Kelsey Thomas celebrates 314 Day the way many St. Louisans do: she puts on a Cardinals shirt and orders some Imo’s Pizza. If she’s feeling nostalgic, she’ll tune in to Hot 104.1.
But a few years ago, she started a new tradition for March 14. To show off her city’s accent, she curated a list of words that end with an “R” sound — chair, hair, millionaire — and posted them on Twitter with the hashtag #314DayAccentChallenge. The words highlight a unique feature of a local accent that has been celebrated by St. Louis rappers and studied by linguists.
“I wanted something just for us,” Thomas said. “And I wanted other people who follow me to know what our accent is like.”
Her inspiration came from popular “accent tag” videos on YouTube. In the videos, people read a list of words out loud. Most read from the same few lists, but Thomas wanted to highlight her city’s accent. When Thomas reads them, “chair,” “hair,” and “millionaire” all end with an “urr” sound.
“It’s just that ‘R’ — that very hard ‘R’ — that sets us aside from everywhere else,” she said.
It’s a feature St. Louis rappers Nelly and Chingy brought national attention to in the early 2000s with their songs “Hot in Herre” and “Right Thurr.”
“I want people to know that this is how we really talk,” she said with a laugh. “People think that Nelly invented that! I’ve been talking like this for 27 years.
An accent shaped by geography, migration and segregation
Our local pronunciation of R’s is just one reason linguists find St. Louis interesting.
“Everything collides linguistically in St. Louis,” said John Baugh, a Washington University professor who has spent much of his career studying variations in African-American English. “It’s where the South meets the North. It’s where the East meets the West.”
Linguists theorize that the “urr” sound traveled to St. Louis from the South at some point during the Great Migration. Some natives of Memphis and Mississippi speak with a similar feature.
Extreme segregation in St. Louis, reinforced by redlining and restrictive housing covenants, likely isolated the dialect and helped keep it intact, Baugh said.
“St. Louis has a very layered history of racial segregation,” he said. “And when you have segregation, you start to get unique linguistic characteristics.”
But it wasn’t until Nelly caught the nation’s attention with songs that emphasized his accent that linguists started to pay attention to the black accent in St. Louis. (The rapper was recently accused of sexual assault by multiple women.)
St. Louis rap sparks linguistic research
Inspired by the work of Nelly, Chingy and other St. Louis rappers, a group of linguists at New York University began studying the “urr” sound in the mid-2000s. At the time, many linguists still wrongly believed that African-American English sounded the same all across the country — a myth that persisted in the field for decades.
“They just hadn’t done the work to show what African-Americans actually knew to be true,” said Cara Shousterman, one of the NYU researchers who traveled to St. Louis for the study.
As St. Louis rappers gained fame, many outside the region assumed the accent they were using was just for show. The linguists doubted that was the case. So they set out to measure the prevalence of the “urr” feature and pinpoint when it caught on.
To collect data, they interviewed and recorded St. Louisans of different ages and races. They gave interview subjects passages and word lists to read aloud.
“It was really, really similar to what we actually see in the accent challenge that people are doing on Twitter,” Shousterman said. In fact, many words they used in the study are the same ones Kelsey Thomas thought to include on her lists.
In the past, Thomas quickly typed out a list of words before posting the accent challenge on Twitter. But as the tradition gains popularity, she said she’s giving the list some more thought.
“I can’t keep doing the same words that sound the exact same every single year,” she said. “I do have to do a little bit of research.”
Follow Carolina on Twitter: @CarolinaHidalgo