My Midwestern accent is far more than what it seems

Why my nasally voice is a product of my identity

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Ari Herman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

Sylvania, Ohio, is so small that you have probably never heard of it before. A suburb of Toledo, Sylvania is rather unassuming. And what’s significant about Toledo? It’s four hours from Chicago, an hour south of Detroit and 90 minutes from Canada. But for my childhood self, Toledo was my everything. You might be wondering, “Well, Ari, you just said that the only desirable aspect of Toledo is how fast you can get away to be in a more exciting place.” Yes, but when I moved to Atlanta, I found out that Toledo is much more than its proximity to other places.

Toledo has its own language.

Toledo speech has neither romantic French nor rich Spanish influence. The language, lacking fancy rolling R’s, doesn’t sound cool. The language is English­­ — but it’s different. It’s magical.

“It’s snowing.” Yes, you could take these two words literally or even scientifically — I’m referring to the white, frozen water vapor stuff that falls from the sky. But to a Toledoan, there is a lot more meaning behind this phrase.

It means pulling out all the tricks for a snow day — wearing your pajamas inside-out, throwing an ice cube out the window, flushing all the toilets in the house at exactly 8:02 p.m. and placing a spoon under your pillow. It means digging out our snow bibs and sleds. It means a spontaneous gathering of at least 20 kids in the neighborhood cul-de-sac without anyone’s parents organizing it.

My language is magical. It makes snow.

Having lived in Atlanta for six years now, I can tell you that the “neutral, Midwestern accent” theory is not valid. Our language is not neutral — it’s unique. On my first day of school in Atlanta, this became clear when all 26 pairs of eyes in my sixth grade homeroom glanced at me with a “what just came out of her mouth” look when I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh, you guys can’t wear white socks?!” To understand their look of astonishment, you have to read my words in a nasally voice like this — “Oh my gAAsh, you guys cAYn’t wear white sAAcks?” My accent is definitely not neutral.

My language is unique not only because of how it sounds, but, more so, because of the way people respond to it. It has the ability to evoke other forms of communication — giggles, smiles, raised eyebrows, whispers and curious glances. Some people may find these reactions offensive, but I don’t. I like the way my language engages people. 

My language is unique. It initiates friendships.

As I think about the influences on my language, I realize I may be giving Toledo too much credit. In hindsight, there are strong undercurrents affecting my language through my family — especially my Arabic grandfather, Poppa.

I can hear my mother imitating Poppa’s thick Arabic accent saying, “You must eat to stand on your feet.” This phrase is the equivalent of “How was your day?” and “I love you.” In my family, preparation and love are poured into each meal. My Poppa recalls large groups of his extended family gathered around a huge table stuffing grape leaves and intricate pastries, enjoying stories, laughing with each other and exchanging emotions and love. Food stimulates conversation. Evident in my immediate family today is the same thread of love and communication through food. "Ready for a cup of beef and barley soup?" my mom says as she hugs me after returning home from the University. Grabbing the soup ladle, I recognize there is always an open invitation to participate in my mom’s kitchen.

My language reveals much about who I am — my love for humor, for creativity, for engaging with people and for sharing. Without my language, I would not be Ari. My language makes it easy for people to see and respond to who I am. 

My language is me.

In a similar way, my language has taught me that everyone’s quirks are worthy of embrace. I hear the loud, iconic laugh of my friend from the other end of the Lawn and cannot help but smile. My diligent classmate sits behind the basket at the U.Va. vs. Duke game with her study guide in hand, and I acknowledge her unique approach. And to the stranger on the Corner who trips and sends his Roots bowl flying into mid air, I respect your ability to laugh it off and move forward — and I shed a tear for the fallen El Jefe bowl. 

My language does not hide any parts of my personality. Although my accent has faded a bit, my aggressive pronunciation of A’s and O’s sneaks up into conversation and reminds me that what makes us different makes us magical.

Ari Herman is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com. 

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