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."