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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Axcuse my Eccent

Minutes before meeting Doctor Bean at LAX for the first time in December, I had Mrs. Balabusta try on a stereotypical Wisconsin accent, just to mess with the good doctor. What resulted sounded more like a Jamaican cleaning lady, so we nixed the idea, and she ended up speaking in her normal voice. Of course, Doctor Bean still asked what kind of accent she had. That surprised me, because I didn't think she had one.

Turns out Mrs. B's accent isn't as neutral as I thought:

"Native Wisconsinites pronounce some words a little differently than their peers across the country.
Milk can sound more like melk.
Bag can sound more like beg.

"Two dramatic linguistic shifts are pushing toward the state from opposite sides. From Minnesota to the west comes the shift known as the Low-Back Merger. In this shift, the "o"sound is merging with the "au" sound. Example:
Caught is sounding more and more like cot.

"From the Southeast comes what linguists call the Northern Cities Shift. Examples:
Cot is sounding more like cat.
The female name Dawn is pronounced more and more like the male name Dan.
The name Dan, in turn, is pronounced more like Don."

Read more here.


Tzipster91 said...

When we went to Detroit for a Shabbaton, the midwestern accent was a topic of discussion...they didn't think they had one, we thought they did. Especially when 'stop' is pronounced 'stap'.

cruisin-mom said...

The movie Fargo...now those are some accents!

Another meshugannah mommy said...

I never thought I had an accent until I went to camp in Pennsylvania. Who knew?

PsychoToddler said...

I never knew my Mother had an accent until I moved away from home:

"What do you mean? My Mother doesn't have an accent!

"Yeah, I know she's from Poland..."

Now, I realize that my sisters have Polish accents, and they were born in Queens.

Ralphie said...

My freshman-year roommate said my dad has a Texan accent. Which is weird, since he grew up in East St. Louis.

Tziporah said...

They didn't mention "aint-so" in the article!

In Manitowoc, 82 miles north of Milwaukee, the consonants are distinct. By the time the word gets to Milwaukee it slides into "ain-na" with the N sound barely pronounced. It's also expressed as "ain-na hey" in Brewtown.

Doctor Bean said...

I didn't think I was imagining that. Leave it to a Los Angeles Romanian to detect a Wisconsin accent.

By the way, look out for that Low Back Merger. It sounds like the kind of thing you'd need to take ibuprofen for.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

But the main question is, after so long away from NYC can you still distinguish Mary, merry, and marry?

PsychoToddler said...

Me? I don't have any accent.

Kiwi the Geek said...

Didn't Mrs. B grow up in M'waukee? How did you figure she didn't already have a Wisconsin accent? I would bet money she says 'bubbler' instead of 'drinking fountain'.

I've never heard any of the idiosyncracies described above. Most people I know say 'bag' with a long 'A'. I have friends from Ohio who insist that I pronounce 'Wisconsin' nasally, but I know I don't say it the way they imitate me.

zahava said...

LOL! I went to University in St. Louis, where I discovered that my neutral upstate-NY accent wasn't as neutral as I thought either! David posted about some of the more creative pronunciations of numbers when he turned "farty-far!" Another charming eccentricity was cl'yeahs, which I soon discovered meant "class."

Of course being a midwestern school, we did have our share of Wisconsinites. In addition to the classic bubbler and melk, there is another distinct Wisonsin sound -- ever notice how hard it is to distinguish merry, marry, and Mary when spoken by a Wisconsite?

PsychoToddler said...

CM: Fargo, oh yah, great movie, eh?

AMM: People from Philly have TERRIBLE accents.

Ralphie: People from the coasts have a hard time identifying accents. It's all foreign to them. Incidentally, people used to tell me my father sounds like he's from Georgia. He was born in Brooklyn.

Tziporah: Welcome! I never knew that, very interesting. Who are you who are so wise in the ways of Wisconsin?

Doctor Bean: My college roommate was Hungarian and he was an expert at analyzing and imitating various accents and dialects. We used to make the best Kung-fu soundtracks...

Kiwi: I guess I'm just used to it by now. She does use bubbler. After dating all those thick-accented NY girls, I think it was refreshing to be able to talk to someone who was intelligible.

Zahava: If I ever have to marry a merry Mary, I'll let you know.

BTW, I discussed my family accent here.

Eshet Chayil said...

I've been trying to kick the brooklyn accent. About midwest accents, I for sure notice them. I guess everyone has some sort of an accent to another person.

Wickwire said...

I want a John Kennedy Sr. accent. Where can I get it?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Why woodja wawnna kick da B(r)ooughklin aksin(t)? Ih'ss soh much fuhn ta intihmadate peepul wih(th)!


Sweettooth120 said...

I grew up in Orlando until I was 12 and never thought we had Southern accents until I went back to visit in college. My mother's side of the family is from Jacksonville and boy do they have a Southern slang. I don't think I have a southern accent but I do pronounce some of my words in a Southern way...like Ceement or Thee-ater.

Many years ago, my girlfriend who grew up in the Bronx and I were in a car accident in South Carolina. She was getting so frustrated because people kept coming over to us and asking if we had called or needed a Wrecker. "Why do they keep asking us if we needed a wrecker, WE NEED A TOW TRUCK!" I laughed as I explained to her that a Wrecker IS a tow truck.

I went to college in Boston and it wasn't long before I picked up the accent without even knowing it. One time, I was showing a friend, pictures of some famous rock formations (the Garden of the Gods)in Colorado and I shocked myself and my friend when I said " the Gahden of the Gahds!"

PsychoToddler said...

Wickwire: Ask not what this blog can do for you...

EC: Yes, there is a definite midwest accent. Chicago is horrific.

Jaime: Funny you should mention Jacksonville: I remember as a kid driving with my folks through Jacksonville on the way to Miami. We stopped off at a grocery store to try to buy a package of Matza (it was right before Passover). The clerk looked an my mother and said, "Is that Jewfood?"

I tend to be a bit of an accent chamelion myself.

Steg, what did you think? Did I sound New Yawkish to you?

Ezzie said...

After holding off for a couple days... I've always been surprised when I meet people from Milwacky that can carry conversations (let alone host a blog!). When I was there, I'd say 85% of what I heard included:

"Onh Yanh, don-cha noh it." "Go pAckurs." "Onh yanh shoor, yoo bet-chah." "Brett Fahrv is GOD." And of course, the ol'... "Yanh, thot's my friend (name). He's awlso my first cousin." :)

I was dying when I saw Fargo, btw...

Ezzie said...

I think most people are accent chamelions to an extent - I noticed I always put on a bit of an accent when I talk to my friends from South Africa, Milwaukee, Chicago... everywhere but N** Y***. :)

Sweettooth120 said...

When I graduated College, I took a trip to Florida and stopped by my childhood house. I recognized my neighbors and so I said hi and asked if they remember the child that lived next door. The neighbor replied with a strong Southern accent "You mean that little Jewish Girl?"

Yep...that's what I grew up with, that and someone burning a cross in the first and only black family's yard who moved into the neighborhood.

Kiwi the Geek said...

I have no idea what the difference might be between Mary, marry and merry. I've never heard anybody pronounce them differently.

I cultivate sort of a redneck/Yooper (UP of MI) accent most of the time. Of course not when I'm applying for a job or suchlike, but in daily life I really enjoy talking that way naturally.

BTW, 'bubbler' is not a WI thing. Only M'waukee and surrounding area. And has anybody besides me noticed that M'waukeeans never pronounce the L?

Sweettooth120 said...

If I remember correctly, don't they use the word Bubbler in Boston/ New England too?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


I don't remember, sorry :/


Should i record a sample for you?

PsychoToddler said...

Steg: Please do. I don't say Mary or Marry differently, but Merry is easily distinguished.

Kiwi the Geek said...

Now this I gotta hear.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Here ya go:

Merry Marry Mary

Kiwi the Geek said...

That is the strangest thing I've every heard. As familiar as I am with phonics, from teaching reading, I'm so steeped in my pronunciation habits I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to differentiate those three. After listening to the recording, I can't figure out which way I say it!

PsychoToddler said...

So, Steg, is that how it's supposed to be pronounced, how it's not supposed to be pronounced, how you pronounce it, how NYers pronounce it, or what?

That last one--"me-aary" is very Queens. That's like, "it's time for your bee-ath".

AFAIK, Mary and marry should be the same.

But I've been living in the Midwest for 15 years, ehna?

big brother said...


the recording -- clear, but creepy!

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


thanks :-) the same thing happens to me with i think too much about the distribution of the sounds "aw" and "ah" in certain words in my dialect, like "forest" or "orange".


Well, i definitely think it's how it's supposed to be pronounced :-) but i don't think perscriptive American English grammars require it. Not sure though, since i'm a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. It's how many people in the NYC area pronounce it, and it's a conservative form the preserves phoneme (sound) distinctions lost in other dialects.



Kiwi the Geek said...

I'm not sure if a single vs. double R is supposed to affect a vowel, phonetically, but those were valid phonetic pronunciations. With a NY accent, of course. I should investigate this.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Language Samples Project: New York English

Wikipedia: NY/NJ English

PsychoToddler said...

That's very interesting, Steg. It talks quite abit about the Jewish variety of NY talk and how there appears to be a widespread "Jewish Accent" that even Jews who never lived in NY have.

Explains why I thought TorontoPearl sounded like she was from the Bronx, or why Stacey from Texas sounds like Fran Drescher. I mean, Like Fran Drescher, she sounds!

Mrs. Balabusta said...

First of all and for the record -
I was born in Milwaukee and have lived in Chicago, Manhattan, the Bronx and back to Milwaukee.

I speak fluent Chicago, Brooklyn, Monsey, Jersey and Bronx. I have not spent enough time in California to pick that one up yet. I don't know for sure they have one.

I say bubbler all the time, and everyone here knows what I mean, so it's just 99% of the planet that is in the dark. I'm okay with that.

Aina-hey is more south Milwaukee and Cudahy than main Milwaukee. But you left out the popular

Anyone who thinks the Psychotoddler doesn't have an accent should ask him to peel you an Aranj.

He won't -of course- because those little peely things get under his fingernails. HOwever, he will eat an Aranj if it is peeled for him.

U donna thin I spoilem - do ya?

PsychoToddler said...


Kiwi the Geek said...

But what does Aina-hey mean?

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I'm gonna guess it means something like "ain't it, eh?"