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Note: The author is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at the University of Arizona

A Utah urban legend tells the story of a hungry tourist who stopped his car in a small Utah town to ask a local resident, “Where’s the nearest steak house?” “You’re almost there,” came the reply. “It’s down the road two blocks on your right.” But when the tourist arrived at that location, all he could find was a large church surrounded by a parking lot. The resident had, of course, directed the tourist to the local stake house. The Latter-day Saint culture has developed a specialized vocabulary that is particularly suited to its traditions and needs, as do all social groups. For example, Catholics refer to the diocese, and the parish, and sailors refer to the tiller, the main sheet, and the jib.

Besides possessing specialized vocabularies, many social groups have particular ways of pronouncing words that set them apart from other groups and signal their distinct identities. The most common linguistic features that serve as group identity markers are the different ways of pronouncing vowels. In the South, the sentence “I believe that is correct” can sound like this:

AH believe that is KÒWRÉKT.

But in the West you can hear:

AI believe that is KRRÉKT.

In other words, some Southerners pronounce words like I, pie and sky with the simple vowel AH (as in hot), not with the AI diphthong of Western and general American speech, and many Westerners shorten the word correct to one syllable by replacing the first vowel with a drawn-out R.

One similarity in the speech of the South and the West is that in both places people are changing how they say their vowels. This is nothing new. English vowels have been changing ever since the Great Vowel Shift, which began in the 14th century and is still going on. This change is one reason why English spelling is so irregular. The problem is that the pronunciation of vowels has changed over the years, but the spelling hasn’t. For example, the Middle English word for goose was spelled gose or goos (spelling was pretty flexible back then), both of which were pronounced with a long o: GOHS. But, when William Caxton imported the printing press to England in 1475, printers began to standardize spelling, so the double o spelling for the long o sound was widely adopted. But, even as Caxton’s readers were enjoying the newly-printed Canterbury Tales, they were changing their OH vowels to sound more like UW. This meant that vowels that were spelled with two o’s, as in goose (pronounced GOHS) and boot (pronounced BOHT), started sounding like the first vowel in Susan, which was already spelled with the letter u. So, English spelling became less regular, and today we can spell the UW sound with u (as in nude) or with oo (as in noon). Over the years many people have suggested that we ought to reform English spelling to match the current pronunciation, but although spelling has been modernized in many languages, including in French and Spanish, English is still using some of its medieval spellings.

An example of a vowel whose pronunciation is changing in Utah is the sound AEH, when it comes before a nasal sound, as in plant. As a 75-year-old native Utahan, I say that vowel very much like the vowel in cat, but my nieces and nephews and their friends who live in Salt Lake City pronounce words like plant and amber with their tongues slightly higher in their mouths, so that plant rhymes with rent, and amber and ember are homonyms, both pronounced EHMBER. [1] A second example of vowel change in Utah involves moving the bulk of the tongue slightly forward in the mouth when pronouncing OH (long o as in roam). Due to this shift, my nephews and nieces pronounce boat with the vowel of but: BUHWT, and they pronounce so as SUHW (“I’m SUHW sure!”). This widespread feature of Western speech among young people is called “OW fronting.”

Of course, people don’t change the way they say their vowels overnight. There is a long period in which the old pronunciation and the new pronunciation co-exist, with the new pronunciation gradually taking over. And, of course, sound change occurs more rapidly in some social groups than in others, so that young people adopt a new pronunciation more quickly than old people, and women adopt a new pronunciation more quickly than men (young women are at the vanguard of sound change in English). OH fronting is an example of this last point, as Utah women are fronting OH more frequently than Utah men. For this reason OH fronting has become an identity marker, distinguishing women’s and men’s speech. Another example of a gender identity marker is “dropping your g’s,” so that running can be pronounced runnin’. Apparently, everywhere in the English-speaking world men drop their g’s more than women.

Because vowel pronunciation so often marks a speaker’s social identity, it is natural to wonder whether members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah have adopted ways of pronouncing vowels that distinguish them from their gentile neighbors, and researchers [2] have found evidence that they do. These researchers compared the accent of Utah County (sometimes referred to as “rural Utah English”) with the accent of Salt Lake County (“urban Utah English”). Some of the differences in these two varieties of speech are well-known and often commented on, while other differences usually go unnoticed. The best-known feature of rural Utah English involves the merger, or joining, of the vowels OH and AH when they occur before r, as in cord and card, so that these words become homonyms, and cord sounds like card. Speakers from American Fork are sometimes laughed at when they announce that they are from “American Fark,” and people might joke that they must have been “barn in a barn” (born in a barn).

Utah County is an excellent place to study whether religious groups mark their identity linguistically because there is no residential segregation according to religion. This is not the case in many other places. For example, in Belfast Catholics and Protestants live in different neighborhoods and although they pronounce certain vowels differently, this might be due to where they grew up rather than to which church they belong to. In Utah County, however, Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints grow up next door to each other and go to the same schools, even though they attend different religious services and have somewhat different social networks.

Researchers at Brigham Young University [3] have studied the cord-card, born-barn merger, asking whether members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and members of other churches in Utah County merge OH and AH at about the same frequency or whether one group merges them more often than the other, so that the frequency of merging serves as an emblem of religious identity. They also studied how the Utah County residents pronounced the diphthong AI, as in my and pie. This sound is beginning to be shortened in Utah County, but the change is barely noticeable and the shortened diphthong in rural Utah speech does not sound like the single vowel of MAH PAH (my pie) in Southern speech.

The researchers found that for the most part, Latter-day Saints on the one hand, and Presbyterians, Catholics, Baptists, etc. on the other hand, spoke very much alike, but that there were differences. The Latter-day Saints merged the vowels in words like cord and card and born and barn more often than the other group, but they shortened the AI in words like pie and sky less often. In both of these respects the Latter-day Saints’ pronunciation is more conservative. The researchers concluded that both religious groups may be trying to mark their separate identities by means of these two linguistic features. Because the cord-card merger is noticed and socially stigmatized, the difference in the pronunciation of this feature was probably the result of some conscious effort, but because shortening AI is not noticed (so far), the difference in the pronunciation of this feature was probably unconscious. So, there does appear to be a very slight Latter-day Saint accent, at least in Utah County. In rural Utah English, members of the Church can announce and sustain their religious identity not only by their distinctive customs of diet and dress but also by the more conservative way that they pronounce certain vowels.

Most people think that American regional accents are disappearing because of the influence of radio, television, and movies, but linguists have found that the opposite is true. As we have seen, younger Utahns are pronouncing the OH vowel with their tongues more toward the front of the mouth, and this feature distinguishes them from young people in the East and Midwest. Other studies have shown that people living in the cities around the Great Lakes are moving their tongues farther back to pronounce some sounds, so that, for example, bus sounds like boss. Southerners are doing something else entirely. [4] Furthermore, within these regional and diverging dialect areas, smaller differences in accent can also be found that distinguish identity groups like men and women, young and old and, at least in Utah County, Latter-day Saints and their neighbors who attend other churches.

NOTES:

[1] These observations are based on a study I made of the speech of my Salt Lake City relatives and their friends, see H. D. Adamson, “/ow/ fronting in urban Utah speech.” Paper presented at the Linguistics Association of the Southwest (LASSO) Conference, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah: October, 2009. [Back to manuscript].


[2] This discussion is based on these sources: H. D. Adamson, “/ow/ fronting in urban Utah speech”; Wendy Baker and David Bowie, “Religious affiliation as a correlate of linguistic behavior,” University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 15, no.2 (2010): article 2; Wendy Baker, D. Eddington, and L. Nay, “Dialect identification: The effects of region of origin and amount of experience,” American Speech 84, no. 1 (2009): 48- 71; Wendy Baker-Smemoe and David Bowie, “Linguistic behavior and religious activity,” Language & Communication 42 (2015):116-124; Marianna DiPaolo, “Hypercorrection in response to the apparent merger of (o) and (a) in Utah English,” Language and Communication 12, (1992): 267-92; David A. Sarver, “The transferability of Utah English features: Second Dialect (D2) acquisition in Utah” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 2005); Malcah Yaeger-Dror, “Editorial/ Religious choice, religious commitment, and linguistic variation: Religion as a factor in language variation,“ Language and Communication 42 (2014):67-74. [Back to manuscript].


[3] Wendy Baker and David Bowie, “Religious affiliation as a correlate of linguistic behavior;” and Wendy Baker-Smemoe and David Bowie, “Linguistic behavior and religious activity.” [Back to manuscript]


[4] For a good introduction to this literature see William Labov, Dialect Diversity in America (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012). [Back to manuscript]



Full Citation for this Article: Adamson, H. Douglas (2021) "Is There a Latter-day Saint Accent?," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 1 (Spring 2021), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleAdamsonAccent.html, accessed <give access date>.

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