Ope! Midwesterners Venture to the West Coast to Talk about Language Change


blog_NWAV Lynsey and Mary
Associate Professor Mary Kohn and Lynsey Akin (BA ’20) at NWAV48 in Eugene, OR (13 Oct 2019)

Every year linguists come together to talk about what’s changing in language and how best to study it at the New Ways of Analyzing Language (NWAV) conference. This year, Lynsey Akin (BA ’20) and I got the chance to join them in Eugene, Oregon, to share what we’ve been up to in the Kansas Speaks lab.

“Interesting stuff is happening in Kansas,” Lynsey told the audience at the special Undergraduate Research session. Over her three years as a research assistant in the Kansas Speaks Project, Lynsey has uncovered hidden stories and voices from Kansas’s past. These stories sometimes challenge stereotypes of Kansas as predominantly White, and demonstrate the important role Kansas has played in US history.

For example, Lynsey’s work with oral histories from Wabaunsee County shows that in many ways Kansas was ahead of the curve on integration in the late 19th century. As African Americans fled the brutality of the post-Reconstruction South, many turned to Kansas as a place to seek freedom and educational opportunities. Unlike later waves of migration to urban Northern cities, these African American families often lived and went to school with White residents. The language of these communities reflected this integration. Unlike urban Northern cities, where linguistic differences between African Americans and European Americans increased as a result of segregation, African American families and White families from these communities developed similar speech patterns. As Lynsey rightfully points out, this doesn’t mean Kansas is immune from racism or discrimination, but it does reveal a part of Kansas’s populist history that many forget.

While Lynsey was sharing her work, I was off gathering new skills and finding out what hot research trends are emerging in the study of language.

The Kansas Speaks lab plans to make use of materials from one of the NWAV workshops, using Twitter mining to explore the phenomenon of “ope.” This word has become the fastest way to show your Midwestern cred online. We want to know how it caught on and what it shows about Midwestern identity.

I also had a chance to talk about language change in Kansas during a session on /ai/ raising. This is a phenomenon in which /ai/, the sound in words like time and kite, is undergoing a process of change similar to Canadian raising, the pattern that gives us the stereotype of Canadians going “oot” and “aboot” (for “out” and “about”). Over the past twenty years, people have started to pronounce the vowel sound in words like tight and kite with a more closed mouth position. While this change is quite big, it’s also going pretty much unnoticed. To be honest, I didn’t even notice it until this conference, and paying attention to language is my job!

This special session inspired a new project as part of the “Research for All” campaign at K-State. Three research students are going to try to figure out how this change is happening in Kansas and what it reveals about how our brains organize sound. Stay tuned for more at the Dec. 10th Research for All Fair!

Conferences are fun. There’s nothing quite like spending a full weekend with a bunch of people who are nerdy about the exact thing that you love, and meeting the author of that article you read for class is always a bonus thrill. Conferences are also an important part of keeping pace with the conversations in the field. That’s why we try to make it part of undergraduate research. Special thanks to the College of Arts and Sciences and its Undergraduate Student Travel Award for funding Lynsey’s trip to NWAV 48 in Eugene, Oregon!

If you are interested in learning more, consider checking out the Linguistics Certificate, available Spring 2020. If you’re interested in learning more about research opportunities with the Kansas Speaks lab, please email me, Mary Kohn, at kohn@ksu.edu.

Mary Kohn, Associate Professor

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