How do you speak D.C.? ‘Accent tags’ help to define the District’s dialect

Do you live in Washington or WaRshington?  If it’s the latter, you almost certainly drink  waRter. But do you know what  “bama” means? And how about “cised”?

DC may not be Bawlmer or Naw-fk, but it turns out that even in this very transient town there are  local ways of speaking.

Linguists have studied dialects all over the country — in Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Stanford and Chicago. But Washington presents particular challenges, not only because so much of the population is on the move, but because the city is at a “dialect crossroads,” says Natalie Schilling, a linguist at Georgetown University who co-founded the Language and Communication in Washington DC Metropolitan Area project in 2006.

“When asked about their accent, people from D.C. often say, ‘Whenever I go north, they think I talk Southern, and when I go south they call me a Yankee’,” Schilling said.  What’s often forgotten, says Schilling, is that there are communities who’ve called  DC “home” for  generations.

If you’ve always thought an accent is something only other people have, check out  the “accent tags” that have taken off on YouTube and Tumblr. You’ll  find English-speakers from all over the world (including Washington DC) reading a list of words and answering questions that are designed to reveal quirks of local pronunciation and word choice.  And  –  because everyone has something to say about language – there’s typically a lively debate in the comments section.

If you want to make your own, here’s the word list:

Garage, herb, schedule, figure, jaguar, lieutenant, water, advertisement, vase, route, ballet, tomato, leisure, address, ate, buoy, aluminum, aunt, wash, oil, theater, iron, salmon, caramel, fire, sure, data, ruin, crayon, toilet, New Orleans, pecan, both, again, probably, spitting image, Alabama, lawyer, coupon, mayonnaise, syrup, pajamas, caught

And here are the questions:

  1. What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
  2. What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
  3. What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
  4. What do you call gym shoes?
  5. What do you say to address a group of people?
  6. What do you call the kind of spider (or spider-like creature) that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs?
  7. What do you call your grandparents?
  8. What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
  9. What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
  10. What is the thing you change the TV channel with?
YouTube users across the United States have uploaded dozens of videos to demonstrate their local dialects. PostTV examined people's accents and state-specific answers to a list of questions created by Bert Vaux for a 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey. (Jonathan Elker, Kate M. Tobey and Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

More on language:

Is there a D.C. dialect? It’s a topic locals are pretty ‘cised’ to discuss

Video: How do you pronounce ‘water’?

Terms native to D.C.

Frances Stead Sellers is senior writer at The Washington Post magazine. She joined the magazine in 2014 after spending two years as the editor of the daily Style section, with a focus on profiles, personalities, arts and ideas.
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