Mary Kohn and the changing vowels of Kansas

Mary Kohn, assistant professor in English, teaches her Structure of English class on Dec. 3, 2015 in Eisenhower Hall. (Miranda Snyder | The Collegian)

In a department abundant with professors who conduct research in literature and the concepts of creative writing, Mary Kohn, assistant professor in English, laughed and said her line of work and research may sound a bit more “science-y” than what you might initially expect to find in the English Counseling Services building.

The historical research utilized by Kohn and other linguists have led to the discovery that language — specifically vowel pronunciation — is changing in Kansas.

According to Kohn, this is the first time this has been observed in the Sunflower State, a region typically believed by many to be “unaccented.” Kohn is researching the sources of this change, and she said evidence suggests that these changes are home-grown rather than imported from other regions.

Kohn has spent two of her three years at K-State on this project, titled “Kansas Speaks: Language and Culture in the Free State.” Her specific line of work is as a sociophonetician.

“That means I’m interested in the way that social structures interact with the sounds of language and how those sound changes spread,” Kohn said.

Other linguists and researchers have shown that the some of the vowel changes are moving closer to the back of the mouth in the Kansas City metro area, which is unlike other areas of the country, according to Kohn.

Some vowels are being pronounced with the tongue in a more open position. Additionally, the “-ay (eɪ)” sound in “face” is changing to sound more like the “-ih [ɪ]” in “kit.” Kohn said that to many, this sort of vowel pronunciation would sound similar to what we associate with as Jamaican accents.

Kohn said that at this point, people rarely notice the new accent change unless the sound is isolated and played for them. Kate Chaney, junior in apparel and textiles and native to Kansas City, Kansas, said she has noticed these linguistic changes in her hometown.

“The a’s and o’s are definitely sounding different these days, at least with some people,” Chaney said. “I’ve, in fact, noticed that some people are doing that typical valley girl enunciation with words like ‘daddy.’ Sometimes it sounds like they’re saying ‘doddy.’”

Kohn said she has spent much of the last year collecting interviews in several distinct Kansas communities to compare the vowel accents spoken and how they compare to the Kansas City vowels.

The communities in Kansas that Kohn studied were Americus, a town of about 600 people located just north of Emporia; Tipton, a rural community of roughly 200 people located in north-central Kansas; and Abilene. Kohn said she found the difference in the size of Abilene relevant to the study due to its history as a crossroads community linked to the cattle trade.

Abilene is also marked by its connections to the military, Kohn said.

“We chose our three field sites to see if we could see evidence of more conservative patterns in Tipton and more innovative patterns in Abilene based on the kinds of cities they are based on, isolation versus open networks, how fluid to immigration these cities are,” Kohn said.

Kohn said small towns like Americus and especially isolated small towns like Tipton should not be so quickly affected by this changing vowel happening in Kansas City; at least in theory. It would make more sense for the closed-network community of Tipton to lag behind, she said. The rate of travel in and out of the areas and means of networking are vastly different from that of the Kansas City metro area.

Ignatius Brummer, resident of the Tipton area, has lived in the community for over 70 years and said he understands the extensive difference in communication and social communities in the area.

“If you go to school in Tipton, your class is going to be very small, so all of your dating, friends, sports, parties are going to be in other towns, the surrounding towns in the area — other tiny towns,” Brummer said.

Kohn said the result of the research in the three towns was not what she expected. The vowel shift is happening in all three communities.

“We thought maybe since we were getting this from Kansas City, in which case you would assume that Tipton would get it last, but that’s not what we find at all,” Kohn said. “All three communities were found to be identical in the shift.”

So, how did this happen?

Kohn said there are two hypotheses she is interested in examining. The first is that this is the result of the two distinct vowel sounds — the “ɒ” in “cot” and the “ɑ” in “caught” — merging and collapsing together, allowing the “æ” in “trap” to move into the position that “cot’s” “ɒ” sound once occupied. Kohn said the origin to this phenomenon could be from outside of the Midwest.

The other possibility is that the vowel collapse was independently initiated in rural communities instead of from the spread from the cities, Kohn said.

The latter theory suggests that it could have then been spread through small-town networks by means of social contact, suggesting that the small-town communications are a linked network spanning further and further outward almost like a web.

Kohn said this could be in direct relation to teenage life in the small communities.

“It relates back to a need for social contact beyond the social contact they can get in their communities and to get a rich and fulfilling teenage experience,” Kohn said.

Kohn said that more research will be required to be sure of this hypothesis.

“We have to do more testing of it on a micro level, almost making a web of contact,” Kohn said. “Who you are, who your friends are, where their friends are, making a much more detailed web to thoroughly detail this hypothesis.”

Kohn said she is optimistic continuing the research of the subject and answering the driving questions she faces in linguistics.

“We’re all aware when we listen to old movies or old recordings that people 100 years ago didn’t sound like us; it certainly becomes obvious that language changes over time,” Kohn said. “ … English is just a language that has this tendency to change and evolve. Unless language is dead it’s going to keep on changing.”