Whether you’ve lived here your whole life or just moved to St. Louis, you’ve probably noticed the, erm, particularities of the way St. Louisans speak. From the “ar” pronunciation that creeps into words like “forty” (fahr-ty) and “wash” (warsh) to the Nelly-esque “here” (hurr) to area-specific vocabulary like “hoosier” or “catty corner,” there is something different going on here.
Randy and Jeff Vines, St. Louis enthusiasts and owners of STL Style on Cherokee Street, have long had a fascination with the St. Louis dialect. They served as author Edward (Ted) McClelland’s colloquial guides in St. Louis as he wrote “How to Speak Midwestern,” which dissects the many dialects of the Midwest.
Randy said he was so interested in why his family members spoke the way they did that in college he wrote a term paper on the subject.
“There are research papers from highly esteemed linguists from all over the country who’ve studied the St. Louis dialect,” Randy said. “They’ve determined that it is, indeed, an urban speech island. There’s only a few in the interior Midwest: Cincinnati is one, Pittsburgh is another and St. Louis is a very notable one. There are dialect patterns and features in St. Louis speak that are very unique to this city and decidedly urban in character.”
The Vines brothers and McClelland joined St. Louis on the Air on Wednesday to discuss the particularities of the dialect and were met with tens of calls and emails on the subject.
Do Midwesterners/St. Louisans have an accent?
As Colleen Abdenroth wrote to us before the program: “I have been told when I had traveled to the East Coast and even when living in Kansas City for college that I have a ‘St. Louis accent.’ What is a ‘St. Louis accent’? I have the general belief my speech is non-distinctive but apparently not.”
Midwesterners generally don’t believe they have accents, said McClelland, who believes that quirk is an important part of regional identity. The idea of the Midwestern accent as a “standard” American accent (by which foreign actors learn how to sound American in movies), hails back to the 1920s, when a philologist at Hiriam College in Ohio, a leading pronunciation expert, began to promote accents he was hearing in northern Ohio over the predominantly used Transatlantic accent, which dropped the “R” off of many words (example here).
NBC adopted that Midwestern accent as a standard for its broadcasters so voices that many Midwesterners grew up with, like Edward R. Murrow, spoke in a more familiar way.
“Everyone has an accent,” McClelland said. “Some are more socially acceptable than others. The Midwestern accent came to be an American standard in that way.”
The accents of the Midwest can be divided into three regions, said McClelland:
- North-Central: This is that famous Fargo accent. It was influenced by an influx of Germans and Scandinavians to the area.
- Inland-North: The lower Great Lakes area, but increasingly you can hear this type of accent in St. Louis. It was influenced by the migration of Yankees from New England.
- Midland: From Pittsburgh to Missouri and Iowa. It was influenced by Scots-Irish migration.
Midwesterners tend to enunciate their vowels and “Rs” more clearly than someone on the East Coast, Randy said. Likewise, Midwestern accents often have a raised “a” sound.
Another accent point of note is the distinctive difference between African-American and white ethnic dialects.
“One thing I learned in my research is that the Midwest has the highest level of accent variation between whites and African Americans than any other part of the country,” McClelland said. “When African-Americans moved up to the Midwest to work in industries, they were residentially segregated from whites into ghettos. They were isolated from whites professionally and socially. In general they retained their southern speech characteristics.”
If you visit somewhere like New York, African-Americans and whites sound very similar. That’s not the case in the Midwest, which is something you’ll notice in Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.
There are some very specific St. Louis dialect attributes that make it different from anywhere else in the Midwest.
One of the most notable, and specific-to-St. Louis dialect characteristics, is the interchangeability of “OR” sounds for “AR” sounds. You hear it in words like “forty” (pronounced fahr-ty) and “wash” (pronounced “warsh”).
Randy gave the example that his grandmother used to tell him and Jeff that they were “barn at Barnes,” meaning they were born at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Other examples include words like “extraordinary” (pronounced extrah-dinary) or “organize” (pronounced “arganize”).
“This is one of those colloquial features that evolved over time due to immigration and settlement patterns,” Randy said.
The typical St. Louis dialect is rooted deeply in the central corridor of the city, on the south and north sides and inner-ring suburbs as well. Different ethnic groups, such as a Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Irish-Americans also have different versions as well.
Randy said that another notable part of the African-American St. Louis dialect was popularized thanks to rapper Nelly in the early 2000s: this would be the pronunciation of the words “here” (as hurr) and there (as thurr).
“It is known pop culture in St. Louis ,” Randy said. “While that does exist, I think it has been magnified because it is sexy to have some kind of hook to popularize the faddish trend of the day.”
And that’s when we come to another part of dialect: vocabulary. Probably the most notable example of words St. Louisans say that other people don’t is the word “hoosier,” which does not refer to people from Indiana, the Hoosier state.
“That’s still the preferred derogatory term for certain types of people,” Randy said. “It’s only in St. Louis, it’s unique. It is always associated with urban or suburban white trash. It could be comical too like: ‘Oh, did you see those drapes they put up? It’s so hoosier.”
Theories about where that came from range from Indiana auto workers or soldiers during the Civil War coming to the area and St. Louisans thinking they were underclass citizens.
McClelland catalogues 40 such terms in his book.
The St. Louis dialect is truly an island unto itself: it sounds different from the rest of the Missouri and even from other large, urban areas in the state.
“Kansas City’s is more reflective of the rest of the state around it,” Randy said. “Whereas St. Louis stands in stark contrast to its hinterlands anywhere else in the region.”
Something that’s not unique to St. Louis? The mispronunciation of foreign names. While we may say French words like “Gravois,” “Laclede” and even “St. Louis” without a French accent, examples can be found from all across the region that ignore the pronunciation as well. Versailles, Cairo, San Jose, Detroit, and Des Plaines all jump to mind.
“Back when cities were named, people just read these things,” McClelland said. “They didn’t have recordings where they could be pronounced. That’s the pre-broadcast factor.”
How the St. Louis accent is changing.
The St. Louis accent is starting to shift a little bit more toward the Inland-North accent varietal. McClelland says this is a result of Route 66 and I-55 and the connection to Chicago. You can still find strong, thick accents in groups in St. Louis that grow up and stay in the same areas for a long time, such as firefighters, policemen and industrial workers.
McClelland said that the watering down of regional accent is something that is happening all across the Midwest and the United States. Regional accents are far more predominant with baby boomers than with millennials.
“One of the conclusions I made while writing this book is that education and social mobility are the greatest accent levelers,” McClelland said. “Even more than television.”
This often has to do with a perception of class. McClelland used the example of the Chicago accent, which goes down in history in these infamous SNL skits, which poked fun at “dese,” “dem” and “dose” pronunciation of “these,” “them” and “those.”
Traditionally, workers in Chicago didn’t have to leave the neighborhood they grew up in to get a job, and the thick Chicago accent was considered a sign of masculinity. Those jobs disappeared, McClelland said.
“Now, people modulate their accent to deal with people outside their area,” McClelland said, and teachers instruct students to cut colloquial speech in order to open better job opportunities.
In Missouri, the most prominent example of this may be in how people differentiate in saying “Missouri” versus “Missourah,” depending on what part of the state (rural or urban) a person is in.
“There’s always a social component to what people hear when they hear your accent,” McClelland said. “I think it is unfortunate that strong regional accents have come to be considered less sophisticated than speaking in a more neutral ‘American’ accent.”
So go ahead, say “farty,” you’re preserving a critical part of St. Louis history.
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.