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OKI Wanna Know: Do Cincinnatians have an accent?

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A University of Cincinnati linguist says accents give people a sense of identity.

Wherever you travel in the United States, you'll find people talking somewhat differently from what you're used to. There are easily identifiable dialects from New York, Minnesota, Tennessee, and so on. Does Cincinnati have an accent? That's what WVXU's Bill Rinehart explores in this edition of OKI Wanna Know.

Kelly Waggoner of Reading says she's fascinated by the Cincinnati accent.

"I've gotten on YouTube and tried to find other examples. Does Johnny Bench talk like that, or Pete Rose? They don't quite have it as much. It's very hard to pinpoint, but I know it when I hear it," she says.

Mary Leech noticed it when she came here from Chicago. She's an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Cincinnati, and says every place has an accent, or a dialect, which includes certain words or phrases particular to an area.

She says the Cincinnati accent is influenced by its location on the borders of the North, South and the Midwest.

"Here I've noticed the accent is almost always in the vowel sounds," she says. "And unlike a lot of other Midwesterners, the A's tend to be less flat. In the Chicago area, there's the joke about the 'sah-sage' and 'da Bears' and things like that, and Cincinnatians don't tend to hit the A's quite as hard as that. It's a little bit lighter, which shows more of a Southern influence."

Leech says the same applies to other vowels.

"The R's also. I tend to hit the hard Midwestern pirate R," Leech says. "In Cincinnati, it's still a Midwestern R, but again it is just ever-so-slightly less hard for a lot of people."

It's not just geography that influences the local dialect, Leech says. It's history.

"Both Boston and Chicago have similarities in their accents that come from the Irish immigration in the 19th century," Leech says. "Yes, Cincinnati would definitely have influences from the German influx, probably in the way again some of these vowel sounds come out, particularly the U's and the O's."

Leech says it's not just how people say things, it's what they say. A dialect includes words and phrases unique to a place. For instance, the Cincinnati "please," which is often cited as a holdover from German culture. (If someone speaks and you don't catch it, you might say "excuse me?" The commonly held concept is "excuse me" translates into the German bitte, which also translates to "please.")

Leech says she's heard of the Cincinnati "please," but hasn't really encountered it in the wild.

"Things like that come and go. And especially if you have an influx of a lot of people, or especially mass media has such an influence in the way people speak, it's getting much more uniform. So something that sticks out like that, kids may not pick up and it's maybe just fading out."

Kelly Waggoner says she hears the accent a lot among people from the West Side, and among some men of a certain age, like WVXU Politics Reporter Howard Wilkinson.

Does Howard have a Cincinnati accent?
Have a listen to Wilkinson's supposed Cincinnati accent in this chat he did with WVXU's Tana Weingartner in March.

But there's one problem with that. Howard's from Dayton. Leech isn't surprised.

"There are incremental differences. Even between here and Dayton, I'm sure there are minor differences in the way people speak. I haven't really looked into it too much, but I'm assuming the East Side and the West Side also have some variations in the way they speak."

She admits she hasn't closely studied the East-West split in Cincinnati.

"But yeah, there definitely has to be a difference because of the way West Side and East Side people identify themselves so they're going to want to differentiate themselves through speech," she adds.

Leech says accents give people a sense of identity. And for some that means trying to blend in.

"I had a friend who came from rural Illinois that has a very specific accent. And when he came to school he did not like the fact that he was the only one that really spoke with this heavy of an accent, because a lot of other people were from cities. So he worked very hard for three months to get rid of it."

Leech says she still hears the Chicago in her own speech patterns.

"I've been in Cincinnati for 25 years almost. And I know there's still a lot of the nasal and the 'ah's' and things like that in my speech. I don't do it on purpose but I'm actually kind of proud of the fact that people can still identify it."

If ya come up with an off-the-wall question while going to "Krogers" in Lebanon (proper pronunciation: Leb-a-nin) or Cheviot (Shiv-e-it), ask OKI Wanna Know by filling out the form below.

Bill Rinehart started his radio career as a disc jockey in 1990. In 1994, he made the jump into journalism and has been reporting and delivering news on the radio in markets including Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux City, Iowa; Dayton, Ohio; and most recently as senior correspondent and anchor for Cincinnati’s WLW-AM.