but it’s kind of weird.

  3. Untrilled R says:

    **when I was a boy.

    Are you sure? *ducks* 😛

    • Erickson says:

      Yep. I was just in a rush. It sucks that you can’t edit your comments on here. I guess I just won’t bother to correct my mistakes in the future.

  4. Tom says:

    Yes, I think people generally have a skewed concept of how “normal” their own accent is.

    By the way, when I read “GenAmish” in your post, I initially thought you were referring to some kind of Amish accent!

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    Everyone has an accent. If you live in a particular place, you unconsciously speak with the accent of that place , unless you make a conscious effort to assume another accent.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Not necessarily. People move. And don’t typically fully pick up the accent of their new location when they move. It’s not a conscious effort to speak their native (but now non-local) accent. They are just speaking what comes naturally.

      If you grow up and still live in a particular place, you unconsciously speak the accent of that place.

      If you move, you may, when speaking unconsciously, end up speaking a mixture of the two accents.

  6. Laura says:

    I’m originally from suburban Chicago and have lived on the East Coast for many years. When I lived in the Midwest, I heard many people make similar statements to the one quoted above. I now realize that most of those people’s speech featured extreme NCVS. As one of the commenters said, everyone thinks they don’t have an accent.

  7. Daniel says:

    Her comment might have stemmed from the negative connotations many people associate with with the term accent. I have heard many people insist that they don’t have an accent because of the connotation they associate with the word, which usually makes me lean forward, and go, ‘Oh, really?’ as I begin to listen to every sound change from what we might call GenAm. My favorite instance was a professor from the Middle East who spoke to my World Religions class about Islam who also insisted that even though English was his second language, he spoke without an accent. By the end of the class I had picked out six or seven distinctive features. Honestly, I’m of the opinion that the only way to speak without an accent is not to speak.

    As for “dictionary standard,” most dictionaries I check on a regular basis will provide a pronunciation in line with perhaps a rhotic version of RP first, particularly when it comes to thought, lot, and father words, and I don’t think I’ve ever met or heard an American who speaks like that.

    • Ellen K. says:

      I think with people speaking English as a 2nd language “speaking without an accent” tends to mean speaking it like a native speaker, speaking it without a foreign-language accent. So saying they don’t have an accent isn’t the same sort of thing as a native speaker saying they don’t have an accent.

  8. Kendra says:

    What is ”a dictionary standard” anyway?

    There are many American dictionaries.

    The only US-made dictionary that uses IPA symbols (MW’s Learner’s dictionary) opted for a low back merged accent (without any traces of Californian shift or L/NG-influenced rounding), typical of Mountain West (Phoenix, Vegas, Denver), central Indiana, central Ohio, Vermont and the northeastern part of the state of NY:

    doll /ˈdɑ:l/
    all /ˈɑ:l/
    collar /ˈkɑ:lɚ/
    caller /ˈkɑ:lɚ/
    Hong Kong /ˈhɑ:ŋˌkɑ:ŋ/
    strong /ˈstrɑ:ŋ/
    long /ˈlɑ:ŋ/
    song /ˈsɑ:ŋ/

    Some people who use this accent:

    Lana del Rey (singer from Lake Placid, NY),
    Ryan Brenizer (photographer from Saranac Lake, NY)
    Jordin Sparks (singer from Phoenix, AZ)
    Kristin Davis (actress from Boulder, CO)
    Alison Lohman (actress from Palm Springs, CA)
    Ashley Colburn (WealthTV host from San Diego, CA)

    It’s what accent coaches in Hollywood teach, that’s why some people from NYC (like Brooke Shields and Lady Gaga) end up having this kind of accent.

    Too bad most people from California don’t sound neutral at all, they sound distinctively Californian (especially when they pronounce MOM as [mɔ:m] or US as [jʉ: æs]).

    • Griff says:

      Lady Gaga has an accent coach?

    • Nico says:

      I find it funny how many features of the California Vowel Shift are in my speech. I’ve never even been to California, yet my accent sounds closest to most of the accents I’ve heard from there. Most of my friends are similar as well, and we’re scattered about the DC metro area.

    • m.m. says:

      [jʉ: æs]

      thats not even as bad as the most shifted, with [jɨʊ] for haha

  9. John Mclaine says:

    I once saw a Chinese-English dictionary that displayed all of the pronunciations with the vowels shortened; for instance, the pronunciation for “divisible” is written as [dəˈvɪzəbəl]. Is that normal?

    • Nico says:

      I consider my accent to be fairly close to GenAm (I’m from Northern Virginia), but I pronounce “divisible” as (dɪ.’vɪ.zɪ.bəl).

      • Daniel says:

        My voice and speech teacher constantly told us that we use schwa more than we think when she would correct our transcriptions when I was first learning. Unless someone gives equal stress to all syllables (which is certainly possible – Welsh dialects tend to do this), [dəˈvɪzəbəl] would be a perfectly normal pronunciation, although I might argue that the final syllable tends to be a syllabic ‘l’ [dəˈvɪzəbl̩].

  10. Mark says:

    I’m surprised (or maybe not) that she would make this kind of comment, especially about “dictionary standard.” As noted, most dictionaries do not include pronunciations in IPA, since it’s not familiar to most people. Without a commonly known, universally-accepted way to indicate pronunciation, a dictionary pronunciation will be accented. When I see a long i, I pronounce it as a long i. But, since I’m from the southern US, my long i does not sound like the long i of a person from many other parts of the US. But it is certainly dictionary standard.

  11. Ellen K. says:

    The idea of one accent being “dictionary standard” strikes me as odd since most American dictionaries use pronunciation guides designed to apply to multiple accents, with a symbol representing a phoneme, but not telling you how to pronounce that phoneme.

  12. Pingback: More on Dictionary Pronunciations | Dialect Blog

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