18 August 2023

Do You Speak the Language?

 I've been an editor for Down & Out Books now for about nine months. One of the challenges has been dialect. I apply the normal rules of editing to each manuscript, though I'm not nearly as dogmatic about it as some. For the most part, I've only had to worry about foreign variants of English. I downloaded a trial version of PerfectIt to handle a manuscript from an Australian author. Not UK. Australian. Yes, there's a difference.

But Australian English, like UK or American English, is a formal dialect. It evolved in a certain country with its own rules and variations. Likewise, Canadian English is not American English, and if you use the wrong word choice, you hear about it. Boy, do you hear about it. (BTW, editing tool makers, I have yet to read an American writer who writes "leaped" instead of "leapt." Whoever's programming your AI needs to back off a bit.)

But then we get to local dialect, usually evidenced whenever a new actor becomes the Doctor on Doctor Who. Of course, the real explanation for the Doctor's sudden change in speech is Patrick Troughton did not talk like Tom Baker, who did not sound like Christopher Eccleston, who did not sound like Peter Capaldi. In fact, the most hilarious reaction to Jodi Whittaker's turn as the first female Doctor was, "Really? We go from Geordi to London to Scottish and get a Yorkie?" Past actors have tended to waffle between the RP, London, Scottish, with the odd detour to Northern England. (Hence, a few of them sound like Geordis. So... Brian Johnson of AC/DC is a Time Lord?)

And then we come to America. Like it's big neighbor to the north, America is big. Really big. People who do not live in North America assume there are only three accents on the continent: Midwestern, Southern, and some bastardized Scottish accent where people say "aboot" and "Eh?" I invite you to talk to someone from the Maritimes or Quebec. Tell me someone from Georgia sounds like a Texan or one of those old Tidewater families in Virginia. While Californians definitely speak with Midwestern accents, you can tell you're not in Cleveland or Chicago. In fact, just within the state of Ohio, the accent changes every two hundred miles or so.

Clevelanders have this nasally accent, the product of a lot of Slavic and Irish immigrants in the last century. Cincinnatians have a slight southern accent due to their proximity to Kentucky and speak slower than their northern counterparts. In the middle of the state, you have Columbus, which, while having a larger population than Staten Island in New York, is somewhat isolated. Unlike the two big cities at either end of the state, Columbus did not spawn a megalopolis with its neighboring large towns and smaller cities within sixty miles. 

But it was Dana King's The Spread that challenged me. Dana lives in the Pittsburgh area, and his Penns River series is set in that area. Pittsburghers speak a dialect called "Yinzer," as in "youins are." It's a mix of East Coast, Pennsylvania Dutch, Slavic accents, and West Virginia dialect. So the dialog had to break rules. It's a tightrope. I would never want to edit Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series or the late Bill Crider's work. Both wrote in that clipped East Texas dialect, which has more in common with Huckleberry Finn than Raymond Chandler. My editing brain tells me to yank out 75% of the apostrophes. Bill, whom I knew fairly well for a time, would have been offended. Mosley would give me a lecture about disrespecting not just Easy and Mouse's past, but even a lot of the white people from that region. It's as much their identity as anything else.

Even more of a shock, I discussed editing with a potential client from the same area as Dana. Her husband did a sports podcast in Pittsburgh. I mentioned I learned to adjust for "Yinzer." Had I permission, I'd copy one of her emails here as her rendition of the local speak was even more dead-on than Dana's toned-down version, which was clearly written for a wider audience. (Incidentally, The Spread is an awesome book from Down & Out.)

Even milquetoast Cincinnati, where everything (according to Twain) happens ten years after everywhere else, has it's verbal ticks. You can literally tell the Eastside from the Westside by the accents, references, and even personalities. But Cincy has its own speak. For instance...


"Please?" - I haven't heard this in about a decade, and even then, only on the Westside. But this Cleveland boy had to learn to respond to people saying "Please?" instead of "I beg your pardon?" or "What was that?"

"Three-way" - Notoriously uptight Hamilton County has had its share of sex controversies, but three-way actually refers to Greek meatsauce on spaghetti with cheddar cheese piled high, aka Cincinnati-style chili. A four-way is with either beans or onions. A five-way is beans and onions. There are two six-ways: jalapenos on top (Blue Ash Chili) or fresh garlic (Dixie Chili.)

"Pony keg"/"Drive-around" - In most places, this is called a drive-through, as in a drive-through store, not a fastfood joint. Drive-around seems to be a Kentucky-derived term, but pony keg is the more common phrase for that sort of convenience store.

"Big Mac Bridge" - I-471 traverses this wide bridge supported on either side by two large yellow arches. Starting with former traffic reporter John Phillips, locals started calling it the "Big Mac Bridge" (actually the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge) due to its resemblance to the McDonald's logo. Sidenote: I totally stole this when I wrote Holland Bay

"Cut-in-the-hill" - The cut in the hill refers to the man-made trench leading from Dixie Highway and the large bluff overlooking the Ohio River into Covington, the riverfront city across from Cincinnati. It's a mile-long steep grade which sees semis slow to twenty-five miles an hour uphill. There is a second cut in the hill that refers to an excavated gap along I-71 leading into Kenwood, a northern section of suburban Sycamore Township. That one is often called "the Kenwood Cut in the Hill."

"Warsh" - Wash. Whereas New England flattens out all the Rs, Cincinnati tends to add them.

"Up the pike" - Often said alongside "up the street" and "up the road." Many roads here are called "pike," such as Princeton Pike, Springfield Pike.

"CVG" - The airport code for Cincinnati Airport. The code stands for "Covington." The airport is actually in Hebron, Kentucky, one county over from Covington and most definitely not in Cincinnati.

"Where'd you go to high school?" - How to identify a fellow local's background. Elder/Seton are dead giveaways for Westsiders.

"Carryout" - Carryout is not only food you pick up, it's the corner store, like a pony keg. Or a drivearound.

Cincinnati is not the only city with its own language, as I discussed with Yinzer speak out of Pittsburgh. Seattle has a local dialect even more distinctive and hard to pick up for outsiders.



  1. Interesting stuff. I remember when Eggleston became Doctor Who he explained to someone that he was from another planet and she replied: "Who do you sound like you're from the North?" He replied, rather defensively: "Lots of planets have a North!"

    Back in 2001 I volunteered as a literacy tutor and we took a class from a linguistics professor. She asked: "Is there anyone from the Northeast?" Mine was the only raised hand. "Would you please pronounce B-O-U-G-H-T?" I did, making it approximately bawt and everyone stared at me like I had two heads. She said "I have a PhD in linguistics but I'm from the Northwest so I can't make that sound." Out here it's bot.

    They used to say that in New Jersey where I was born you could tell in which county a person grew up by asking a few questions. What do you call a small river? What do you call the evening of October 30th? What do you call a long sandwich? I'm forgetting a few...

  2. By the way I have known Canadians who furiously deny pronouncing the word "about" aboot. But they do.

  3. I grew up in southeastern Massachusetts (a long, long time ago). Old timers from north of Boston usually said “Ayup” for “yes.” Now, you only occasionally hear “Ayup” from folks way up in northern New England.
    Edward Lodi

  4. Greetings from a fellow Clevelander! (I'm a native New Yorker, but lived in the Land of Cleve for longer than I've been anywhere else. I live in Richmond, VA, now, and I love it here — but I still miss Cleveland, the Heart of Rock 'n' Roll!)

  5. I love this--dialects and accents. I grew up in Eastern Essex County, MA, and have no trouble picking out the incomers. New news broadcasters mispronounce a lot of place names, and others miss all the subtle questions that mark them as outsiders. --Susan Oleksiw

  6. I'm a Jersey girl. But North Jersey and South Jersey have decidedly different accents even though we live in a small state.

    1. What ticks me off is that people think a Brooklyn accent is a New Jersey accent. WIth the possible exception of Hudson COunty we don't say "New Joisey." It's more like "New Cherzy."

  7. Elizabeth Dearborn18 August, 2023 15:52

    I live in Buffalo, a/k/a Canaduffalo, where we shovel Canadian rain in the winter. When concluding a phone conversation some of us say, "I'll holler at you later on!"

  8. A lot of South and North Dakotans went to see "Fargo" and swore none of them talked like that. But they do.

  9. I like accents, both North American, but also European and now South African (which sounds British with Southern US vowels to our ear).

    But I received a lot of Pittsburgh education. For example, the words pool, pull, and pole are all pronounced the same. My girlfriend would mention the tahl in the bathroom (tile? towel? Or the tahr on the car (tar? tire?) As as Jim knows better than I, gumbands aren’t especially musical.

    In Alberta, police confused me with mention of 4-ways, which turned out to be car flashers. But 3-way, etc, I know as Skyline Chili, which I argued came from Cincy and James Lincoln Warren equally insisted originated in California. I didn’t have enough knowledge to debate the point!

  10. This is my very own Can-Am Dictionary:


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>