Wait, I Have an Accent? Exploring Dialects at Dartmouth

by Maggie Doyle | 4/3/19 2:15am

 “Where are you from?” 

“Chicago.” 

“Oh my gosh ChicAAHgo hahaha.”

This strange phenomenon started on First-Year Trips. Every time I said the word “Chicago” people would, in unison, respond “ChicAAHgo,” exaggerating the harsh vowel sounds associated with the pronunciation of my hometown. 

Laura McPherson, an assistant professor of linguistics at Dartmouth, delved into the underlying causes of this phenomenon.

“In a stereotypical Chicago accent, the vowels are different,” she said. “Your vowels have undergone what’s called the Northern City Shift. This means that your ‘a’ vowel has pushed forward in your inventory.”

I’d heard of a Chicago accent before, but until I came to Dartmouth, I couldn’t identify it, much less believe I had it. However, this Trips phenomenon continued through my freshman fall, with people commenting on the Chicago accent I didn’t know I had. Slowly, I started to hear subtle differences in the way I pronounced things versus the way my Northeastern or Californian friends do. Despite having left the Midwest many times, I’d never noticed my harsh vowel sounds or regional linguistic idiosyncrasies. 

According to McPherson, most of understanding accents comes down to phonology. 

“There is a grammar for sounds that’s known as phonology,” she explained. “That basically tells you what your sounds are going to sound like in the language where they can occur ... We have a sound ‘t’ in English, but the ‘t’ in a word ‘tap’ sounds different than the ‘t’ in ‘butter.’”

Hailey Fox ’22 is from Nashville, TN, and she also didn’t think she had an accent until coming to Dartmouth.  

“I don’t really have an accent –– at least at home, compared to other people I don’t –– but when I came here, everyone noticed it a lot,” she said, adding that this was especially surprising to her because she was always able to notice her friends’ stronger Southern accents.

However, Fox has noticed some subtle ways in which her own pronunciations differ from those of her friends. 

“I feel like ‘eggs’ is pronounced differently,” she noted, “And other words with ‘e’ sometimes.” 

Despite being from New York, Cecily Craighead ’22 speaks with a soft British accent. 

“My parents are American,” she said, “and so I was born in New York City, but I moved to London when I was like two months old. I went to an English school system, so my accent is sort of a combination of my environment, and sort of growing up in an English school system and [being] surrounded by people with strong English accents, and my parents who were entirely American.”

Even growing up in London, Craighead initially had a slight American accent, but it began to shift after she started spending more time with teachers and friends from the United Kingdom. 

McPherson said this isn’t unusual, since young people are most influenced by their peers.

“There’s this critical period for language acquisition,” McPherson said. “Around the age 11, that’s when your language learning faculty starts to turn off … by the time you get to college, you can learn other language, but you’re never going to reach native fluency.”

Craighead left the United Kingdom and moved back to the United States when she was 14 years old. 

“I lost a lot of my English accent then –– particularly vocabulary because people will pay a lot of attention, or like to make fun of little words,” she said. 

However, her accent’s slight softening was miniscule compared to the change that occurred in her younger sister’s speech. Her sister was at the crucial age-11 threshold when they moved back. 

“My sister was three years younger, and hers is totally gone, while mine stayed,” Craighead said. “She only really uses some vocabulary, and it comes out when she’s nervous, but she tried really hard to lose hers, because she was 11 years old, in middle school, really wanting to fit in and all that.” 

When I went home over break, I finally understood what people meant when they referred to a Chicago accent. It sounded familiar, but I was surprised at myself for never noticing it. Weirder still, I also noticed a difference in my own voice. I remember saying “very” and then faltering, hearing how soft the vowel sound was, and realizing my voice was not my own — the pronunciation I’d just used was far more Northeastern than Chicago. The accent I didn’t know I’d had faded after only a term inside of the Dartmouth bubble. I certainly hadn’t meant to alter my voice and am almost sentimental about losing it.

According to McPherson, my case is not surprising. 

“You’ll probably see that in the student body here. Some people are going to meld more, lose more of their regional accents,” McPherson said. “It’s not totally understood why there are those differences. I’ve heard suggestions it may have to do with social cohesion, social intelligence, but I think all that is pretty contentious.”

For the same reason, your friend who came back from a study abroad with a slight accent may or may not be faking it. 

“Let’s say you go on a study abroad; are you going to come back with an accent? Some people yes, some people no. There’s kind of a push and pull when it comes to absorbing accents that aren’t your own,” McPherson said.  

McPherson added that accents are entirely relative, and what is considered “standard” is based on a broader set of criteria, often related to factors such as power structure and education. She elaborated on this phenomenon in the context of the United States, saying that as a seat of power and prestige, New England has generally set the standard of language, and people outside the region are often considered to have accents.

With this notion of bias in mind, perhaps students should rethink the way they communicate with those whose identities and experiences diverge from their own and inject some empathy into their own linguistic experience within the Dartmouth bubble.