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Our City Is an Island: St. Louis Dialects

St. Louisans don’t talk quite like the folks who live around them—and neither do the folks who live around them.

Illustration by Julia Kuo

Some volunteers in the Illinois Dialects Project thrill the academics by offering up phrases they’ve never heard, like “clabber milk” for cottage cheese or “ducky-bumps” for goosebumps. Others swear they use the pale, standard word for whatever—then slip, and slide a colorful regional variant into a sentence five minutes later. And a few get a tad defiant: “Warsh, warsh, warsh. That’s how I say it, and I’m proud of it!”

“We try to reassure them that we are just interested in describing what we are hearing,” says Larry LaFond, co-director of the project. “We are like marine biologists studying whale sounds—they don’t go back to their office saying, ‘Oh my gosh, the whales are doing it wrong!’”

He and his co-director, Kristine Hildebrandt, are professors of linguistics at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Two years ago, they launched the project by making high-tech digital recordings of pronunciations (Hildebrandt focuses on sounds), then developing an online survey (LaFond focuses on vocabulary and grammar). One Sunday morning, LaFond decided to check on the new website and fuss over it a bit. He found hundreds of people there, taking the survey.

He called Hildebrandt, and they worried aloud: Were they being hacked? Then they remembered talking to a reporter from the Belleville News-Democrat. That story had just come out, and people were rushing to the site.

We all love to talk about how we talk. It’s childhood and our hometown and how our grandma said it; memories and stories and the code words that prove we belong.

LaFond, for example, studied Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German in seminary, but he grew up in Minnesota, where you bring your hot dish and bars (casserole and square-pan dessert) to the church basement, unless there’s black ice. Hildebrandt specializes in the indigenous languages of Nepal—she’s even written a grammar and dictionary of the Tibeto-Burman language Manange—but when she goes home to northern Massachusetts, she pahks the cah in the yahd like the rest of her family.

Laura Wehmer-Callahan, a former graduate assistant who’s staying on to help with the project, grew up in Florissant and still cheerfully asks friends “Where are you at?”—grammar be damned. Undergrad research assistant Matt Vallejo grew up in Chicago.

“I have a lot of friends from the South Side, which is heavily Irish, and they will say ‘Ma’ for ‘Mother’ and eat a ‘sammich,’” he reports, and LaFond grins. “That’s not Irish. It’s South Side of Chicago Irish.”

The number of survey participants at passed 800 a few months ago, and it’s rising steadily. The database now includes responses from St. Louis, in addition to those from Southern Illinois, plus a few samples from as far north as Cook County. And the researchers have enough questions to stay busy for years.

St. Louis has long been considered—but without much by way of hard proof—a “dialect island,” resisting changes that are taking place all around it. There were tantalizing studies a decade ago by linguist Thomas E. Murray, who pronounced St. Louis dialect “all but impossible to interpret.” Alas, Murray was recently convicted of murdering his ex-wife, so he’s no longer able to do field research. The SIUE researchers are taking up where he left off, testing the “island” hypothesis and, if there’s support for it, seeking to locate its boundaries.

They also want to test another long-held hypothesis: that there’s an Interstate 55 corridor, following the old trade path, that carries Northern speech patterns all the way down to St. Louis. Anecdotally, that influence seems to drop away as soon as you drive 15 minutes east or west of the interstate. Is that scientifically verifiable? And if so, just where does the Northern pattern shift?

Third, the team wants to document—and map—the rarely studied speech patterns of Southern Illinois. Cross the river, and the towns quickly turn rural, yet they’re not far from St. Louis. In Southern Illinois, speech patterns change subtly but definitely from place to place.

“As soon as you get outside Madison County, it changes,” Hildebrandt says. “Once you get into Jersey County, you find ways of using and pronouncing English that are quite different.”

Not even Madison and St. Clair counties share precisely the same dialect characteristics, and there are variations of usage in Macoupin, Bond, Jersey, Clinton, Monroe…

When you get as far south as Cairo, words relax and stretch out, languorous as a sleepy cat. Down in Little Egypt, people might drawl a request for a “Coke” no matter what carbonated beverage they’re talking about; they’re as influenced by the South as they are by the our region’s commonplace “soda” or more old-fashioned “sody,” and they’re not one bit likely to use the “pop” favored up North.

The Illinois Dialects database is already fat with lists: A mother’s mother might be Grandma, Memaw, Grandmama, Gammy, Ma-Ma, Oma, Grandma plus surname, Grandma plus first name, or Grandmother. A girl’s hair might be restrained by a stretchy band, elastic band, hair twisty, scrunchy, ponytail holder, pony rubber, hair tie, tieback, chongo. (Male respondents, mystified, often just leave that survey answer blank altogether.)

One sad note is emerging: Young people seem to have fewer and fewer words for nature, more and more for technology.

“Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads—we’ve heard young people say ‘prawns’ or ‘miniature lobster,’” says LaFond. “They’re just guessing. They don’t have a stabilized word for it.” Older folks have entire Whitmanesque categories for plants and birds: “We show a picture of a bug that walks on water, and we’ve heard about 39 names: water walker, skimmer, glider, jumper, Jesus bug…”

In Southern Illinois, the researchers are hearing what they call a “positive anymore”: “Gas is so expensive anymore, I’d rather walk.” St. Louisans frown at such usage and mark it incorrect. Then there’s “whenever” used for “when”: “Whenever my sister got married last year, I caught the bouquet.” In parts of Monroe County, “Who’s she from home?” is how you ask what a hometowner’s maiden name was. In other parts of Southwestern Illinois, people might pronounce “sink” as “zink,” voicing the S so it vibrates, rattling the voice box and coming out with a low hiss.

St. Louisans will always be famous for eating hot fudge sun-duhs, not sun-days. But our oft-maligned slanted pronunciation of I-44 (farty-fahr) and Forest (farrest) Park seems to fade a little more with each generation, as does the “intrusive R” that pops up when folks do their “warsh.”

Hildebrandt pores over computer models of digital voice recordings, noting where vowels are being formed—in the front of the mouth or the back?—and whether once-distinct vowel sounds are beginning to merge.

In certain parts of the country, especially the upper Northeast—but not the coastal areas—there’s a “low back vowel merger” taking place: “Dawn” is pronounced just like “don,” “cot” just like “caught.” You can hear those vowel sounds merge in western Missouri, but St. Louis hasn’t succumbed. So what about the Metro East? Is it more like St. Louis, or is the river a barrier?

Early hints indicate that the merger’s just starting in the Metro East. “The reason all this is in flux is that there’s something known as the Northern Cities Shift,” Hildebrandt explains. “It’s been happening over the past 40 or 50 years. The vowel sounds in ‘cat,’ ‘kit,’ and ‘bet’ are moving around in the mouth: The A becomes high in the mouth, and the I and E are pronounced farther back in the mouth. It’s affected Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee. But in St. Louis, the vowels aren’t moving around.”

Pittsburgh and Kansas City haven’t participated in the Northern Cities shift either—but they have undergone the don–dawn merger.

Maybe St. Louis is just being snooty?

“One of the last remaining fashionable prejudices has to do with language,” LaFond notes. “People feel completely justified poking fun at someone because of the way he is speaking. Dialect studies in part try to show that these are not just flaws in someone’s education or laziness in their speech. If we were somehow able to homogenize all our language, we would be the poorer for it.”

Consider Ozark English, which is closer to Appalachia than it is to our region’s dialect. “If we were farther southwest or farther east, we’d be looking at A-prefixing,” LaFond says. “People in the Ozarks might be a-goin’ someplace, or a-fixin’ to do something.”

Then there’s African-American English. It intrigues linguists because it’s complicated and distinct, with variations in sound, word choice, and grammar—plus it has a stigmatized history.

“How do you say ‘asked’?” LaFond asks abruptly. “People have violent reactions against Black English’s ‘axed.’ The problem is the combination of consonants, S-K-D, which is very hard to say. A lot of white folks drop out the K, but keep the same order of consonants. Black English keeps all the sounds, but transposes them. Both forms can be traced all the way back to Old English: ‘ascian’ and ‘axian.’ Both meant ‘asked.’”

The more things change, the more they stay the same—a truism that could have been invented for language itself. People blush at their own ways of talking, scrub them clean for company. Others wave flags of linguistic purity, trying to stamp out any variation in favor of official blandness.

“No need to worry—it’ll never happen,” LaFond says. He delights in words like “qualmish,” used for “queasy” in the outer banks of North Carolina, and slaps at grammar like his home state’s “Do you want to come with?”

“Dialect’s part of the fabric of this country,” LaFond says. “It’s what makes our language fun and colorful and interesting, and we’re not in any danger of losing it.”

Yeah, but the dialects study already indicates that young people are losing nature words, and their extensive vocabulary of technology words is bound to be standardized and flat…

“It’ll shift; language always does,” LaFond says. “But we’re not in any danger of losing the variety.” By way of example, he reaches for a USB mass storage device—also known as a flash drive, thumb drive, jump drive, and often, mistakenly, a memory stick…

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