Very shortly after returning to the United States after living abroad for five years, I was buying some new eyeglasses. The saleswoman asked me where I was from. I named a town a few miles away.
“No,” she said, “What country are you originally from?”
Without even realizing it, I supposedly sounded ‘foreign’, which amused me because I had just been trying to identify her foreign accent. So I paid closer attention to what exactly I was doing, and that’s when I heard it: subtly changing /th/ sounds to a soft /t/ (voiceless) or /d/ (voiced); saying ‘yah, yah’ instead of ‘yes’; clipping my diphthongs ever so slightly so they sounded more ‘pure’.
Oh! I was mimicking her. And apparently quite well.
There is a phenomenon known as the Chameleon Effect wherein people who are getting along well with each other start to mimic each other’s mannerisms, both vocal and gestural. It’s mostly done unconsciously, but in fact, it can be a deliberate behavior done by those who would like to make a good impression, strengthen a bond or increase solidarity with another person.
I’ve never been one of those people who always knew what to say or do to make people feel comfortable. I’m shy and kind of awkward when meeting new people. I never thought the Chameleon Effect was something that I could do well, even unconsciously. It appears, however, that I might be wrong about that.
Maybe this explained in part how my idiolect – my personal way of speaking – had become a smorgasbord: sometimes New York, sometimes Southern, sometimes foreign. For my entire life, I’ve been exposed to different dialects and languages for extended periods of time, starting from hearing my parents and many of my friends’ parents speaking with foreign accents, to living in different places in the U.S. and abroad. What effect might this have had on me in a more permanent way, and not just temporary mimicking for the sake of conversation and social bonding? How have other dialects affected my speech?
Allow me to introduce you to Pittsburgh. If you watch the first half of the video below, you’ll see a highway winding through green hills down towards the Fort Pitt Tunnel. You’ll also see the traffic that is typically slowing the entrance into any of the tunnels into the ‘Burgh. Then, after a stretch in the long, narrow tunnel, you’ll see why the New York Times once called Pittsburgh “the only city with an entrance.”
I lived in Pittsburgh for four years, which was enough time for me to learn that icy roads in winter are slippy and that every eight weeks or so, my hair needs cut. Everyone should go see a Stillers game at least once, and enter the city from the Fort Pitt tunnel on the sahth side so yinz can see how beautiful dahntahn looks when it suddenly appears at the end of the tunnel, across The Mon.
Picksburghers are very proud of their accent, even though it’s not actually limited to Pittsburgh. According to the PBS series, Do you speak American?, “many Pittsburghers employ a dialect variety that is known as ‘North Midland’ or ‘Lower Northern’ English.” This region roughly follows the Ohio River Valley, then extends further west, past the Mississippi and almost to the Rockies.
The term redd up, for example, means ‘to clean or tidy up’, and it extends through the Ohio River Valley. The tendency to add an /r/ in words like ‘wash’ (‘worsh’) is also not limited to Pittsburgh. Yinz (you plural) can be found in the Appalachian dialect.
Though the Pittsburgh dialect may share features in common with the larger accent region, it certain is unique in the particular combination of features that converge in its urban reach. Perhaps the most famous feature – saying dahntahn or cahch instead of downtown or couch is something that Pittsburgh can claim for its own. I can certainly attest to hearing the sentence, “Get aht the hahse!” more than once from some quarrelsome neighbors. (Okay, maybe listening with a glass against the wall was not for, uh, ‘linguistic research.’)
Just take a listen (start at 1:06) to Myron Cope, the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Picksburgh Stillers). No one ever got as excited about a touchdahn like Myron Cope. He also gave us the Terrible Towel (the Terrible Tahl).
While I didn’t change the way I pronounce words to match a Pittsburgh accent, I certainly developed a fondness for some of the vocabulary and grammatical features of the dialect. While I am far more likely to say that I need to get my hair cut, I will occasionally tug at my hair impatiently and say, “My hair needs cut.” My focus at the time is on my hair, which prompts the use of the passive voice, and because this grammatical feature of the Pittsburgh dialect was so often explained with this example, my mind must have learned it as a chunk.
That doesn’t really explain the reason I will say those cats need fed, or this floor needs cleaned. Admittedly, it’s only once in a blue moon that I use this construction, but it’s clearly embedded firmly enough in my brain that it will continue making brief appearances for as long as I speak.
I will also admit to having adopted – nay, embraced – the word jagoff. It’s a derogatory word that is used in place of jerk or jackass. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much. I do tend to employ it in limited situations: when driving, when watching sports, or when teasing Buzz about voting Republican.
There were other things I didn’t – nor wouldn’t – add to my personal variety of English. Until my dying day, for example, the sweet carbonated beverage will be a soda and never a pop. I can’t bring myself to use a gumband instead of a rubber band, and I’m unlikely to ever order a hoagie, since I’d probably be asking for a wedge in New York, or possibly a sub when I’m in a more generic mood.
It’s hard to explain why a person picks up some aspects of a new or even familiar dialect but not others. Our speech is very personal and we have irrational reactions to different words or sounds. We pick and choose what we like, whether it be a sound, an association, or a reaction. We avoid what we don’t like for the same reasons.
For me, choosing a few bits from dialects is like bringing home a souvenirs or mementos of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. They are regular reminders of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had in the places that have shaped my life. Every time I hear these words slipping out of my mouth, I smile and remember.
You can learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the Pittsburgh dialect at the Pittsburgh Speech and Society website.
What are your favorite things about your dialect?
I definitely noticed this in my speech, both when speaking my mother tongue and English. As to English I have real difficulty sticking to one accent.
I’ve been told that I speak Spanish with a Portuguese accent :) When my mother speaks Portuguese, her native language, she has a slight English accent. She tells people from the north of the country that she’s from the south, and vice versa. Her accent in English is an odd combination of Portuguese and New York :)
McKees Rocks possibly has the strongest Picksburghese accent, from my limited survey during years of public transportation through the South Hills and West End. In my Indianapolis neighborhood in the ’70s, we were exposed to lots of blue collar workers from Appalachia, but definitely more Southern than the Pittsburgh area’s, e.g., “Ah caint” for ‘I can’t’ . I wonder if the steel industry attracted a certain population whose dialect formed the basis of Picksburghese?
Kimbaya! I remember you sharing your Indianapolis sayings. “That’s just his way.”
From what I’ve read, a lot of the features come directly from the Scots-Irish who settled in the Ohio River Valley, but there were also plenty of Eastern Europeans in Pittsburgh, as you know, who had an influence on the dialect as well. I think it makes sense, because the rise of the steel industry attracted the newer waves of immigrants (like the Irish and the Hungarians/Yugoslavs…) who were coming in droves but were still not welcomed. And steel factory work wasn’t the kind of job Americans or more established immigrant groups would take, so they went to the newcomers. Kind of like today’s Hispanic immigrants in restaurants and construction and lawn work, and Koreans and Vietnamese in the nail salons.
I’m so excited that you came on over to my little blog :)
I wish I knew how to answer your question! I know that people frequently asked me which country I was from and would sometimes fall back to, “Where did you go to boarding school?” when I said I was from the United States. (How the second question makes me laugh, even today!)
I don’t get asked as often now. I haven’t thought about it for years, until this very moment. :)
Ha! I never got the boarding school question, but it’s a fantastic one. I do often confuse people. When I meet new people, I don’t sound very New York at all. I also slip in and out of accents depending on my mood and who I’m talking to, so I think I throw people off the track.
It’s also a useful skill when I’m feeling a bit puckish on vacation and feel like messing with people ;)
I love the term jagoff! Never heard of that one before.
Reading about the Chameleon Effect reminded me of when I lived out west near Seattle for two years. Without realizing it, I completely adopted their way of talking, their mannerisms. I came back to Maine to visit and my family was like, who are you? Out west people speak so slow (compared to here, where everything comes rushing out at lightning speed).I remember using my hands more to talk and I would say weird things like, at the end of every sentence I would trail off and say “doo-doo-doo” in this sing songy way (because everyone on campus talked like that!) And I spoke in this dreamy way, “like…yeah….yeaaaaah…whateveeeerrrr…” making all the words drag out. Fascinating how a person can adopt such subtle mannerisms just by being exposed to them for a length of time.
By the way, I often slip into the Chameleon Effect when I first meet someone! I’ll just start mimicking them, sometimes it’s pretty embarrassing. I have to make a conscious effort to stop.
It really is funny, isn’t it, how many of us mimic other people without even realizing it. Once I was aware of the Effect, though, I started to notice myself doing it, especially with non-native speakers. And whenever Buzz talks to his relatives in Slovenia, he definitely has an accent.
I think you need to introduce ‘jagoff’ to the Maine dialect.
I’m giggling at the image of you saying “doo-doo-doo” :) It’s funny about how slow they talk out west. I remember being struck by that even visiting Seattle for a week. Of course they talk pretty slow in the South too. Are we in the Northeast the only ones who talk fast?
Ah, the Chameleon Effect. When I met a woman at Joe’s school, I heard her Canadian accent, and I mimicked her, immediately. Same holds true for folks I meet from the Boston area. I will quickly get into the ‘ye’aht ye’aht’. Because I just returned from the Shore, I am using ‘eh’ in my dialogue more frequently, too.
I am sure there is a part of me that is deliberately taking part in the Chameleon Effect, but I my family has been heavily influenced by those areas, so I like to think it is a natural effect.
Watching the drive into Pittsburgh was amazing. I had no idea of the drastic change. Amazing.
Myrone Cope was entertaining. His accent reminds me of a combination of New Yorkers and Bostonians, which does not go well together. (smile)
The information you shared was fascinating, Leonore. Thank you.
I definitely think you’re right about being more likely to pick up familiar accents and influences, which is another reason why I think many people are surprised to find themselves mimicking (more subtly, of course) accents or mannerisms that are not as familiar.
I love that Canadian ‘eh’ :)
I never got tired of that Pittsburgh “entrance”.
I moved from the US to Australia as a child and made the conscious decision to lose my American accent or, more accurately to learn the Aussie version of English. Because Australia is so multicultural there are an endless number of variations on the Australian accent now, all of which have contributed to the contemporary use of language here. It has also made me familiar with many of the dialects of native English speakers and I can usually tell where they have come from. It is always interesting to note how people use their own versions of English to describe the same things in differing ways.
Teaching overseas brought me into contact with people from all the major English-speaking countries, so like you, I’m pretty good at figuring out where someone is from. I even got “instruction” from some coworkers in how to tell the difference between an Australian and a New Zealand accent.
It’s interesting, and also understandable, that you made the effort, and probably had an easier time of it as a child. I wonder how adults fare when they try to do the same. If I moved to another English-speaking country, for example, I’m sure that eventually it would become easier and more comfortable to speak in that new accent, but how much effort would it require to not default back into my American accent? Curious…
Are you able to switch back and forth between accents or does the Australian come more naturally to you now than the American?
One thing that surprised me was how my friends used to comment on my Dad’s Dutch accent. He spoke American English very well, I thought. Having grown up with him, I just couldn’t “hear” his accent.
I know what you mean. I definitely heard my parents’ accents – especially my father’s – but at the same time, they sounded perfectly normal. My mother’s English was stronger and it’s hard for me to tell just how ‘strong’ her accent is.
As soon as I hit reply, I checked my Google reader and found this post that you might be interested in: http://www.lexiophiles.com/english/super-dutch-surnames
Fascinating! There’s only 333 of us.
It’s all fascinating stuff. Though from the north of England, I was raised more-or-less accentless. Back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, regional accents were often thought (especially by my parents) to be a bar to advancement in professional life. These days, I adopt many words and phrases from my birth-region of Yorkshire, because nothing else will do. How can you get through life without using the word ‘nesh’ to describe me (I reach for a fleece or jumper at the first hint of coolish temperatures)? I’m not aware of a word other than ‘ginnel’ or ‘snicket’ to describe the narrow passageway between two or more houses built closely together. And what else can you call someone who’s grumpy and sulky if not ‘mardy’? Probably a ‘mardy cow’ actually.
Oh my goodness, those are fantastic words! I don’t know what we would call a ‘ginnel’ or ‘snicket’ other than maybe an ‘alley’. But an alley is larger, not the kind of narrow passage you’re talking about. And I might need to steal the phrase ‘mardy cow’ :)
I was thinking what words I would never want to give up. “Hooptie” comes to mind. A hooptie is a car that is just comically run down and patched together. Different color panels, mismatched tires, huge rust spots, duct tape holding the back window in…
Great word! I think our car may qualify one day soon…..
I’ve studied language for years and I often find myself unconsciously imitating accents. I know it must be obnoxious to the other person but it’s truly unintentional.
People are notoriously crap at identifying their own accent, so they might not even hear it when someone else is imitating it.
This article is immensely interesting to me. I was googling ‘chameleon effect in accents’ because I’ve noticed I am particularly susceptible to copying accents! I didn’t even know for sure what it was called; lucky guess. Nice to have a name for why I my Us go funny after I listen to BBC radio!
It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Especially since we’re so often unaware we are even doing it.
I’m glad you stumbled across this and found it useful!