Excerpted from How To Speak Midwestern

By Edward McClelland

Every part of the United States has its own accent. The Midwest — defined, for the purposes of this book, as west of Exit 41 on the New York State Thruway, east of the Missouri River, and north of the Ohio River — has three distinct dialect regions, each formed by nineteenth-century migratory patterns. The Inland North — the lower Great Lakes from Buffalo to Milwaukee — was settled by Yankees from western New England who imported their flat, nasal speech to the Midwest. The Midland, which stretches from western Pennsylvania in a belt across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, coincides with the westward route of Scots-Irish who arrived in this country through Philadelphia and Baltimore, bringing with them such still-in-use terms as “jag” for thorn and “run” for creek. The North Central encompasses Upper Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, destinations for Germans and Scandinavians who transposed pronunciations and grammatical features from their native languages onto English. If you’ve ever heard an Iron Ranger from Minnesota say “Let’s go Dulut’,” you’ve heard the lack of prepositions or a th sound that mark Finnish at work in English.

With so much linguistic diversity in our own region, why do Midwesterners believe we speak an unaccented English? The answer goes back to the early twentieth century, and the dawn of broadcasting. At the time, Midwestern speech was not the default, or even the most prestigious, way of speaking American English. The Transatlantic Accent associated with upper-class northeasterners such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, actress Katharine Hepburn, and, later, author George Plimpton, was a British-influenced manner of speaking popular with politicians and film stars. It was considered so sophisticated that even Ohio-bred president William McKinley used it in his public speeches, telling his fellow citizens that “recent events have imposed upon the patriotic people of this country a responsibility and duty greatah than that of any since the Civil Waugh.” But Transatlantic English was artificial, affected, and associated with a social class that would lose credibility during the Great Depression.

In the 1920s, the industrial Midwest wielded far more political, cultural, and economic influence that it does today. Between Ulysses S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, seven of the nine presidents who entered the White House by election were from Ohio. Cleveland billed itself as “the best location in the nation,” because it was situated within 500 miles of half the North American population — a claim no longer true, now that so many Midwesterners have moved to the Sun Belt. The steel mills and auto plants drew millions of Southern and Eastern European immigrants who adopted Inland North as their dialect model. Perhaps most importantly, the nation’s leading pronunciation expert was John S. Kenyon, a philologist at Ohio’s Hiram College, which is just east of Cleveland. Kenyon was the author of two books, American Pronunciation (1924) and A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English (1944), and was pronunciation editor of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language. In these roles, Kenyon championed rhoticity, the pronunciation of r’s wherever they appear in words: he preferred “war” to the Transatlantic “waugh.” Kenyon also favored pronouncing “not” like “naht,” instead of “nawt.” These were both features of the Inland North speech he heard in northeastern Ohio.

Kenyon’s pronunciation standards influenced James F. Bender, author of the NBC Handbook of Pronunciation. The most oft-heard newscasters of the World War II era — Lowell Thomas, H.V. Kaltenborn, and Edward R. Murrow — pronounced all their r’s, as Kenyon would have advised.

After World War II, non-rhoticity — the dropping of r’s — fell completely out of favor with Middle America. Katharine Hepburn asked her leading men, “Ahh you coming, deah?” but Doris Day, a native of Cincinnati, asked, “Are you coming, dear?” An increasingly middle-class society had no use for posh upper-class accents.

At the same time, in a further blow to non-rhoticity, lower-class New Yorkers became stigmatized in popular culture as clownish wiseacres — Bugs Bunny, the Bowery Boys — or thuggish gangsters. And Southerners, of course, were uneducated bigots whose r-less drawls were associated with racist sheriffs and senators. Some of the late twentieth century’s most popular broadcasters were from parts of the country where r-dropping is essential to the local accent — Mike Wallace from Massachusetts, David Brinkley from North Carolina, Dan Rather from Texas — but they all adopted the rhotic pronunciation recommended by Kenyon. When newsman Bob Schieffer interviewed at CBS, he told his prospective boss he had worked for a TV station in Texas. “We have no interest in anybody with a regional accent,” the man said. By “regional,” he meant Southern. Schieffer got the job and lost his accent.

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