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8:03 pm
Wed January 15, 2014

What Does The Kansas City Dialect Sound Like?

This illustration of popular terms for soda beverages shows a vast difference right inside the state of Missouri.
This illustration of popular terms for soda beverages shows a vast difference right inside the state of Missouri.
Credit Joshua Katz / NC State University

There is a general myth that Midwesterners, or even Kansas Citians specifically, speak without an accent. But that is not the case. Linguistic distinctions in Midland speech exist, and have been changing, perhaps without us even noticing, over the past 50 years.

Kansas City is in the Midland speech region. It spans from Ohio through Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, then parts of Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. It excludes the St. Louis corridor.

Christopher Strelluf is a Kansas City native and linguistics graduate student at the University of Missouri.  He uses tests and interviews to examines how people in Kansas City talk.

His research focuses on white native Kansas City speech, and focuses on a group born between 1955-75, and another born in the 90s.

Minimal pairs test

One test used by Strelluf is a minimal pairs test. Subjects read word pairs that have one phonological difference. Here I am saying "bull" and "bowl" as part of the test:

"Bull" and "bowl" come out sounding the same, as I merge the "O" sound and the "U" sound.

"One of the craziest changes in terms of what we should be aware of but somehow aren’t, is that historically the vowel in caught, the vowel in the past tense of catch, and cot, like an army bed, those are completely different vowels," Strelluf says of another set of minimal pairs. "Over the last 50ish years these vowels have been coming closer and closer together and merging, becoming the same sound."

Linguists call this the cot/caught merger, it started off in the west and has spread east to Kansas City, and the Midland, it’s becoming more popular with  younger generations.

Other regionally specific mergers include "pull" and "pool,"' and "pin" and "pen" for men and boys. 

"People get very concerned about how language is changing," says Strelluf.  "Kids have always been ruining language, and you know now  they’re texting and 'OMG-ing' everything. And really the stuff that people are worried about as changing the language is really insignificant stuff when you think, we’re losing a vowel!"

The Harvard Dialect Survey, conducted by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder in 2003, breaks down mergers,  different pronunciations, and regional vocabulary by state.

Joshua Katz,  took the results from this survey with additional research and created an interactive quiz and map that identifies regional accents  for The New York Times.  

Katz's quiz and Strelluf's research go beyond word pronunciations, tongue position, and regional vocabulary (i.e. sneakers or tennis shoes, pop or soda.)  They also identify regionally specific grammatical structures. 

Kansas City and Midland speech examples

"The dog wants out." — as opposed to something like, "The dog wants to go out." 

"I want off the bus." — as opposed to something like, "I want to get off the bus."

"The floor needs swept."  "The car needs washed."  — "The say 'needs' and the past tense of a verb is a characteristic of midland speech," Strelluf says.

"We're going to the mall. Do you wanna come with?" - Is typically considered grammatical among younger generations.

"Remember those one kids we saw last week?" - Another acceptable construction with younger generations.

Other specific regional examples include putting highway numbers in front of the designation: for example "24 Highway," as opposed to "Highway 24."

Strelluf says Midlanders also use 'positive anymore,' or using the word ‘anymore’ which used to be part of a negative, as a positive.

"There’s plenty to do downtown anymore.” or "Anymore, movies are too expensive.”

These are all very regionally specific things, says Strelluf. "But nobody comments on it anywhere. So we don't realize that's its a very locally specific thing." Which he says is OK. It’s all part of the natural process. And as long as language is alive and vibrant, its going to change.  

So if you’re worried about being lost in translation or maybe judged when you say "car-ml" or  "car-a-mel,"  "you guys" or "y'all," "Missouri" or "Missoura," just relax. We all know what you mean.