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Heritage Moments: Why do people in the Midwest sound like Buffalonians? Blame it on the Erie Canal

W. Roberts, from Marco Paul's Voyages & Travels, Erie Canal by Jacob Abbott, 1852
The Erie Canal carried settlers across New York State to Buffalo, where they set sail for Ohio, Michigan and beyond. Those settlers took their distinctive ee-accent with them.

The  19th century engineering marvel called the Erie Canal is celebrated for many things: carrying settlers out to populate the Upper Midwest and rich harvests back to nourish the East; transforming Buffalo, Rochester and other tiny villages into thriving cities; and making New York the biggest, wealthiest, mightiest city of them all.

But we are generally told that by 1900, the importance of the canal had waned into insignificance and that today, its impact on everyday life is negligible. Yet how can that be true, when all any Western New Yorker need do to hear the continuing influence of the Erie Canal is simply listen to someone from Detroit or Chicago speak and ask: Why do they sound the same as we do?

Flat a’s, broad o’s, rounded i’s, lowered e’s: linguists call that distinctive way of talking the Inland North accent, or sometimes the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. (Here’s how the Inland North accent sounds when spoken by a Buffalo politician, and by some famous football fans from Chicago. Or to put it another way, when visitors from other regions watch a Buffalo TV commercial, they hear this: You don’t hee-ave to go to the highest-proiced mee-attress store and get outdated technalogy. For a tap-quahlity mee-atress, dial suhven one six.…)

That unmistakable accent is shared by white speakers from Syracuse all the way to Wisconsin and even Minnesota and, as scholars have noted, it follows the exact migration patterns set by the Erie Canal in the first half of the 19th century. 

Governor DeWitt Clinton opened the canal in 1825, boarding the Seneca Chief in Buffalo. Ten days and more than 500 miles later, he poured a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean amid wild celebrations at New York harbor, capping what Clinton called “a journey unparalleled in the experience of mankind.”

But even before the canal was built, visitors from the Eastern Seaboard noted the distinct accent of the villagers in Buffalo and Black Rock. After the canal opened, thousands of settlers from New York State carried that accent to northern Ohio, Michigan and points west. Within a couple of decades, the Inland North accent and its shifting vowels had spread across the entire American Great Lakes region.

In the massive and authoritative Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change, the University of Pennsylvania linguist William Labov and his co-authors analyzed the speech patterns of hundreds of Americans and Canadians to identify the geographical boundaries of accents across the continent. They found the strongest Inland North accent within these boundaries:

Milder forms of the accent originated in western New England and northern and eastern New York State, finally petering out to the west in Iowa and Minnesota.

“The settlement of the Inland North was closely connected with the construction of the Erie Canal,” they wrote in the Atlas. That particular migration pattern, Labov noted elsewhere, was a continuation of the settlement of Central and Western New York State by New England Yankees. (And indeed, the Buffalo-Rochester-Syracuse accent is a basically an intensified version of the accent found in Vermont and western Massachusetts.)

The Erie Canal transported other characteristics that originated in New England, thrived in upstate New York, and differed substantially from those found farther south: wooden houses (as opposed to log cabins), towns (rather than plantations), even liberal politics (check where today’s blue states are). The canal’s continuing impact on regional society has been noted in journals ranging from The Paris Review to Chicago Magazine to Slate. But it is most obvious in the way people speak, as Labov himself details in a PowerPoint presentation titled “The Mysterious Uniformity of the Northern Cities Shift.”

It’s important to remember that the Inland North accent is particular to a specific kind of speaker, and Buffalo is no exception. African-Americans from Buffalo tend to have an accent with roots in the South, reflecting a totally different migration pattern from the one determined by the Erie Canal. Likewise for speakers a few hundred yards across the Niagara River; their Canadian accent also has roots in a different migration pattern, as does the accent of Native Americans and First Nations people.

But for white Buffalonians, and the people who sound so much like them from Albany to Lockport, as well as in Cleveland and Toledo, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Gary and Chicago, Milwaukee and Green Bay and beyond, it’s pretty much one crazy, vowel-shifting accent. And it’s all the product of the Erie Canal. 

Cast (in order of appearance):

Gov. DeWitt Clinton: Jim Cuozzo
Mule driver: Karl-Eric Reif
Narrator: Susan Banks
Settler from Rochester: Barbara O’Neill
Wisconsinite: Darleen Pickering Hummert
Chicagoan: Jeff Z. Klein

Sound recording: Micheal Peters and Connor De Junco (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters
Post-production: Kim Ferullo (Chameleon Communications, 510 Franklin St., Buffalo)

Banjo theme: “Buffalo Gals,” traditional
Performed by Tom Naples
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)
Jesse Tiebor (Casting Hall Productions, Buffalo State Theater Dept., 2014-15 academic year)

Special thanks to:
Brian McDermott, WBNY general manager, 2014-15 academic year
Connor De Junco, WBNY production director, 2014-15 academic year
Anthony Chase, assistant dean, School of Arts and Humanities, Buffalo State
Ronald Smith, professor, and Thomas McCray, assistant professor, Buffalo State Communication Dept.  

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein