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Mid-Missouri's language evolution

As mid-Missouri has changed, so too has the way locals speak

Courtesy of clipart.com

August 11, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Nearly 84 years ago, folklorist Vance Randolph wrote that “the present influx of summer colonists and realtors is rapidly wiping out the old folk-speech (in the Ozarks), and a few years will find the hill-people talking just like us.”

Almost a century after Randolph’s study was published, the influx of the summer weekenders at the Lake of the Ozarks has come to fruition, but according to MU Professor of Linguistics Matthew Gordon, history hasn’t brought about the disappearance of “old folk-speech” in many parts of the state.

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The state’s spoken dialect comes from the South. In their article “Regional Vocabulary in Missouri,” Donald Lance and Rachel Fairies describe the area’s first wave of settlers as coming primarily from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. These newcomers brought with them a twang that can still be heard in many parts of Missouri.

The flow of settlers from Southern states slowed considerably after the Civil War when the Missouri legislature passed a test oath that required male Missouri citizens to swear they had neither supported the Confederacy nor sympathized with the Southern cause. Although Missouri’s settlers then came predominantly from northern states such as Illinois and New York, according to Lance and Fairies, the Southern speech characteristics had already become entrenched in the region.

It was not until the rapid urbanization of the 20th century that the Southern accent began to die out in the state’s largest cities, Gordon says. Many people living in the northern parts of the state, in cities such as Macon and Hannibal, have retained the Southern speech mannerisms that they brought with them when the region was first settled.

“If you go outside of Columbia to any of the small towns in Boone County, you can meet people who still sound very Southern,” Gordon says. “That probably gives you a window into how the whole county sounded 50 years ago.”

Today, the dialect spoken in Columbia isn’t as marked as it was at the time of the city’s founding. This is primarily because of urbanization and the fact that so many Columbia inhabitants were born outside the city. Gordon says most Columbia residents “probably speak the same boring, non-distinct Midwestern American dialect.”

But just because the dialect most Columbia residents speak is unmarked doesn’t mean Midwesterners don’t have a few quirks in their speech, Gordon says. People in the region have a penchant for using the positive “anymore” in a sentence that doesn’t have a negative element: “It’s so hot out here anymore.” They’ll also add a past participle to a sentence with “needs” in it instead of using the infinitive form: “My car needs washed” rather than “My car needs to be washed.”

And even though people in urban centers around the state tend to speak in a mostly homogenous Midwestern dialect, that doesn’t mean the language is static. For example, Gordon points to the merger of the vowels in “caught” and “cot” to illustrate this. Younger generations tend to pronounce the vowels in the same, as opposed to rounding the vowel in “caught” more, Gordon says.

In many ways, a group’s speech is closely related to its culture, Gordon says, and in Missouri, the speech points to a culture that is increasingly divided between city and country folk.

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