Until Bridget VanDenHaute started college, no one had ever told her she sounded funny when she talked. Growing up near Medina in Hinckley Township, she'd rarely been around anyone who spoke any differently than she did. But in 2011, she moved to Athens to attend Ohio University and noticed the accents immediately. She heard the subtle Southern lilt of Cincinnati, the brusqueness of southeastern Ohio Appalachia, and the head-scratching yinz from OU's Pittsburgh contingent.
Only she was the one who got teased.
"It started right away, and at least at first, it was constant," VanDenHaute, now 24, says today. "Before college, I guess I was a bit of a homebody and never really went that far away. No one had ever brought up how I sounded before."
It was the worst in the dorms. For the first couple of years, a week would rarely pass when someone didn't point out her hard, nasally a's or her short o's, which sounded as though they were coming from all the way in the back of her throat and, somehow, sounded more like an a.
"I heard it all the time," she remembers. "'Say mom!' or, 'Say lasagna!' and I'd do it and they'd laugh. "A lot of the time it was from my friends who were from Columbus or Cincinnati — who I thought sounded funny. But I'd get it from people who weren't from Ohio too. Those were the ones who really pissed me off. You want to say, 'You're the ones who sound different, not me!'"
Then, one day, she did.
One night while out at the bars, after being asked about her accent for what felt like the millionth time, she took to Twitter and fired off what may as well be a rallying cry for Northeast Ohioans who feel just like her: "Im sick of being told i have an accent," she wrote. "Bitch, im from cleveland, you have the accent."
Talk to people from all over the Greater Cleveland area and you'll hear two things: A distinct Cleveland accent (sorry, folks), and a chorus of denials that such an accent exists. So let's first dispense with the fiction that Clevelanders don't speak in a way that is noticeable to anyone who grew up elsewhere, including other regions of Ohio. We do. And it is. How it got here, how it developed, and how it has spread over time has fascinated linguists for years. And as it turns out, Cleveland is one of a dozen or so cities along the Great Lakes that have, over the past half century, been part of the largest transformation of spoken English in more than a thousand years.
In the late 1960s, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania named William Labov began noticing a series of changes in vowel pronunciations among speakers in the Midwest. He would eventually call these changes the Northern City Vowel Shift, later abbreviated to the Northern Cities Shift, known in linguistic circles as simply NCS. The pocket of the country that is home to this shift — called the Inland North Region — stretches from Syracuse, New York, in the east to Milwaukee in the west, and includes some areas from Green Bay in the north to St. Louis in the south. Other major cities in the NCS region include Chicago, Madison, Toledo, Detroit, and, you guessed it, Cleveland. In all, it's a territory of more than 88,000 square miles containing more than 34 million English speakers who, today, likely sound drastically different than their great-grandparents did.
The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is an example of what linguists call a "chain shift," and in this case, it all starts with the short 'a' sound. As Labov wrote in The Politics of Language Change: Dialect Divergence in America, "The initiating event appears to be the shift of short-a in bat to ... sound very much like the vowel of yeah. It is not just this one word, bat ... but all words spelled with short-a: cad, bad, that, cat, attitude, cap, happen, happening, etc."
What this means is that speakers in Cleveland, and elsewhere in the NCS region, are almost adding an extra syllable when we say those words and others like them. To use Labov's example, if you insert the word "yeah" into the middle of the word "cat," you come up with something that sounds like "c-yeah-t" (or kee-yat).
While this dialect shift wasn't detected until the 1960s, linguists believe it has roots that go back as far as the construction of the Erie Canal, which, in the mid-19th century, brought tens of thousands of immigrants from the East — especially the Northeast — to various points along what we now know as the Rust Belt.
By the beginning of the 20th century, cities like Cleveland, largely populated by Yankees who had moved from New York and New England to settle the Western Reserve, had become home to tens of thousands of Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants. Each brought their own language and a modest understanding of English to a region already populated by settlers who spoke a Northeastern version of American English. Something had to give.
"Language is going to change pretty quickly when you get all these non-native speakers together," says Dennis Preston, who teaches sociolinguistics and perceptual linguistics at Oklahoma State University.
These new, non-native speakers from the East especially struggled with what is called the "low front vowel," or the short 'a' sound heard in words like bag, cat and hat.
"That vowel didn't exist in any of their native languages, so they did what any of us would do — they went for what sounded closest," Preston says.
So among the growing immigrant population, hat became something closer to hot, cat became cot, and so on. Not surprisingly, the native speakers who were already there mocked them.
"They'd open their mouths and get laughed at and called dagos and polacks," Preston says. "So that first generation wanted to rid themselves of this accent, but then the second generation came along and started to overcorrect. Instead of replacing 'hat' with 'hot,' they started saying 'h-yeah-t.' This triggered the whole rotation."
Once the short a sound began to change, the other vowels fell like dominoes. The shift in the 'a' sound created something of a phonetic vacancy in our mouths. So to fill that void, the vowel sound in the word "cot," for instance, slid forward, and eventually we were saying cat to mean that extra bed a hotel offers when you have three or more people in your room. Pretty soon, our c-yeah-ts were sleeping on our cats.
Welcome to Cleveland.
You'll rarely find a native of New York, or Boston, or Texas who is unaware of how the rest of the country hears his speech. Clevelanders, on the other hand, tend to be more like VanDenHaute. Most people in Northeast Ohio seem either oblivious to their native and natural dialect, vigorously defensive of what they believe is their "normal speech," or some combination of both.
I was talking recently with an acquaintance of mine at the eastside pub where he works as a bartender. He conceded that there is certainly a Cleveland accent, but is adamant that he doesn't have one (he does). This bartender, who asked that I not use his name, grew up in Mayfield, but went to college in the South and lived there for several years after. His accent is subtler than most Clevelanders', and, perhaps not surprisingly, it now works in concert with the slight drawl he picked up in his years below the Mason-Dixon line, but it's there. Because of course it is.
As we conversed over drinks, a couple of men at the other end of the bar started listening.
"We don't have an accent," one interjected eventually. He said he used to live out West and when people would tell him that he "talked funny" he'd tell them they were crazy. "The Midwest is where there is no accent."
His friend jumped in: "No, I think there's a Midwest accent, but we don't have it here in Cleveland. There's no such thing as a 'Cleveland accent.' People say that all the time, but it's a Midwest accent. Go to Chicago or Detroit. It's there."
"You don't hear it here too?" I asked.
"I hear how we talk," the first man said. "And we talk how we talk. But it's not an accent."
Very well, then.
Those late-night barflies aren't alone. I recently mentioned to my mother, who was born in southern Indiana but raised mostly in northwest Ohio, that I was working on an article about the "Cleveland accent." She replied: "But people from Ohio don't have an accent."
Linguists and voice scholars who have studied Midwest speech have all come across this phenomenon, which they say is more or less unique to Clevelanders and our Rust Belt brethren.
"People here honestly don't hear it," says Shannah McGee, a voice production specialist at Case Western Reserve University. "Everyone says, 'Well, I don't have an accent.' I say, 'Of course you do!' There's this myth that the Midwest is where there is no discernable accent, but that's just not true."
McGee, who also teaches acting and works as a dialect coach, grew up in Indiana but has lived in Cleveland for more than 30 years. She immediately pointed out my accent when we met at a coffee shop in Cleveland Heights one recent afternoon (I apparently give myself away when saying my own first name). In the early 2000s she worked with actors on the film Welcome to Collinwood, which starred George Clooney and Sam Rockwell and was set in the Cleveland neighborhood. She was tapped by directors Joe and Anthony Russo — Cleveland natives and former Case students — to help the cast the perfect "Cleveland sound."
Not being a native Clevelander, she sought out friends who she knew had the accent and recorded their conversations. She also went to the West Side Market in Ohio City, recorded what she heard, and took notes. "I'd hear them say, 'I want to buy some candy' and, of course, it would come out 'kee-yan-dee,'" she says. "Then I'd figure out what they were doing to make that sound, which is, they're lifting the tongue in the back of the mouth and pulling it back. That nasalizes the sound."
McGee says actors still learn what is known as "standard American" English — which features crisply pronounced consonants and includes vowel pronunciations that are usually only heard on the East Coast (think Frasier Crane). But she and most linguists agree that there is no such thing as a "standard" version of English.
"You learn it in acting school so you don't sound like you're from anywhere," she says. "But no one on the real planet actually speaks it."
Or, as Preston puts it: "People always want to associate dialect with non-standard speech. If there's a place that doesn't have a dialect, that's a place where people don't have a human language."
So why, in our minds, are we the special ones?
"It was something my parents always told me," says Gabby Hollowell, a student at Ohio University and native of Chardon. I tracked her down after noticing several instances in which she had tweeted about people's reaction to her accent. "My stepdad says, 'We don't have an accent. People from England have an accent.' Everyone speaks the same [in Northeast Ohio] but a lot of people just don't realize it's just as much of an accent as anyplace else."
Hollowell has a point: The idea of Midwestern exceptionalism when it comes to speech is something that is often stressed by parents — and even teachers — from the time we're small. I recall being told by a middle school English teacher how "lucky" I and my classmates were to come from a part of the country that spoke "standard English."
"When we talk about 'accents,' that means we're assuming that there's a 'normal' way of speaking and then there's all these other ways of speaking that are different from that," says Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, a linguistics professor at the Ohio State University. "But from a linguistic point of view, this doesn't make any sense. There's no place on earth where we can say, 'You get to be normal.'"
Edward McClelland, who has written extensively about language and the Midwest, recently completed a book called How to Speak Midwestern. He believes the notion that this part of the country speaks some unicorn version of English that is devoid of any distinct sound goes back to a time when the Cleveland area was, in fact, considered the broadcast industry standard.
"For a period of time in the middle part of the 20th century, what was considered a neutral accent was based in the Cleveland area," McClelland says. "This is ironic because now the [vowel] shift has made Cleveland speech more distinct from the rest of the nation."
Indeed, in a 2005 PBS documentary called Do You Speak American, Labov, the linguist who first reported the Northern Cities Shift, pointed out that the region from Rochester to Chicago was the closest thing to television news network standard pronunciation that existed in the U.S.
"It was what the NBC standard was based on," he said.
And it was a standard that, perhaps not surprisingly, had strong ties to the Cleveland area. The man who is credited with creating it, a linguist named John Kenyon, was a professor at Hiram University, just southeast of here. In 1924, Kenyon published the first version of a guide called American Pronunciation, later was a consulting pronunciation editor of the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary and, in 1944, co-authored A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English.
One constant across all of Kenyon's works was that he was an unabashed proponent of the version of English spoken in the CLE.
"[T]he author has based his observations on the cultivated pronunciation of his own locality — the Western Reserve of Ohio," he wrote in American Pronunciation, referring to himself. "It is his belief, however, that this is fairly representative of what will here be called the speech of the North." He would later simply call this, "General American."
But, as McClelland says, it seems the idea of "General American" has somehow managed to outlast its phonetic reality.
Campbell-Kibler has studied a concept known as enregisterment, or how and why distinct speech varieties come to be recognized and accepted both within and outside of the community in which they're spoken. She has looked at this idea among Ohio residents and concluded in a 2012 paper that Clevelanders may have slowly begun to accept that we have a way of speaking that is unique to us, even if not everyone is able to articulate just what it sounds like. In fact, Campbell-Kibler says people in Columbus — who speak in what is known as the "Midland" dialect — are even more in denial about how their speech is perceived.
"If you Google the words 'Chicago accent,' you'll find several sites talking about 'da Bears' and how to make yourself sound like you're from there," she says. "If you Google 'Cleveland accent,' you find a number of people debating whether one actually exists or what it sounds like. If you Google 'Columbus accent,' there's nothing language-related at all on the first page."
For many, conceding to having an accent is like admitting that you're an uneducated member of the lower class. And since accents are typically the strongest among blue-collar, working-class communities, there's become a greater fear of stigmatization, which linguists believe accounts for much of the denial in former industrial strongholds like Cleveland.
"Nothing has been linked to this 'northern cities accent' other than that it seems to sound ugly to people," says Barbara Johnstone, a linguist at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the social stigmatization of accents. "An accent can get linked with your identity in a positive way, but it can also have negative links, too."
For much of the 20th century, it was common, even expected, for high school seniors to graduate, get a job at the local steel mill or manufacturing plant, stay there for 30 years, then retire. In these cases, there was little occasion to speak to anyone who didn't sound exactly like they did. But as those jobs started disappearing, people started going to college and working in more white-collar or customer-facing environments, and, for the first time, they'd start to hear from strangers that they sounded "different."
"All of a sudden there was a choice," Oklahoma State's Preston says. "'Do I try to sound like I'm not where I'm from?' And I don't see why anyone in the working class would try to do that. So when they're presented with a linguistic signal that doesn't match with what they think they sound like, they reject it. 'I don't have an accent. You have the accent.'"
Which brings us back to Bridget VanDenHaute. Now getting a master's degree in speech pathology at Cleveland State, she's a self-proclaimed "reformed denier." Not long after announcing to the world that bitch, she was from Cleveland, VanDenHaute enrolled in a linguistics class. One day, while her professor was presiding over another installment of the years-old "remote" vs. "clicker" debate, VanDenHaute was called on to speak. The professor asked her where she was from.
"I thought, 'God dammit, here we go again — and from a professor this time!" she says. "He asked if I was from Cleveland and I said yes, then the whole class started having me say words like 'mom' and 'lasagna.' That's when I finally started to hear it in myself."
As for the tweet, VanDenHaute's "you have the accent" comment didn't spark much of a conversation at the time. But not long after, Ohio State's Campbell-Kibler spotted it while doing research on Twitter and decided the sentiment perfectly summarized the entire accent denial debate in Northeast Ohio. It's now the basis of a new paper she's writing called Bitch, I'm from Cleveland, You Have the Accent: Constructing and resisting place-based accents on Twitter. The new study compares the attitudes of Twitter users across the state about whether their city is, or should be, associated with a specific way of speaking.
VanDenHaute now says she's "100-percent aware" that she has an accent, and adds that she does remember the night she fired off the Twitter missive. "I just snapped," she says before pausing to laugh and adding, "I must've been drunk. I probably wouldn't say that today."