Looking at Language: Route 66-Speak

Looking at Language: Route 66-Speak

Learn the lingo on the highway to adventure.

By Patrick Mott

“If you ever plan to motor west,
Travel my way, take the highway
that is best. Get your kicks on route 66.”

                                         – Bobby Troup

Folks on wheels from all over the world have been getting their kicks on Route 66 since long before Bobby Troup’s iconic song first celebrated the cool, hip allure of what has come to be called America’s Main Street. Route 66 – what’s left of it, anyway – still carves a westward, sweeping, parabolic swath across the map of the United States, from Chicago to Santa Monica. And every day, hot rodders from Oregon, cruisers from Florida, RV-ers from Vermont and leather-clad Scandinavians astride roaring Harleys gleefully watch the miles slide – modern-day pioneers chasing the sun.

They pass gleaming city skylines, low-rolling farmlands, desolate prairie, craggy mesas, deserts both high and low, and miles of suburban sprawl. Also, if their ears are attuned, they experience a rich variety of accents, dialects and vernacular language. When these travelers pull off the road for a meal, an overnight stay or just a quick stretch of the legs, it’s possible that they can hear different voices or a different vocabulary each time.

“In the early part of the last century the conventional wisdom was that most of the dialect diversity was in the eastern half of the country,” says Elizabeth J. Pyatt, who holds a doctorate degree in linguistics and teaches at Pennsylvania State University. “But what you find today west of the Mississippi is dialect diversity, and more of it all the time. Dialect is really influenced by the people you speak with on a day-to-day basis. There’s an element of people wanting to have regional cultural identities.”

Take Chicago. If the Route 66 road warrior begins the journey in the Windy City (the more traditional way, according to purists), they’re likely to, at least occasionally, hear the sibilant “s” endings on certain words – popularized by a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Chicago bratwurst-and-beer buddies discussing their favorite local sports teams: “da Bullss” and “da Bearss.”

Once you’re out of Chicago and heading south, however, a pair of phenomena occur. According to Pyatt, the speech along the route begins to turn to “more of a standard American dialect.” If this speech sounds familiar, says Pyatt, it’s because it is the language of television news personalities throughout the United States. It is the speech that “broadcasters use if they want to be taken seriously,” she says.

However, there is at least one more influence on the speech of this region.

“Chicago to St. Louis is a very interesting corridor,” says Dennis R. Preston, an English professor at Oklahoma State University. “St. Louis turns out to have some Northern speech characteristics that it should not have. It should have plain old Midwestern speech characteristics. But as we recently discovered, especially work [done] on pronunciation, the Northern speech area…has established a corridor of influence right along Interstate 55 straight down to St. Louis, right through a bunch of small towns and farms and places which should all be Midwestern but which have Northern influences.”

Twentieth century mobility likely accounts for this, says Preston, who added that “Northern cities’ pronunciation only developed in the middle of the 20th century.” Most noticeable, he says, is the short “a” sound in such words as pat, hat and dad. In Chicago those words would sound like pet, het and ded. “If you move a vowel, you move something that’s part of a system,” he says. “Chicago people say hat, nat and lat for hot, not and lot. None of that vowel rotation takes place after you move into the northern part of the Midwest. Pot is still pot and bat is still bat.”

You’ll still hear vestiges of that along the road from Chicago to St. Louis. Route 66 opened up that corridor to so much travel that speech migrated along with the travelers. Also, says Preston, “Maybe the people of St. Louis were a little bit unhappy about the possibility of being confused with Southerners.”

                    “Route 66 opened up that corridor to so much travel
                    that speech migrated along with travelers.”

Continuing southwest from St. Louis, the Route 66 traveler passes diagonally through Missouri and barely nicks the southeast corner of Kansas before entering Oklahoma. It is here that one of two main varieties of the Southern accent holds sway. Dialectologists call this particular area of speech influence “South Midland” but the actual sounds come from Appalachia, brought there by Appalachian people who migrated to those territories, says Preston.

Once in western Oklahoma, the distinctly Western tones of the speech of, for example, Will Rogers, begin to take hold and with slight variations, hang on until the Route 66 traveler crosses the Texas panhandle, northern New Mexico, Arizona and the Mojave Desert, and finally enters the Los Angeles basin. (A distinct departure, says Pyatt, can be found in parts of the Southwest where large Spanish-speaking populations live. In places like Tucumcari, New Mexico, or Winslow, Arizona, a lively hybrid of English and Spanish – Spanglish – often can be heard.)

California appears to be, as always, a melting pot. According to Preston, the rules of Western speech hold in most of the state except for places in the Central Valley “where there is some Appalachian influence – families who came from Appalachia and the South who were relatively isolated from cities.” Elsewhere, says Pyatt, “Many people classify California as having a generic accent, but California has been its own cultural entity so long that it’s developing its own quirks,” such as surfer slang and its offshoot, Valley-speak. You’re likely to hear both of those at the western end of Route 66: the Santa Monica Pier.

Ultimately, wherever one is on Route 66, the sound of the English language and the use of its words are all about home.

“In some ways American English has become less homogenous than it used to be,” says Kathleen Ward, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of California, Davis. “Generally, in more recently settled areas, you hear less difference than in long-settled places. And cities, which often have extreme differences in class identification, are a better field for studying class accents than rural or small-town areas.”

Also, she says, everyday terms for things such as weather or food or geography can change within a day’s drive along Route 66. In St. Louis it’s a “canyon.” In New Mexico, it’s an “arroyo.” In Southern California the seasonal wind is called a “Santa Ana.” In Texas it’s a “blue norther.”

“Rural versus urban is a very strong marker in American English,” says Preston, “but social status can be more important than geography. People take great comfort in using the local variety [of English] because the local variety is what attaches me to my people and my family.”

Preston cites a group of people known to dialectologists as Ypsituckians – “they came to the auto industry in the North after World War II because there was little employment available where they came from in Kentucky and Tennessee and such. After three generations in the North, none of the third generation of them showed any evidence [in their speech] of having been from Kentucky or Tennessee.”

Like Route 66 itself, the dialects and usage along the Mother Road are evolving. “When you go from town to city, from old person to young person, from female to male or working class to middle class,” says Preston, “you can almost hear history in the making.”

 Patrick Mott is a Southern California-based writer and regular contributor to this magazine.

Editor’s Note: How is spoken language affected by geography in your part of the world? The Toastmaster would like to read about it. Send your story about a club's challenges and successes with various dialects and accents to submissions@toastmasters.org.