Experts

Local experts weigh whether Coloradans have an accent

Many people in the South speak with a drawl.

In New England, it’s not uncommon to hear people drop the “r’s” from words.

And, in the Midwest you can often hear people shift there vowels (doncha know!).

But, what about right here in the Centennial State?

Do we, as Coloradans have an accent?

Some people from other parts of the country say so; however, many of those who call Colorado home would argue that we have a neutral accent, void of any twang or drawl.

So, which is right?

It turns out that the answer to that question is actually a bit complicated.

A Colorado ‘accent’

According to Ted Taylor, a professor of English and foreign languages at Colorado State University-Pueblo who holds a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Minnesota, linguists often do not associate an accent with Colorado.

“The short answer is that linguists do not distinguish a Colorado accent,” he said. “Colorado speech can be distinguished by vocabulary, however.”

Conversely, Dustin Dunaway, the assistant chair of English and Communication at Pueblo Community College who holds a Master’s degree in communications from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, believes that everyone speaks differently, some more distinctly than others.

“Everyone has an accent,” Dunaway, whose areas of studies included intercultural communication, media studies and linguistics, wrote in a email. “You only recognize it if you’re not part of the culture though.”

The diverse mixture of cultures, ethnicities and people living here from all over the country makes it hard to pinpoint one single, specific accent.

“Colorado has a wildly diverse population with Anglo, African, Hispanic, indigenous, Asian, Italian and French backgrounds, so it’s difficult to pinpoint a ‘typical Coloradoan,’ ” Dunaway wrote. “I’d say the dominant Colorado accent we tend to hear on our major TV and radio stations tends to be shared with most of the Midwest. Since that happens to be the one that is dominant in American media, we don’t think of Coloradoans as having an accent.”

Choose your words

According to Taylor, rather than having an accent, many in Colorado may speak in a version of a Western dialect.

Whereas an accent is a regional variation in pronunciation, a dialect is a regional variation in all aspects of the language.

“It’s more inclusive,” Taylor said. “In addition to pronunciation, there’s differences in grammar, vocabulary and the way sentences are put together.”

Dunaway explained that an accent is “nonverbal, where dialect is verbal.” Dunaway explained that the way a culture uses language creatively in patterns of speech is referred to as dialect.

“In Australia you might hear a request to ‘paint a bow-wow red,’ meaning to put ketchup on a hot dog,” he wrote. “It sounds silly, but try to explain to someone who is just learning English what ‘don’t beat around the bush’ means and you’ll find many of the phrases we take for granted are creative variations of our language.”

Phrases and the use of words, though not always grammatically correct, become the norms in specific regions.

“Like ‘could of,’ for example, is non-standard regional pronunciation,” Taylor said. “That’s more common in the South than in the Western states or in the North.”

An accent, meanwhile, is more the way words are said.

“In Providence, it’s ‘in-SUR-ance’ and in Nashville it’s “IN-surance,’ ” Dunaway wrote.

So, where Coloradans don’t share one particular accent as a collective group, they do share commonalities in dialect.

A Colorado dialect

Taylor originally noticed a Colorado dialect when he first moved to the state after living in various places throughout the west and Southwest.

“I don’t think a lot of Coloradans say this, just some, but they use the word ‘buggy’ for shopping cart,” he said. “That might be something that is special to Colorado.”

Speech also varies when it comes the pronunciation of the various Spanish, Mexican and Native American words associated with Colorado.

“There’s some special pronunciations here, like ‘Pee-eblo,” Taylor said. “Even the pronunciation of our state (varies).”

While many who live in the state pronounce the state as Colo-RAD-o, many from outside the state, especially from the East, pronounce it Colo-ROD-o.

The “ah” sound as opposed to the “o” sound could largely be due to the anglicization of Colorado and other non-Anglican words.

“That’s something that happens,” Taylor said. “You get a word from another language and instead of pronouncing it the way the language does, it’s pronounced with the word structure and language you’re familiar with. English has a different sound structure.”

In a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwuakee, 83.55 percent of Coloradans pronounce the letter “a” in most words with the “ah” sound.

Words such as Arvada, Granada and Alamosa are often pronounced in similar fashions.

This anglicization also applies to dropping syllables, such as on the word “coyote.” It is not uncommon for people to drop the “e” and say “ky-oat.”

Other instances in a shared dialect include the use of words like pop (instead of soda), fridge, pack rat and prairie dog.

Dunaway said various regions of the United States differ greatly in what the carbonated beverage is called.

“Because Coca-Cola is so dominant in the Atlanta area, every cola in the Southeastern United States is ‘Coke,’ regardless of branding or flavor,” Dunaway wrote. “As you move northward, you get into ‘soda’ territory. Colorado is firmly in ‘pop’ territory, with the lone exception being El Paso County, which is ‘soda’ land. This is probably due to the high number of non-Colorado natives concentrated at Ft. Carson.”

Dunaway noted that dialect is more regional rather than specific to a certain state, though there are quirks unique to Colorado and even Pueblo.

“One specific to us reveals how Coloradans view snow,” Dunaway wrote. “Snow isn’t just weather to us; it’s an economic necessity in some areas. While other states will probably just say ‘there’s snow on the ground,’ we will refer to things like ‘powder’ or ‘slush’ because the type of snow is very important to our culture.”

He pointed out that even in Pueblo, there are phrases and commonalities in how people speak differently.

“We get an odd quirk of sometimes pluralizing proper nouns: ‘Safeways’ instead of ‘Safeway,’ for example.”

Cultural impact

Dialect is often influenced heavily by culture and subculture.

For instance, the surfing and valley girl cultures of California, with all its slang, reigned supreme over Western dialect.

That pattern of speech was picked up by the rest of country due to the influence Californian subculture tends to have.

“Because California is cool or something, in the eyes of the rest of us, the slang was picked up in other parts of the country,” Taylor said. “That wouldn’t have happened a couple of centuries ago because there wasn’t that much contact. But mobility is so great these days. People travel to California, we see it on TV, and since that’s what cool in the eyes of young people, we get those changes.”

Before travel was more accessible, and before TV and the internet, geographical barriers prevented the spreading and changing of dialects and accents in the United States.

But language evolves and will continue to do so.

“Language changes spontaneously all the time,” Taylor said. “It changes with different places. A change in one place isn’t necessarily happening in another, especially if there are geographical and cultural differences.”

Taylor said that the changes are often spurred by youth.

“Changes in language are much greater in young people than it is in old people,” Taylor said. “Maybe because young people are more influenced by what’s prestigious than the older types.”

Developing dialect

An example of how language changed is heard clearly in New England.

Many people in the region commonly leave out “r’s” in many words like car (cah), yard (yahd) and park (pahk).

Southern dialects and what the media calls “ebonics” often share this trait.

This pattern in speech was first developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, as many American children were sent to England to study.

“Because Americans used to have an inferiority complex about language as compared to British English, those kids brought back certain features of British pronunciation,” Taylor said. “It was mainly the r-lessness.”

Population centers like Boston, New York City and Philadelphia would influence outlying areas.

As people moved from throughout the country, similar traits found their ways to other areas.

Dialects then changed course, forming new dialects throughout the various regions of America.

“In the old days, things like rivers and mountains were barriers to the homogenization of things like pronunciation,” Taylor said. “Settlers came from one place in a given region, and from another in a given region, and the characteristics they brought with them would be entrenched in more localized areas.”

America’s diversity has created diverse variations in speech throughout the land.

“The easiest explanation is that we truly are a diverse nation and we always have been,” Dunaway wrote. “We have never all spoken the same language. We have never all had the same ethnic background. America has historically been welcoming to different people, relative to other nations.

“With that diversity comes a lot of mixing of language style and accent. That’s the way we arrived at dialects like ‘Cajun English,’ which mixes Acadian French and some dialects from the Caribbean with traditional English.”

llyons@chieftain.com

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