Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I believed that midwesterners spoke without a noticeable accent. An English teacher of mine used to say that newscasters aspire to talk like midwesterners, whose flat speech is largely devoid of regional dialect.
So imagine my surprise when I left Chicago to attend college in Boston—and it seemed that everyone I encountered made a comment about my “Chicago accent.” The third person I met at college orientation, Meg, would go on to become one of my best friends and a roommate for the next three years. But at first, we could barely understand one another.
Meg is from Philadelphia but I swore she was from the deep south. She still says I had one of the strongest accents of anyone she met at BU—and our college is known for its robust international student body.
Rounding out our college roommate quartet were two girls who hailed from northern California and New Jersey. The four of us spent so much time dissecting each other’s accents that I think we could’ve qualified for a formal minor in it.
We also discovered that our accents were fluid. I went home on summer breaks talking like an East Coast-California hybrid (something my Chicago friends loved to pick on) and my Californian friend picked up a Chicago twang. Moreover, when I went back to Chicago, I could hear the midwestern accent everywhere. (“I forGAHT to call my MAHM and DYAD.”) How could we midwesterners ever claim that we were accent-less?!
This past weekend, one of my college roomies emailed us these Dialect Survey Results, compiled by Harvard linguists. Boy, are we all just products of our environments or what.
Below are some of my fav questions. Click on the links to see how the results differ across various regions of the U.S. Since you readers are from all over the country (and the world), I’d love to know how you pronounce these words. Please chime in with your variations and pronunciations—those of you outside the U.S. included!
1. How do you pronounce Mary, marry, and merry?
As a Chicagoan, I say them all the same. But my Philadelphian friend pronounces them each differently—and I must admit, it does make sense.
2. Those things you sleep in: PaJAMas or pajaaahmas?
This one surprised me. We midwesterners are in the minority pronouncing the second syllable like “jam.”
3. How do you pronounce cot and caught?
I say ‘em differently, but my Californian friend swears they’re the same.
4. What do women to use to tie back their hair: rubber band, hair tie, elastic, hair thing, or other?
For me, it’s hair tie, all the way. Elastic, on occasion. But never hair thing. And rubber bands are those tan, stretchy bands that you use for office supplies—never in your hair! Ouch.
5. The shoes you wear when you exercise: sneakers, tennis shoes, or gym shoes?
I discovered this is a distinctly upper midwest thing, but I call them gym shoes! I simply can’t call them anything else.
6. Soda, pop, or Coke?
Pop for me! My friends in Boston would occasionally giggle when I said pop but saying “soda” seems so… pretentious to me. Ha.
Help settle the debate on the website Pop vs. Soda. You can enter your hometown and what you call the beverage, and the website logs your data on the regional map.
I usually say lightning bug, but I’ve used both at times.
8. How do you pronounce syrup?
I’m really in the minority with this one but I say it like “sear-up.”