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University of Missouri

Look Who’s Talking

MU doctoral student studies how Kansas Citians speak.

Christopher Strelluf

Vowels are collapsing in the western half of the country. Christopher Strelluf is noticing. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Depending on how you say the names Don and Dawn, Christopher Strelluf can probably tell if you’re from the Kansas City area or St. Louis. If the way you pronounce pin is different from pen, he might be able to narrow down from which area of Kansas City you hail.

Strelluf, an English and linguistics doctoral student from Kansas City, Mo., studies how language changes over time, between genders and among socioeconomic classes. His research focuses on how Kansas Citians speak relative to people in other parts of the U.S.

To measure this, Strelluf interviews Kansas City locals and approximates where in the mouth the tongue is when a person says a vowel. What he hears is a Kansas City dialect.

“Historically, and still for most people in St. Louis, Chicago and New York, Don and Dawn are completely different vowels that would be as different as the vowels in Dan and den,” Strelluf says. “In the western half of the U.S., these vowels are collapsing. The kids are losing an entire vowel, and nobody realizes it’s happening.”

Strelluf says this has deep political and social implications.

“There is this idea that if you can speak like people on the news, then you’re speaking correctly,” he says. “Some people are successful because they’ve been privileged to speak with the ‘right’ language.”

That’s the wrong way to think about it, Strelluf says. His research attacks the notion that there is a standard way to speak. Rather, language is constantly evolving. People in Kansas City and St. Louis speak more differently from one another now than they did 50 years ago.