The problem with 'Duke English'

When was the last time you heard someone speaking with a Southern accent? Maybe a native Durhamite or a Duke employee? Let me rephrase that question: when was the last time you heard another Duke student speak in a Southern accent? Beyond the socially acceptable occasional “y’all” about half of us have adopted, my answer to that is, well, never.

I grew up in the Midwest—that’s the land of no accent, the place from which they source newscasters, right? Apparently, not exactly. I never thought I had an accent until I came here, and people commented on it. Then I started hearing it too when I returned home and realized I was moderating my speech—somewhat consciously, somewhat not.

What even is a Midwestern accent? Well, there are a few different types. We have Midland American English, which I associate with a more low-brow, gently twangy, Southern-inspired flavor of the English I hear back home. Then there’s Inland Northern American English, which exists more as something out of TV for me (think Chi-ca-go). I may use a few of the vocab words (e.g., drinking fountain, pop, and teeter-totter), but this one is in the same category as a New York or Boston accent: we know they exist, but we don’t really hear them in real life unless we’re in those cities.

North Central American English is the closest to my dialect. Though my speech is decidedly flatter than when I got to Duke, some words I say still confuse people. To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, I’ve had the way I speak described as vaguely Canadian. I pronounce bag and beg the same; caught and cot are homophones. The figures of speech I use continue to stump friends.

I’ve somewhat successfully removed “like” from every other word and tend not to dangle my prepositions anymore, perhaps as a means of overcompensating by speaking overly formally. However, changing the way I pronounce words ingrained into my lexicon in the “wrong” way is not in the cards—nor should it need to be. If I take the New York Times accent quiz, I get Akron and Columbus—unsurprisingly—for the top results. How I speak is normal for where I spent the first seventeen years of my life. Then why do I feel so conflicted about it?

Here’s the thing about the accents we hear in a place like Duke: they quite often signify wealth or power, even when derided—which is another problem altogether. Since international students rarely receive scholarships or aid to attend Duke, hearing someone speak in non-American English implies that the person is probably pretty well-off or intelligent. But speaking a different flavor of American English? That’s just for uneducated people, right?

If you’re from here—or could afford to go to an international school or something—you probably speak in “Duke English”—and no, I don’t mean the major. We’re from California and New York and North Carolina, and all the other states, but we all talk pretty much the same.

This “Duke English” sounds, to me, sterile and precise. Even if speakers use lots of filler words—like, “like”—or whatever the current slang is—think “slay”—each word is fully formed and typically lacks any sort of twang. This is how we talk because wealthy people talk like this; because we associate this manner of speaking with education, any other way of speaking is automatically lower class. We tend to see the Southern drawl and accents deviating from the Northern norm as uneducated. I would feel remiss not to do anything I could to sound as educated as possible—after all, why would I willfully disadvantage myself?

It’s not just the Southern accent—anything labeled as different threatens the white, educated, upper-class way of talking. And I’m not going to say upper-middle class because that isn’t accurate; Duke students, particularly the ones who’ve spoken this way out of the womb, are upper class. Everyone else can assimilate or face the consequences. 

Code-switching on a college campus or in elite spaces is more commonly associated with students of color. As a white American, I have many advantages in fitting into elite spaces, though I now talk differently here than I used to back home. This doesn’t entirely sit right with me because I’m buying into the idea that speaking in a certain way denotes intelligence. I’m still smart, regardless of whether I swallow the ends of gerunds, glottalize my ‘T’s’ or say “zigzag” like “beg.” For some words, I’ll never have the “correct” pronunciations; for others, I don’t know if I could go fully back to my original way without sounding phony. The way I speak now isn’t entirely Traditional Duke English but is just a bit too fancy for the average Ohioan.

I remain conflicted because, of course, I want to personally sound as smart as possible—no one wants people to physically cringe at the way they speak, after all—but, in modifying the way I talk to fit the norm, I’m further reinforcing the dichotomy between the way the “educated” and “noneducated” speak.

While the implications of accent-based divisions are far-reaching, I’m particularly concerned with what they mean for national cohesion, or, rather, lack thereof. When I tell people I’m from Ohio, they often express immense hatred for the state. Why’s that? Well, it’s a former swing state which is now decidedly red since the liberals are leaving—or the conservatives are becoming more vocal. The educated Democrat resents that the working-class Midwesterner votes Republican when the policy works against them. The blue-collar worker resents being called an idiot by the white-collar one for doing precisely that.

Especially when the Trump era so reinforced divisions between the elite and the non, and political attitudes are so geographically polarized—as are accents—it’s essential to combat these distinctions whenever possible. A recent NYT op-ed asked if we can do anything about “rural rage.” To me—beyond the needless reductiveness of insulting rural people ingrained in the argument—the real answer is simple: let people have their dignity, and don’t make them out to feel stupid. If we can’t even respect the way other people speak, how can we fairly acknowledge the words that they are saying?

Heidi Smith is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.


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