Utah is called home by several groups of people. Some have lived here their whole lives with grandparents who settled little Utah towns. Others are just studying at BYU and plan to leave once they get their degrees. About one third of BYU students are Utah natives, leaving around 20,000 Utah County residents from states and countries outside of the bubble. With these two contrasting groups, Utah has an interesting mix of people communicating.
Just as Boston English differs from Texan English, Cockney English or Hawaiian English, Utah English is its own dialect. Just like Bostonians have their own distinguishing features, Utahns do as well.
If the way we speak is one of the first things someone notices about us, it’s not surprising that many have a strong opinion about being tagged as a speaker of Utah English. Many in the general public stigmatize Utah English and attribute features that may or may not belong to it.
Veronica Abello, a junior majoring in classical studies, is especially aware of English varieties because English is her second language. Abello grew up in Venezuela and moved to Washington, D.C., at age 11.
“I would not want to be categorized as a speaker of Utah English because they talk kind of like hicks sometimes,” Abello said.
Abello’s characterization, however, may make many Utah natives bristle, but Abby Pace, a junior studying English, isn’t worried about people noticing her Utah English dialect.
“I don’t mind when people identify the way I speak as categorically Utahn because that’s my heritage and I’m not embarrassed of it,” Pace said. “I just dislike it when people assume that I’m a hick because I don’t say my T’s properly.”
Another hot topic Pace brought up was the idea of a hierarchy of dialects.
“People with southern accents are considered cute and British accents sound distinguished, so why are more common accents looked down upon? That doesn’t sit well with me,” Pace said. “There is no one ‘proper’ way to speak – everything is evolved from Latin anyway.”
Don Norton, a BYU professor of English, taught in an address on grammatical correctness “there are no absolute rules of correctness in language use; rather there are many varieties of ‘correct’ English.”
With this in mind, it is understood no one dialect is better than another. Yet, even with this understanding, Utah English is still stigmatized.
According to David Eddington, a BYU professor of sociolinguistics, a dialect is viewed just as the culture is viewed.
“In general, people’s feelings about a language or dialect represent what they feel about the speakers of that dialect,” Eddington said. “Utah is stigmatized as being rural and backward, so features of English spoken in Utah get a stigma.”
Eddington then explained these features are hardly specific to Utah only.
“What is interesting is that these same features exist elsewhere, but often are not stigmatized elsewhere,” Eddington added.
Brooke Randell, a junior studying English language, explained her disapproval for attaching certain language features to a certain variety.
“A lot of people blame Utah for doing the glottal stop, but I don’t think that’s particular to Utah,” Randell said. “I mean, I’m not from Utah and I say ‘mow’un’ and ‘ki’un’ for mountain and kitten.”
David Bowie, a professor of linguistics and English at University of Alaska Anchorage, who studies the Utah English variety and its features, said few features are tied solely to Utah.
“There aren’t generally any individual features that characterize any particular variety as being different from all other varieties of the language, but rather it’s the particular combination of those features that are unique to a particular variety,” Bowie said. “Therefore, even those features that many Utahns often see as being absolute characteristics of Utah English … are found in other places.”
A few of these features found in Utah English include the collapsed vowels before L (pronouncing feel – fill, fail – fell, sale – sell), the cord – card (pronouncing born – barn) merger and the glottalization of pre-nasal T. In general, these are variable mergers, meaning Utahns don’t always rhyme these words, but have the option to do so.
Bowie said his favorite stigmatized feature of Utah English is the glottalization of pre-nasal T because it is a feature that can be found anywhere.
“Yes, that’s the way it’s pronounced in Utah English, but it’s also pronounced that way in pretty much every other variety of North American English (plus some outside of North America), as well, and it’s completely non-stigmatized elsewhere,” Bowie said.
Bowie said this common feature is one in particular Utahns have become concerned with for no particular reason. These habits of unnecessary concern, and often hyper-correction, are again symptoms of a cultural stigma for Utah.
Because English is a living language, it is continually changing. Bowie pointed out our language and dialects will always exist, but specific features will wane or persist. This explains why some features are more common within certain age groups.
“All varieties of English are changing, and so features of Utah English are constantly in the process of change,” Bowie said. “Therefore, some features of Utah English will wane, while others strengthen.”
Angela Shelley, a grad student who has lived in Utah almost her entire life, said she doesn’t feel like her speech habits fall under Utah English because often people describe features she doesn’t use.
“A lot of times people attribute things to Utah English that I’ve never heard here before,” Shelley said. “Like when someone says ‘Spanish Fark.’ I don’t say it and I don’t hear people from here say it.”
This “cord – card” merger is an example of a characteristic of Utah English that may be waning. Today it is used by speakers of older age groups.
As for the future of Utah English, Bowie described things look a little different than what linguists originally predicted.
“For years the conventional wisdom was that with the growth of national radio — and later television — networks, everyone would hear the same things and so all the different varieties of English in the country would level toward some homogenous standard,” Bowie said. “But in fact (English varieties) are differentiating from each other at a faster pace than, say, 70 years ago.”
Bowie confidently predicted a future for Utah English as interesting as its past.
“Utah English will continue to exist, and even though it will certainly change in various ways, it will continue to be a way that Utahns can differentiate themselves from everyone,” he said.