Do Pacific Northwesterners have an accent and what does it sound like? Listener Molly in Tacoma asked that question as part of KUOW's Local Wonder series.
Molly never thought she had an accent until she moved to Virginia and was told she had one.
Some regional accents are obvious. But many in the Pacific Northwest describe themselves as speaking “standard,” “normal,” or “plain” English. But is that really the case? What do the experts say?
Luckily for us, we have one of the world’s foremost experts on Pacific Northwest English right here on the University of Washington campus. Professor Alicia Wassink is director of the school’s sociolinguistics laboratory. She laughed in response to Molly’s question, and then said yes, everybody has an accent. Ours may be subtle, but if you know what to listen for, it’s definitely there.
In fact, researchers have recently examined more closely at how people speak throughout the region and are finding that accents can vary between Oregon, western and eastern Washington.
Vowels And Mergers
For decades, scholars didn’t pay much attention to how people in the Pacific Northwest spoke. Linguistic textbooks grouped everyone from the Western United States together into one regional dialect.
Wassink grew up in Philadelphia, and when she arrived here 17 years ago, she suspected that wasn’t quite right. One piece of evidence? Transplants like herself sometimes misunderstood the locals.
She told the story of a student from Rhode Island who, when he arrived on campus, was invited to a party. He baked a cake, which he thought was the party’s theme.
“And when he got there he was shocked to discover that he had brought entirely the wrong thing to the party,” Wassink explained. “He thought that he was being invited to a ‘cake’ party, and he was being invited to a ‘keg’ party.”
Wassink wanted to know whether the confusion between words like "cake" and "keg" was widespread.
She applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to do a study. It involved interviewing several generations of people who were born and raised in the Northwest, including descendants of some of the first white settlers.
She spent hours recording their speech and then painstakingly chopped up key words to analyze each vowel sound. What she found was that locals do speak in distinctive ways.
They have unique pronunciations for words like bag, beg, egg, leg, peg – words that have an "a" or an "e" followed by a hard "g." Linguists call that "prevelar raising." It’s not unique to the Pacific Northwest, but it’s particularly widespread here.
The vowel is spoken with a more raised tongue and sounds more like the long "a" in "pay" or "bay." (You can listen to Wassink’s interview subjects saying those words here.)
Wassink found something else. There are certain pairs of words that people pronounce differently in other parts of the country, but that are pronounced the same here. Words like "don" and "dawn."
“Those two are words are homophonous for many people,” Wassink said. The same is true for the words "cot" and "caught." They both sound like "cot" for people from the Northwest.
Linguists call that a merger. That’s also not unique to the Pacific Northwest. But the combination of these linguistic traits make our version of English distinctive.
It’s not entirely clear why these distinctions exist, Wassink said. The first white settlers to the Pacific Northwest were from Illinois, Iowa, the mid-Atlantic states and the South, so it could be some unique combination of all of those dialects. Wassink said this region has also seen more ethnic integration than other parts of the country, and there’s also evidence that Native American languages might have influenced parts of our speech.
But it’s not just how we speak, it’s what we say that sets us apart. We use dozens of words and phrases that are distinctly our own.
The Dictionary of American Regional English contains 115 entries for the Pacific Northwest.
“One of them is the term that people use for the strip of grass between the sidewalk and street. In the Northwest it is very often called the 'parking strip,'” said Joan Hall, the dictionary’s chief editor. The dictionary has recorded 24 different descriptions that people use in the rest of the country.
The term “black ice” originated in the Northwest, as did “cabin fever,” and “spendy” for something that is expensive. “Daveno” is a Pacific Northwest term for sofa. There are many words of Native American origin, including "geoduck" and "Sasquatch," and unique local sayings such as “the mountain is out” when Mount Rainier is visible on the horizon.
The Pacific Northwest region isn’t uniform though. Researchers in Oregon have found some distinctively Oregonian ways of speaking.
Kara Becker, an assistant professor at Reed College, said Oregonians share many of the traits found in Washingtonians. But they have also taken on some of the features that are typically seen in California.
For example, Californians pronounce the word “boat” with the vowel towards the front of the mouth. That pronunciation is seen in Oregon as well.
“And that's interesting and reflective of Oregonians' place in the West Coast in terms of how they orient themselves in relation to California and Washington state," Becker said.
Researchers are also looking into whether eastern Washington has its own specific dialect features.
Betsy Evans, an associate professor of linguistics at UW, conducted a study on people's perceptions of language differences in Washington state. There is a common view that people in eastern Washington speak differently from those in western Washington. Many people use the term "country" or "southern" to describe the accent east of the Cascades.
Take our quiz: Do you have a true Northwest accent?
Evans is just starting to look into what those differences might be. But she suspects there is some influence from Midwestern dialects that she is familiar with.
"Anecdotally, in a few instances, I've heard things that reminded me exactly of my dialect region in what we call the midlands in Ohio," she said.
UW linguists are also looking at how four different ethnic groups in the region speak: Native Americans, Japanese Americans, African-Americans and Mexican Americans. That’s a subject of particular interest to Wassink, who is Jamaican-American.
John Riebold, a UW linguistics Ph.D. candidate, found that many of the dialect traits they’ve identified are shared across those ethnic groups.
“It’s very exciting to find that all the Northwesterners we record sound like, well, Northwesterners,” he said.
Cementing A Linguistic Identity
It’s hard to fathom that in this day of global travel, increased immigration and ubiquitous social media, a subtle accent like ours could survive into the future.
But linguists believe that dialects do not go away — in fact, they actually strengthen over time.
Wassink said it takes about three generations for a dialect to evolve. And language changes slowly, but she said it tends to remain distinctive.
“We are cementing, if you will, a linguistic identity that’s our own, even though there is so much continued contact with other dialects, so much media influence, all of these other things. Part of this strong sense of self of our region seems to be that there is a way that we talk as well.”
And who knows what we will sound like three generations from now.
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