When you look at a United States map, typically you see Missouri as a strictly Midwestern state bordering the states of the south. Furthermore, when thinking specifically of St. Louis, you’d expect it to reflect the dialects found in the other parts of the state. However, due to its location and history as a growing city, the St. Louis dialect is a bit more complex.
St. Louis has been shaped why strong influences from both its northern and southern neighbors. These imprints are found also in the way St. Louis natives speak!
Because of the differences in speech that set it apart from the rest of Missouri and the midwest, and its lingering differences from the inland north dialects as well, there is much debate on where exactly St. Louis lies in terms of dialect categorization. Does St. Louis lean more to the South or the North? Is it a strictly Midwestern city or should it just be considered the western-most Eastern city?
THE St. Louis DIALECT
The Reason for the Difference from Other Missouri Dialects
As previously mentioned in the blog post, “What is the Importance of Dialects?” regional dialects and accents can offer a sense of place and identity simply by how the language spoken by those natives sounds. Just by listening, people are typically able to hear a difference between the speech of people from western California as opposed to eastern New York or Boston.
Given its location, St. Louis ought to sound like other south Midland-speaking cities. Yet, many factors have lead to the break that St. Louis has been making from the Midland dialect that is resulting in a slow evolution towards joining the Inland North dialects.
Edward McClleland, author of “How to Speak Midwestern” claims that the dialect shift is due to the highway connecting the city to Chicago, and St. Louis’ role as a major industrial city. Proof of this connection to Chicago can be found in the fact that the St. Louis dialect began sounding more like that of Chicago among people born in the 50s and 60s.
Over the past 50 years, other dialectologists and sociolinguists have identified St. Louis as a primarily Nothern/North-Midland speech island, despite St. Louis being surrounded by Southern or South-Midland dialects. That term, “speech island” has been used repeatedly when speaking of St. Louis in a linguistic manner. Researchers have started regarding St. Louis as a dialect island based on a lot of phonological findings from the area.
The term “dialect island” is basically a more specific form of a language island, and basically refers to the relationship of one area to those surrounding it. Dialect islands are little pockets or colonies of dialect that share linguistic characteristics of regions other than the ones surrounding that “island.” In this case, it is used to refer to the fact that St. Louis has a dialect distinctly different from the dialects of the cities and towns surrounding it geographically, instead sharing similar linguistic characteristics of the Inland North.
An examination of phonological, lexical, and syntactic linguistic features confirms that St. Louis dialects are not the same as the dialects surrounding the city.
Specific Characteristics of the St. Louis Dialect
The Atlas of North American Research (2006) reports that St. Louis phonological characteristics do not match the Midlands dialect. There is a solid contrast of /o/ and /oh/ and the general raising of /æ/, with extreme fronting of /æ/ in bat and bad.
The ANAE also reports that the vowels in cut and coat are further back than the vowel in cot. There also the spreading loss of the traditional merger of /ahr/ and /ɔhr/ that aligns the St. Louis dialect more with the Northern Cities Vowel Shift (NCS).
Based on the differences that have been found between the St. Louis dialect and the Midland dialects surrounding it, St. Louis holds many similar characteristics to the Inland North and even western New York State.
However, ANAE claims that despite the findings that evidence an alignment of St. Louis with the Inland North dialects, St. Louis is still aligned to some extent with the Midland. While the spread of NCS has infiltrated St. Louis, researcher Labov has noted that there’s still differences between the Inland North and St. Louis dialects. In the Inland North, there’s a consistent chain-shifting of six vowels, while St. Louis chain-shifting is more irregular, operating individually rather than systematically.
In research by Murray (1993, 2006), dialect features in St. Louis were documented. Particularities of this dialect include the pronunciation of ice-cream sundae (as ‘sun-duh’) while, interestingly enough, the pronunciation of the day (as ‘sun-day’) remains distinct.
Another unique aspect of the St. Louis dialect is the ‘ar’ pronunciation that shows up in words with the ‘or’ syllable. St. Louis natives are known for their swap of “ar” for “or.” For example, in words such as forty, born, or short, the St. Louis dialect turns them into a pronunciation that sounds like “farty,” “barn,” and “shart.”
Murray’s study reports that even these pronunciations are transitioning. While these pronunciations were standardized among young and old generations in the 1980s, in 2006 when his research was conducted, this pronunciation was rare among the younger generations.
Other interesting aspects of the St. Louis dialect include saying “worsh” for “wash,” “wants off” for “wants to get off,” and “I waited on him” instead of “I waited for him.” There are also reports that older St. Louis natives still say “youse” and substitute “d” for “th.”
When looking at a map, you might designated St. Louis as a city with speech like its midland and southern neighbors. However, due to the industrial importance of the city and the highway that links St. Louis to Chicago, the St. Louis dialect has become distinct from the Midland dialect as it has come to favor some aspects of Inland North dialects.
As St. Louis takes on more characteristics of the Inland North dialect, it’s beginning to lose some of its traditional dialect, with a merger of “ar” and “or” in favor of the Northern Cities Shift of the Chicago area. St. Louis has become one of the only city outside of the Great Lakes area to participate in the Northern Cities vowel shift, and this has connected it more to Chicago than the rest of Missouri.
Further research is likely to be done, and should be encouraged, as the St. Louis dialect continues to shift in future years. It will be interesting to see if the NCS influence continues to strengthen, or if some of the Midland or native St. Louis dialects stick.
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If you are from Missouri, are you a St. Louis native? Or are you from another Midland dialect region? What have you picked up about the St. Louis dialect? Are there other peculiar aspects of the dialect that were not mentioned in this article, but are super interesting to you?Follow my blog with Bloglovin