During the last half century, reports have occasionally circulated that regional American accents are going the way of the trolley car—mass communication like television and radio, it's argued, is teaching us all to be a little less Fargo and a little more Tom Brokaw. But it turns out, in the 21st century, regional accents are becoming stronger and more common. Even more, reports Cara Giaimo at Atlas Obscura, recent research shows that new regional accents are being created, with immigration into the city of Liberal, Kansas, spawning its own linguistic style.
The research is part of Kansas State University’s Kansas Speaks Project, an investigation of how language is used and is changing over time in the Great Plains. According to a press release, as part of the project, linguist Mary Kohn and her students recorded audio samples of 90 people of all ages across the state, including Liberal, then compared them to archival recordings of Kansans recorded in 1968 for the Dictionary of American Regional English.
Liberal, a town of about 25,000 in southwest Kansas, has seen a radical population shift in the last forty years. In 1980, the community was 20 percent Hispanic. As of the last census, it is 60 percent Hispanic, with a large number of immigrants from Mexico coming to the city to work in the meatpacking plants.
Accents tend to come from social affiliations, so the researchers recorded members of youth sports teams in Liberal, thinking those teens with European heritage would have one accent and those of Mexican heritage would have another. But what they found is that the English of all the young people in Liberal, no matter the speakers' ethnic background, has taken on some of the pronunciation and rhythms of Spanish.
Trevin Garcia, who worked on the project and grew up in Liberal, was aware of the emerging accent growing up. Being mixed race, he had a foot in both communities, and saw the linguistic mash-up happening in real time. “I knew we were interesting,” he tells Giaimo. The researchers found that native English speakers, even those who don't speak Spanish, have adapted the pronounciations and rhythms of the language. “[W]hat we found was that they’re all really talking the same. It wasn’t what we were expecting at all.”
“It dispels the myth of the idea that Kansas in a monolingual state,” Kohn tells Stephan Bisaha at KMUW. “That’s never been the case…When we talk about language what we’re talking about is culture and history of people. Whenever we’re studying language what we’re really studying is people and how they move through the world, and language is a part of that."
So what does the Liberal accent sound like? In general, speakers tend to speak English with the same timing and cadence of Latin American Spanish. For instance, reports Giamo, in English, most words have “stressed time syllables,” or certain syllables that get extra emphasis. In Spanish, most syllables get the same weight. In the Liberal accent, speakers stress their syllables somewhere in between English and Spanish. They also pronounce some of their English vowels according to the rules of Spanish, with the “a” in “hand” rhyming with “hat,” which can be heard in these audio clips.
While it’s surprising that a new accent is emerging in the corner of Kansas, Kohn tells Kaitlyn Alanis of the Wichita Eagle that it’s nothing new; new versions of American English are developing all over the country and have been for centuries. New Spanish-influenced accents are emerging in parts of Texas, California, New York and Florida. “It’s something that we see all over the U.S., and it’s characteristic of what happens when you have large immigration patterns affect the demographic of the region,” she says.
If it’s anything like other regional accents, it’s likely the Liberal Sound will get more distinctive and complex over time as new factors influence the dialect. Just look at the Chicago accent, which started with a nasal New England dialect, dropped the “th” sound that European immigrants couldn’t pronounce and added Irish-isms like “youse guys,” all added by newcomers to the city who contributed their own linguistic quirks to the ever-evolving sound.