Saturday, June 17, 2006

Say "AA"


Hey everyone. I was reading an article in the Democrat and Chronicle way back when that said that Rochestarians (like me), speak funny. I'll it post here!

Vowels speak volumes among 'funny-talking' Raachesterians

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(March 16, 2006) We may not know it, we may deny it and we might even be embarrassed about it, but a Pennsylvania linguist insists we talk funny in Raachester.

William Labov, a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, calls our dialect the "northern city shift," claiming we say our vowels a bit more oddly than other parts of the country.

"In all of western New York state, words with the letter 'A,' such as 'man,' 'Stan,' they shift and you begin to say the vowel of 'yeah,' " Labov says.

And there are twists to our pronunciation of other vowels. When we say "desk," others may hear us say "dusk."

In many parts of the country, the words "cot" and "caught" sound identical. Not in Rochester. And, to our credit, the dictionary denotes a subtle difference.

Labov recently co-wrote Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change (available, with a CD, for $620 from While mainly written for libraries and linguists, he hopes a less technical and less expensive version will follow.

"There's an awful lot of interest in it," he says.

Labov says the same pronunciation phenomenon occurs in Syracuse, Buffalo and Detroit, "but there's no question western New York is where it started."

Labov attributes our dialect to the building of the Erie Canal between 1818 and 1825, when people of various backgrounds came together to work.

"There were so many different varieties of language, they seemed to merge into a whole new dialect."

He says comedian Lily Tomlin, a native of Detroit, talks in a twang that clearly illustrates the northern city shift.

While there's a definite dialect in these parts, not everyone agrees with Labov about its origin.

Wolfgang Wolck, a distinguished professor of linguistics from the State University of New York at Buffalo, has studied speech in western New York for more than 30 years and discussed the region's pronunciation with Labov.

"Nobody talks funny here except for me because I'm German," Wolck says.

He admits the way we sound here differs from other parts of the country, but he calls the mutation the "Buffalo vowel shuffle."

Rochester residents, Wolck says, are known to speak with what he calls a "flat A."

"You say faaan-taaastic. Buffalonians call it a 'hard A.' A man's name is John, but sounds like a girl's name, Jan, in Buffalo."

He says the workers along the Erie Canal may have had some influence on the way we speak now, but immigrants settling to inland northern cities were a greater factor, which he calls an "ethnolect." The Irish, Italian, Polish and German populations settled in neighborhoods and were often segregated from the mainstream population and language.

The rural areas, outside the larger cities, didn't have such a strong dialect, he says. He says language was most affected in cities with a higher working-class (and less snobby) population, which tended to be less conscious of their speech.

He says the differences in dialect were more noticeable in 1970. Television has helped mainstream language. But Wolck sees that changing.

"The country is more diversifying than unifying," he says. "People are accepting those differences as part of the local flavor."

Labov agrees on that point. "Bigger, regional dialects are getting stronger, and more different from each other," he says. But rural dialects have gotten weaker, as have dialects in some other cities, including Cincinnati.

Ed Hall, president of the Greater Rochester Visitors Association, says it took more time learning the unusual pronunciations of some of our local communities, such as Charlotte, Chili, Lima and Avon, as well as the way we accent some of our syllables, such as "complimenTARY" versus "compliMENtary."

"I think that sort of thing is charming," says Hall, who maintains a Southern accent from his native Birmingham, Ala.

I think I speak normal, just like any other Native Rochestarian. You be the judge. Down below, this is an "Audio Blogger" audio sample of my voice posing the question. Listen and tell me if our accent sounds "normal" to you, or if we actually say "AA" instead of "O". If you think about it sometimes words with an O sound like "AA" doesn't it? Hmm, who knows? I'm, not an expert on accents, I just have one supposedly. I never got any complaints when I was in North Carolina, they just laughed when I said pop, instead of soda. Anyhoo, listen to my Audio post and tell me what you think. Until Tomorrow then!

this is an audio post - click to play


X. Dell said...

I wouldn't say that you sound funny, Charles. In fact you're diction is kind on the crisp side (a little staccato too). But you have to realize that everybody in the world speaks with an accent of some kind.

As for the "ah" sound in your short 'o' pronunciation, it's quite noticable.

michele said...

I couldn't bring it up,but i will can't hide from yourself
cause everywhere you go there you

Ari said...

Wow! You have a really nice voice. I'd pronounce Rochester the same way. Maybe I can't hear the difference, but you sound totally normal to me. You really do have a nice voice, though.