Steve Pickett is fascinated by accents. “It tells you a lot about somebody,” he says.
A Cleveland native, Pickett moved to Columbus a decade ago for business school at The Ohio State University. After arriving, however, he was struck more by what he didn’t hear.
“There never seemed to be any consistency with the accent itself or any marker that tipped me off to the fact that someone was from Columbus,” Pickett says.
He asked WOSU’s Curious Cbus project to investigate: Does Columbus have an accent?
The Nonexistent Accent
Pickett isn’t alone in his confusion. In fact, the very idea of a Columbus accent is controversial, even to people outside of the city.
I spent an afternoon this summer wandering around the Ohio State Fair, meeting residents from across the state. "Do you think there is a Columbus accent?" I asked them.
Most everyone responded the same way.
“I’ve never heard one,” replied Angela McClintock of Akron. Zacharias Hailu from Whitehall shook his head: “Honestly, I don’t think we have an accent at all.”
Steve Sparks, who was born in Bellefontaine, said there’s no accent in Columbus—but there is in the southern part of the state. A lot of the fairgoers had similar comments.
“Maybe down south, Portsmouth area,” said Leroy Wilburn of Etna. “They talk a little bit slower, and they move a little bit slower.”
“There’s a southern Ohio accent for sure,” said Judy Solar of Columbus. “And up near Toledo there’s a little bit of an accent.”
I noticed something of a conundrum developing. How is it possible that southern and northern Ohio have accents, but Central Ohio doesn’t?
Everyone Has An Accent
The debate over the Columbus accent—and whether it even exists in the first place—has simmered for almost 100 years. Of course, if you ask a linguist, “Does Columbus has an accent?” a much different answer awaits.
“Given that I’m a professor, you’re probably not going to be surprised that my answer is, it depends by what you mean by an accent,” says Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, a linguistics professor at The Ohio State University who specializes in the accents of Ohio.
Campbell-Kibler says that when linguists talk about regional accents, they’re referring to a few different things. Part of an accent comes from the way people pronounce vowels and consonants; the other factor is unique words or phrases.
“I think the features that people tend to pay attention to or they tend to care about and make distinctions about, Columbus tends to not have a lot of those,” Campbell-Kibler says.
So yes, Columbus has an accent. Everyone has an accent. It’s just that the particular features of the Columbus accent aren’t as immediately obvious.
“That’s a lot of what we mean when we say somebody not having an accent,” she says. “We mean, ‘Well, the particular ways that you talk aren’t things I really notice or care about as being important for where somebody is from.’”
Rest assured, the Columbus accent has at least one cheerleader: Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania professor David Durian.
“Ohio is interesting because you have actually, depending on what dialect survey you look at for results, either two or three major accent areas within the whole state,” says Durian, who wrote his thesis at Ohio State on the Columbus accent.
Cleveland and Toledo belong to what’s sometimes called the “Northern Cities” or "Inland North" accent, sharing similarities to Buffalo and Chicago. Athens and the bottom of the state fit into an “Upper Southern” accent, mixing with some elements of Appalachian speech.
Columbus is part of what’s called the “Midland” accent, which stretches from the edge of Pennsylvania west to Indiana, Illinois and into Kansas.
One of its features is the way we say “cot” and “caught.” In Columbus, the two words sound exactly the same. Linguists label this the “low-back merger” because of where the vowels fall in our mouth.
Another feature of the Midland accent is “back vowel fronting.” For example, the word “bets” ends up sounding more like “bits,” because the tongue comes closer to the front of the mouth.
The same thing happens with the OO sound in words like “rude” or "dude,” and the OH sound in words like “go” or “boat.” Durian says this vowel shift is something Ohio has in common with California.
Durian also identified some regional phrases in Columbus. Somebody from this area is more likely to say “the laundry needs washed” instead of “the laundry needs to be washed.”
Columbus residents also have a habit of turning brand names into a possessive, i.e. Kroger’s, Meijer’s, Jo Anne’s. According to Durian, that’s a working-class feature found in a few cities.
Much Ado About R
One of the most important parts of the Midland accent is called the “postvocalic R.” That means typical speakers in Columbus pronounce R when it comes after a vowel.
When you ask people what regions have noticeable accents, they’ll often mention places like the South, New York or maybe Boston. It's no coincidence that those are all regional dialects that drop the R.
Why is everyone so concerned about R? For more than a century, this letter has been intimately tied to notions of class, race and American identity.
According to Thomas Paul Bonfiglio (from his book Race And The Rise Of Standard American), U.S. radio broadcasters in the 1930-40s tasked themselves with establishing a “model” of English speech. The burgeoning medium of radio provided an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate “proper” language to millions of Americans.
Kathryn Campbell-Kibler says broadcasters hoped to define “what it means to sound like an educated American.” At the same time, those men—they were almost entirely white men—wanted to erase speech they saw as “sloppy,” “offensive,” and “impure.”
“Part of what they were doing was they were avoiding what they saw as the taint of immigration and racial diversity that they saw as living in East Coast cities,” Campbell-Kibler says.
Radio broadcasters zoomed in on one accent marker in particular: the dropped R.
“It is well known that races which habitually pronounce their R’s are easily heard, while races that habitually do not pronounce their R’s are inaudible,” wrote Frank Vizetelly in his 1933 book How To Speak English Effectively.
Vizetelly, who established a school for announcers at CBS, was concerned with maintaining the “purity” of American English. In his mind, the Midwest was the place to be—and Ohio in particular.
Vizetelly and other educators felt that broadcasters could evoke trustworthiness and objectivity by imitating the speech of the “heartland.” Eventually, when radio announcers and TV journalists began sounding like they were from the Midwest, the “broadcaster’s dialect” became understood as normal.
Even though Ohio has changed a lot since the 1930s, that myth of the “accentless accent” remains today.
At the Ohio State Fair, I had another question for fairgoers: "Do you think you have an accent?" And once again, their answers were pretty similar.
“I don’t, but people say I do,” replied Desiree Beakner, a Columbus native.
“No,” said Leroy Wilborne. “Because I’m from Ohio.”
That’s not surprising to Campbell-Kibler.
“A lot of people in Columbus are very proud of the idea that it’s a place that doesn’t have an accent, because that has a special meaning for people,” she says. “In the U.S. especially, having an accent tends to be associated with—sometimes people talk about it not being as educated or not sounding polished or professional.”
But she says there’s hope yet for the Columbus accent. Other regional accents like Chicago or Minnesota only gained recognition in the last few decades, thanks to forces in popular culture, economics and immigration. Ohio isn't immune to those shifts.
“Honestly, nobody knows why speech changes over time, but we know that it does and it pretty much always does,” Campbell-Kibler says. “It’s always in flux.”
Another hundred years in the future, who’s to say what Columbus will sound like then?
Ask your own question below about the culture of Central Ohio, and WOSU may answer for our next Curious Cbus story.