Intersections Behind the Accent
“Madisonians have an almost mythical belief in their accentlessness.”
This is Intersections, a column by Kashana Cauley. Every other month, Cauley will explore the intersection of class and culture in her life.
In May 2004, I finished up my first year of law school and flew home to Madison, Wisconsin, to work at a small branch of a large law firm on the Capitol Square: a ring of well-preserved late nineteen-century brick and sandstone buildings that surround the Capitol’s white granite arms and epic dome. I grew up working class and black—a conspicuous presence in that mostly white, upper-middle-class city. But that summer I’d earn a salary that looked like someone had mistakenly added an extra zero to its end by working on patent law cases in a three-story tan stone building that sat on the Square. I hoped being temporarily rich would help me do something I’d never, ever thought I would achieve in my hometown: fit in.
The odds that I’d fulfill my mission were pretty damn low, but I kept on believing. Even when another lawyer remarked that my pale blue-and-pink collared button-up shirts made business casual look “really colorful.” Even after the first few times my boss asked me what high school I went to, and what year I’d graduated, and whether my parents still lived in town, and where exactly. But summer wore on, and as my boss kept asking me to confirm my native Madisonianness, I noticed that he—and everyone else in the office from secretary to managing partner, and every single one of my friends who’d never left Wisconsin—had an accent.
It’s unsettling to discover that everyone in your hometown has an accent you’ve never used. I’ve never said “beg” when I meant “bag,” as in the item they put your groceries in at the store; I said “Wis-con-sin” instead of “Wis-skahn-sin” too. I didn’t sound like anyone from the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer , or the old Saturday Night Live “ Bill Swerski’s Super Fans ” skit. In my darker moments, I thought it made my boss’s rabid questioning fair. I couldn’t possibly be from Madison if I’d never spoken like anyone else there.
It also struck me as odd that everyone at the firm, including the lawyers, had retained a strong accent. Since I was supposed to be the first person in my family to attend college and find a non-factory job, my parents insisted I speak proper English, and trained me away from their Chicago slang and black vernacular. At college I met once a semester with my scholarship advisor, a black woman who often scolded me for retaining the bits of my parents’ speech patterns I hadn’t shaken. Along the way, I’d absorbed the idea that speaking with an accent hindered any attempt to trade in my birth class for something higher, especially since I was black. Yet somehow twenty-plus years of speech training and shame landed me among people who weren’t ashamed to be accented.
That fall, I went back to law school in New York City, where transplanted Southerners and Bostonians and Californians sounded identically bland, and Midwesterners lacked even a hint of the nasal quality that attacked me everywhere in Madison. After graduation, I joined a firm filled with formerly working-and middle-class native Brooklynites, Long Islanders, and Staten Islanders who openly talked about doing away with the accents they’d grown up with out of fear they’d come off as uneducated. But on holidays I went back to Madison where everyone, regardless of class, had a strong accent, except my family. I wondered why Madisonians didn’t feel any pressure to sound normal.
The technical name for the Madison accent is the Great Lakes Vowel Shift (“GLVS”). Demographers first found it in the sixties, which makes it relatively new. It started in Syracuse and Buffalo and crept down into Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago before swinging up into southern Wisconsin. Researchers recently found it making inroads into St. Louis . 34 million Americans say “jab” instead of “job” and “bet” instead of “but.”
The GLVS is named after a pattern of changes in the way its speakers pronounce their vowels compared to the norm. Linguists track the beginning of this change to a shortening of the short a sound, where the speaker moves their tongue forward and up while saying it, turning that a nasal and making “that” sound more like “thyet.” That new, shorter a leaves an empty space in the lower front corner of the mouth that GLVS speakers use to make their long a longer, so “cot” sounds more like “cat.” Lengthening the long a allows the speaker to lower their tongue when saying the a in “aw”, which turns words like “stalk” into “stock.” Short e sounds that are typically said in the front of the mouth then move to the back and are pronounced more like short u ; i.e. “desk” becomes “dusk.” Short u is then pronounced even further back in the mouth, which makes “bus” sound like “boss.” Here’s an example of how this sounds in real life.
Despite these large changes in how people with the accent speak compared to Standard American English, GLVS speakers mostly remain unaware that they have an accent. In one linguistics study, GLVS-speaking subjects who listened to a recording of words said with the accent failed to write down what they heard correctly. In another study, when offered a choice between three different pronunciations of certain words, GLVS speakers couldn’t identify the words pronounced with their own accent .
Madisonians have an almost mythical belief in their accentlessness. Growing up I heard repeatedly that our speech was so standard that network news anchors used it—a false, yet common Midwestern assertion that’s more closely connected to the stereotype that Midwesterners are boring than any actual analysis of Midwestern speech . Since I’d endured twenty-plus years of people insisting that Madisonians didn’t have accents, it didn’t surprise me that I had to move away and come back to discover the truth.
Simply hearing an accent often isn’t enough to induce people to change their own; people usually have to feel a connection to the speaker to be inspired to change their own speech . It’s no coincidence that the cities affected by the GLVS are among the most racially segregated in the U.S. The accent was first discovered right around the time that African Americans, who don’t speak with it, started arriving north as part of the Great Migration.
In a University of Pennsylvania research paper titled “Fear of a Black Phonology: The Northern Cities Shift as Linguistic White Flight,” Gerald Van Herk, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, found a strong connection between “participation in the NCS and the speed and degree to which communities increased their African American populations, as well as the degree of residential white flight [.]” He describes the accent as a natural consequence of an era when suddenly increasing black populations caused whites to focus on their commonality instead of their differences, as well as a linguistic method Midwestern whites developed to make sure they didn’t emulate their new black neighbors’ speech patterns.
The Great Migration explains the borders of the GLVS. Blacks moved to cities and avoided rural areas such as Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and Erie, Pennsylvania; Pittsburgh and Cincinnati already had substantial black populations, and Canadian immigration policy excluded blacks . Madison isn’t, population-wise, on par with other GLVS cities, nor was it a popular Great Migration destination. But suburban and rural whites in the Great Lakes region have historically adopted the GLVS to sound more urban, so Madisonians likely took on the accent to seem more like GLVS-speaking Milwaukeeans than to directly oppose themselves to the few blacks in town .
Still, both statistics and my own experience suggest that there’s a divide between the majority white population of Madison and the few blacks that live among them. I’ll never forget the college roommate who insisted I “wasn’t that black,” or the one who quizzed me for ten minutes on what the okra I kept in the fridge was “for.” Though in Madison whites outnumber blacks 11 to 1, the city’s black kids are eight times more likely to get arrested than its white kids and fourteen times more likely to get arrested for disorderly conduct . Like Cleveland and Detroit and Buffalo and Milwaukee and St. Louis, Madison isn’t a place where whites naturally feel great affection for their black neighbors. In fact, the GLVS region has the biggest difference between black and white accents in the country .
The oddest aspect of the GLVS by far is that its speakers suffer none of the drop in social status that is known to occur when people speak with strong versions of other types of American accents; it can be found in all social classes of Midwestern whites, from poor to rich . The best explanation linguists have found for this phenomenon is that whites, unconsciously or not, started to avoid speaking like their black neighbors, even if doing so left them with a strong accent.
Since the areas that speak with the Great Lakes Vowel Shift had extremely high levels of physical white flight, learning the history behind the accent’s adoption turned those Midwestern vowels into an aural slap in the face for me. Apparently it wasn’t enough for GLVS speakers to move very far away from minorities in order to avoid us: They desperately needed to adopt a nasal accent to make sure they didn’t resemble us in any way.
I go back to Madison a couple times of year to visit family, and I do my best to ignore the dominant homeland speech patterns. If I pay too much attention to the accent, I feel a mental scratching sensation, not unlike fingernails on a blackboard. There’s evidence that speakers born after 1990 or so don’t use it as much as older ones do . While I realize the elimination of linguistic white flight won’t reverse the effects of its implementation, or the effects of physical white flight, or decades of fallout from racially discriminatory policies like redlining and racially restrictive covenants, I’m still cheering for it to die off.
The main cultural aspect of growing up as a Wisconsinite that I’ve hung onto, after more than a decade in New York, is a deep love for the Green Bay Packers. In the West Village, there’s a great Packer bar called Kettle of Fish. The owners, Patrick and his wife Ade, are white and from just outside Milwaukee, and have lived in New York since the eighties, but don’t really sound like they ever left Wisconsin. On football Sundays, the bar often fills with Wisconsin expats who don’t sound like they ever moved cross country either.
The bar’s done up in a style called “ Sheboygan rec room ”: dark carpet; wood-paneled walls; plush, aging armchairs; smallish TVs. On game days grilled brats are $5, and Sprecher—a beer that people don’t really know of outside Milwaukee—flows. I find comfort sitting among people who cheer for the correct team.
Walking into a world of people with Wisconsin accents always feels jarring at first, and fairer later, at halftime, when everyone passes around plates of summer sausage and Wisconsin cheese and the strictly observed in-game silence breaks so everyone can turn to each other and talk about the game, or the place that most of us are originally from. But after three hours, win or lose, I’m happy to return outside to hear New Yorkers drop their r s, make “talk” sound more like “tawk,” and wait “on line”: key aspects of the local speech pattern that sounds like home.