It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

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Winters in New Haven, Connecticut aren’t nearly as severe as those in the Greater Western New York region. I had proudly proclaimed my home town ever since that sun-drenched day in September of 1978 when I first stepped onto campus. As a result, when the winds of winter arrived, as a native of Buffalo, I felt obliged to walk the talk. That meant, on a regular basis, when temperatures “dipped” into the low thirties, I would trudge out of my dorm in nothing but gym shorts and walk to the post office to get my mail. (Before you get too impressed, the post office was located in the basement of my hall. There was no interior access, so I had to walk outside into the raised courtyard, down the steps to ground level, then turn a quick right before descending another set of stairs before, finally, entering the mail center.)

I remember one of those treks quite vividly. There I was, sauntering (after all, walking hastily would make it seem as though I feared the frigid temperature) through the courtyard without a shirt one coolish evening. Establishing a different form of cool, I stopped to talk to some friends. (I remember one saying to the other, “It’s cold, why isn’t he wearing a shirt?” The other responded, “He’s from Buffalo.” The first person said “Oh” with a knowing nod.)

So I was in this courtyard with nary a goosebump talking to some classmates when another friend strolls by. She’s not just from Tennessee, she sounds like she’s from Tennessee. She had one of the most pronounced dialects among all my college friends. Well, maybe except the two guys from Oklahoma. Anyway, along she comes and says in her too familiar drawl, “How y’all doin’?” Then she turns to me and says, “Chris, can you be my project for my linguistics class?”

That’s not a question you get asked every day.

Ever the friendly guy, I agreed, but asked her “Why me?”

Her response knocked me off my feet. She said, “’cuz y’all have the most interestin’ accent I’ve ever heard!”

Accent? I’ve got an accent? She was the kettle calling the pot black, but that’s beside the point.

I laughed. “You realize,” I quickly came back, “Walter Cronkite said the Buffalo-Cleveland accent represents the true American accent, one that every aspiring anchorman need learn.” She wasn’t impressed.

But the advice of America’s Anchor guided me, as did the tones of Irv Weinstein and Danny Neaverth, when I embarked on my three-and-a-half year radio career. Whether DJing against the General Manager’s play list (I had this thing about insisting I play listener requests) to blurting play-by-play for the football and hockey broadcasts, I kept my “accent” All-American. It came out cool, clear and crisp. Except, that is, when I channeled my inner Van Miller or Rick Jeanneret, depending on the venue.

Now, I can’t find any record of Walter Cronkite saying that, but I do remember him referencing the primacy of the Buffalo-Cleveland accent, perhaps on a visit to Buffalo in the 1970s. I even recall him saying Erie was not a “halfway” point as it had a totally different dialect. At the time, I thought the comment a bit strange. Incidentally, my brother tells me that, during World War II, the army preferred to use people from our region as air traffic controllers because our accent was easiest to understand. I couldn’t find any evidence of that claim, either, but here’s what I did find out about our “accent.”

Whatever Walter Cronkite may have been referring to was long gone by the time he referred to it, or so say the academic researchers. But, I did discover what he meant about Erie.

In an interview published in The New Yorker, famed linguist William Labov said our region’s dialect “Inland North” was the “standard American dialect” – the  “model for standard American pronunciation” – at least until it fell victim to the “Northern Cities Shift.”1 Apparently this shift, which Labov says started around 1950, has something to do with how the vowels are pronounced.2 For example, the word “pot” sounds like how we used to say the word “pat,” which we now pronounce as “pee-at,” or something like that (or is it “thee-at”?).3 Labov says the Northern Cities Shift is making our accent stronger.4 I really can’t explain it, other than to say I don’t seem to have noticed this shift. Thankfully, it appears I haven’t fallen victim to the Northern Cities Shift.

How do I know? I took this “What American accent do you really have?”5 test on the internet. I have no sense for its veracity, but it claims my accent is “Northern” and this accent “used to be the media standard in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.” This at least seems to be consistent with what Labov says.

And also what I remember Walter Cronkite saying four decades ago. Back then I considered Buffalo to have the “pure” dialect (i.e., un-accent) with Rochester possessing a “nasal A” whose natives pronounced their city “Ratchester.” But, if we are to believe Labov, Buffalo now shares this same accent.

It would seem Labov is not the only one who views our accent as unique. A recent skit on Saturday Night Live spoofed a Buffalo news broadcast.6 To me, the actors sound like they’re making fun of Chicago. I don’t remember Irv Weinstein ever sounding like that. Do you?

Oh, and about Erie not being the average of the Buffalo-Cleveland accent? It turns out, while both Cleveland and Buffalo possess this Inland North linguistic flavor, Erie has instead opted for the tonality of Pittsburgh. Who knows. Maybe it’s a Pennsylvania thing.

More important to me, though, is this whole “pop” vs. “soda” thing. Growing up, there was a clear line of distinction somewhere between Rochester and Syracuse (was it Pre-Emption Line?) that divided those who drank pop (to the west) and those who drank soda (to the east). But, it appears “soda” has infected at least the eastern fringe of Greater Western New York. Despite my protestations that the term applies only to a malted fountain drink favored by rambunctious teenagers in the 1950’s, my oldest daughter can’t seem to stop calling carbonated beverages “soda.”

I don’t know. Maybe I should send her to Tennessee for some voice lessons.

In either case, this pop/soda dichotomy isn’t the first to split Greater Western New York. No, the first split occurred shortly after the region’s birth in a new America. We’ll explore that next.

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.

1“Talking the Tawk,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2005, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2005/11/14/051114ta_talk_seabrook
2“American Accent Undergoing Great Vowel Shift,” All Things Considered, NPR News, February 16, 2006, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5220090
3“Do You Speak Bostonian?” U.S. News and World Report, January 25, 1999, p. 56, http://www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/usnews/usnews1.jpg
4Ibid., p.57, http://www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/usnews/usnews2.jpg
5http://www.gotoquiz.com/what_american_accent_do_you_have
6“SNL skit mocks Buffalo broadcast news stations,” Buffalo.com, September 26, 2011, http://www.buffalo.com/entertainment/blog/snl-skit-mocks-buffalo-news-station-broadcasters/

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