Sometimes, accents speak louder than words. Just ask the Georgetown University researchers who have been studying the way people here in Washington speak. When they hosted a couple of forums this spring to tell D.C. residents what they’ve learned, the responses were passionate.
“It really stirs a lot of emotion,” says Minnie Quartey Annan, one of the researchers.
Annan is sitting in a conference room at the Boys & Girls Club on Benning Road NE, listening to her colleague Melissa Ricks talk about growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in a co-op near Columbia Heights.
Ricks’s recollections are rife with detail: about how her mother sent her to a predominantly white private school and she’d run home quick as she could to get out of her uniform; about how everything changed when the drugs came and one of her friends from the “Gold Coast” on 16th Street would ask to come over and sit outside to listen to the gunfire. And about how, when her mother moved the family to Southeast, “it was like ‘The Waltons’ for black folks.”
Annan is listening intently, not just to the stories, but to how Ricks is telling them. The words Ricks chooses and the way she pronounces them can tell a story of their own, says Annan, who’s recording the conversation so that she can listen again. Certain vowels, for example, might indicate how much Ricks still feels she belongs to the District, now that she’s in her early 40s and a mother of two living in the suburbs.
“Everything that happens with a language has to do with identity,” says Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “We want to sound like the community we identify with.”
One of the specific details Annan is listening for is what she calls a “merger” — whether Ricks pronounces “Maryland” a bit like “Muriland,” and “very” like “vury.”
“This area, the D.C. area, has very interesting vowels,” explains Annan, who is project coordinator of the long-term study of D.C. language at Georgetown. The merger she’s looking for, more widespread among whites, is a distinctive feature of African American speech here. “It goes up as far as P.G. County,” Annan says. But not much farther, as far as she can tell. And you won’t hear black folks speaking like that in northern Virginia, she says.
The pronunciation occurs side-by-side with a handful of distinctively D.C. words, including “bama,” meaning somebody who’s unkempt; “cised,” meaning excited; and “jont,” which can refer to a place, a thing or even, these days, an attractive person. Together, they suggest something that many people thought the District didn’t have.
A local dialect.
Start talking about a D.C. dialect, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to prompt an animated discussion, says Annan, who helped run the recent forums — one in Columbia Heights with the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., that was moderated by Post reporter and District native Clinton Yates, and another at a senior center in Georgetown. People “can’t talk about it technically, but they have intuitions about how it sounds,” Annan says, recalling the vibrant Columbia Heights gathering. Even in the smaller Georgetown group, people jumped in to volunteer thoughts about why local dialects exist and about the few words used here and nowhere else.
You can get a sense of the passion the Georgetown researchers provoked when you ask locals whether they think there’s a D.C. accent.
“We have a D.C. terminology, our own vernacular, our own way of talking” says Reggie Sellers, 27, who grew up in Southeast and works at Nationals Park. Yes, he uses “bama” and “cised.” And he says that people in towns as close as Richmond use the same word to mean different things: “Bum,” he says, can mean something good there but not among his crowd in the District.
“I’ve been told there’s an accent,” says Chris Sprow, 24, another Washington native who works at the park, but “I don’t hear it.”
Accents, after all, seem like things that only other people have. As Yates has written, the easiest way to tell whether someone grew up in the District is by the words they use. But even phonetic tidbits like the vowel merger Annan is researching “can tell big historical and cultural stories,” according to Walt Wolfram, a professor of linguistics at North Carolina State University. They offer insights into people’s neighborhood pride and class solidarity, as well as reflecting their social aspirations, and even their attitudes toward gentrification and immigration.
Wolfram, who spent 25 years doing research in Washington, points to the example of people here who say “warsh” for “wash.” Black people won’t do that, he says. Nor will white newcomers to the city. The added “r” indicates that the speaker probably comes from a white family that has lived here for several generations.
“That one particular phonetic detail,” he says “indexes all of the settlement, migration and ethnic status,” and carries just as much information as whether someone says “soda” rather than “pop.”
One Georgetown researcher is working among African Americans in Southeast Washington — all D.C. natives, from different social classes. Individual usage varies, of course, but her research reveals that the professionals among them might avoid certain grammatical features (such as double negatives) while changing the pronunciation of final consonants in some words, so that “bed” sounds more like “bet,” “bag” becomes “back” and “lob” is pronounced “lop.” By mixing and matching features like these, researchers say, people can signal several different identities in a single sentence: their race, their social class and their allegiance to a city or region.
The data that Annan and her fellow researchers have been collecting will contribute to the Language and Communication in Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Area Project . Co-founded by Georgetown linguistics professor Natalie Schilling in 2006, it aims to piece together the linguistic mosaic of a city that’s unusual because of its mix of transient populations and generations-old communities.
It’s not surprising that Annan is finding clues to a D.C. dialect in a relatively stable Washington population — African Americans, whose local identity is also reflected in other traditions specific to this region, like call-and-response go-go music and mambo sauce.
On YouTube, you can find “accent tags” — clips of English speakers from all over the world reading lists of words to reflect their region’s special usages. These don’t represent perfect linguistic samples by any means, Wolfram says. But the local examples “are interesting for who chooses to do it, who chooses to identify as representing Washington, D.C.”
“And it’s young black people,” Wolfram says. These are the people expressing their pride in being from D.C.
The man often regarded as the father of this field of research — sociolinguistics — is William Labov, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of an overview of U.S. and Canadian dialects, “The Atlas of North American English.” Labov combined a love of science with admiration for Henry Sweet, the 19th-century English phonetician and model for Henry Higgins of “My Fair Lady.” Armed with a tape recorder, Labov set out to do wide-ranging analyses of various dialects. He didn’t want to turn Eliza Doolittles into duchesses, though; he wanted to describe how languages work rather than dictate how they should be used. And he was one of the first linguists to conduct a systematic study of the American dialect variously called black English, Ebonics, African American Vernacular English, or the “blaccent.”
Labov’s conclusion — that each dialect has its own regular grammatical system — underlies one of the basic tenets of sociolinguistics today: Whether racial (black or Hispanic English, for example) or regional (Southern or Smith Island English), no dialect is better or worse than any other; they’re all just different.
That’s a key point, says Carolyn Adger of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, because “the way people speak can trigger a whole bunch of beliefs in listeners,” unfairly stigmatizing or celebrating the speakers. It led Labov to push for raising reading standards among children whose way of speaking set them at a disadvantage; he encouraged instructors to distinguish between true mistakes in reading and a kid simply using his or her own dialect.
As Geneva Smitherman, a professor emerita at Michigan State University and specialist in African American language and education, puts it, “Attitudes toward language varieties are, at bottom, attitudes toward the people who speak these varieties.”
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,” Schilling says.
“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 says.
The city is also undergoing the social upheavals of gentrification — felt particularly by communities that have long called this city home.
Once in a while, Annan heads out to favorite spots on U Street, such as Ben’s Chili Bowl, to watch and document that change.
“It used to be solidly African American,” she says. Now, she can not only see the demographic shifts, she also listens for them in people’s speech.
Annan orders a chili half smoke and cheese fries, hoping to fit in with the hungry early-evening crowd. She chooses a booth close to the restaurant door, observing the curious tourists and the after-work locals, the school kids visiting from Michigan — and a guy in shirt sleeves and loosened tie who looks as if he’s just finished work.
“I seen you here before?” she asks the man.
“You might’ve seen my siblings,” he says. They exchange a few more words before he picks up his hot dog and moves on.
If Annan decides that she would like to interview him, or any of the other people eating out that evening, she’ll explain that she’s a linguist. She’ll listen to their stories — and try to decipher what they reveal about the storytellers and the city they live in.
“Language,” she says, “is one of the threads that holds this cultural tapestry together.”