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December 2, 2012

OSU prof finds three distinctive Ohio dialects

COLUMBUS — Where in the world is a pin a pen and tin means ten?

Ohio, that’s where. Well, southern and southeastern Ohio, anyway.

Residents of those areas speak something called south, one of three distinct Ohio dialects.

Says who? Ohio State University sociolinguistics professor Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, an expert at the sometimes subtle differences in speech that help define the many different American English dialects.

She’s most interested in the three Ohio dialects and is using a unique lab at COSI Columbus to learn more about how Ohioans speak and how their dialects affect perceptions about them.  

“We’re learning what people think about them,” Campbell-Kibler said. “We’re seeing what kinds of general impressions (dialects) make.”

For example, how you talk can place you into one of three general categories: smart, rich, tall and good-looking; uneducated but friendly and trustworthy; or energetic, outgoing and extroverted.

People with southern accents are often wrongly perceived as not-so-smart-but-friendly.

“That’s a stereotype,” Campbell-Kibler said.

To test these perceptions, researchers played sound bytes of a southern-speaking OSU student. Many assumed she was an uneducated farmer.  

“She’s very intelligent. She’s pre-law,” Campbell Kibler said. “Her brother is a lawyer and her father is a judge.”

Before we get too far into misconceptions, let’s look a bit more at Ohio’s three dialects.

People from southern and southeastern Ohio have a greater likelihood of speaking south. In this dialect the words din and den and pin and pen sound the same, something linguists call a “merger.”

Many central Ohio residents speak midland. In this dialect cut and caught is a common merger.

Residents of northern Ohio, including Cleveland, Akron and Toledo, often speak something called inland north, a dialect in which vowels often are “shifted.” For example, the word trap can sound a little like tree-ap.  

Inland north seems to be the most subtle of Ohio’s dialects.

“Midland versus south, people know about it,” Campbell-Kibler said. “People tend not to have the same stereotypes of Cleveland speech.”

People adopt dialects at a young age, listening to their parents and others in their neighborhoods and regions. Ohio’s dialects are as old as the state itself and were established by settlers.

Campbell-Kibler plans to take advantage of a new partnership between Ohio State’s Buckeye Language Network and COSI that has put a working laboratory on the museum’s second floor.

The glass-walled language lab opened in August and offers a unique opportunity to conduct research on COSI visitors. It’s a hub for several different disciplines and experiments.

Laura Wagner, a psychology professor and chairwoman of the Buckeye Language Network, studies language development in children. She is conducting a study on how people react to men’s and women’s speech.  

Wagner said the COSI lab offers access to wide range of test subjects. Many college research projects rely on the most accessible subjects — college students.

Now, “We have access to little kids, medium-size kids, adults — whatever you want,” Wagner said.

COSI spokeswoman Jaclyn Reynolds said the working laboratory concept is good for the museum, and one she considers unique.

“We call it labs in life,” Reynolds said. “It’s a great chance for our guests to engage in real science with real scientists.”

Besides linguistics, COSI hosts the “Generation R/x” laboratory, where museum visitors conduct supervised experiments that teach them more about the science of drugs and medicine. The experience also helps OSU researchers refine science teaching methods.  

Ohio State’s College of Optometry operates a third lab called the “eye pod.” Right now, researchers are studying the eye muscle that helps people focus during reading.

Volunteers for Campbell-Kibler’s research listen to recordings of OSU students speaking in one of the three dialects.

Test subjects then are asked several questions, including whether they believe the speaker is smart or friendly. Then the test subject will hear the same phrase in a different dialect.

The initial phase of the study included 64 test subjects.

Campbell-Kibler said their answers will help define the next phase of the research.

“We’re just beginning to feel our way through this,” she said.

The results might help us understand each other, whether it’s tin of this or ten of that.

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