Iowa Accent

Posted by Jim Johnson on November 06, 2012 1 Comment

I was born in a small town in northwest Iowa called Newell. And when I say small, I do mean small: There are only about 900 people there. The population has stayed pretty steady over the years, though main street certainly hasn’t. It’s almost gone, actually. There’s still the bank, the post office and a bar. Actually the bar isn’t even on main street anymore, but it’s a short stumble away.

There used to be a lot more, even just when I was a kid in the 70′s: a grocery store, three gas stations, two restaurants, three bars, a hardware story, and a lot more. But the 80′s ate towns like mine up. Walmart came along, fast food came to the “big town” 12 miles away, and my little corner of the world changed.

It was still a great place to grow up. Not a lot of diversity – though we did have both Danes AND Swedes – but there was a solid educational system, and everyone felt accountable. I think those things are still true, though there’s now a hint more diversity and the school has had to consolidate to keep going. (It’s won them some state basketball championships, though!) There’s still a sense of small-town pride and a strong sense of community.

Iowa Accents

If you’re learning an Iowa accent, you could work on a fairly neutral American accent. There’s not a lot that makes it a distinct regional accent, so many would call it General American or a Broadcast Standard American accent. There’s a tendency to drop the sound into the back of the throat a bit, though, and the “ash” vowel tends to flatten a bit (though not to the degree of a stereotypical Chicago accent). I still prefer to “drop my g’s” in most of my speech: goin’, doin’, bein’.)

There are also other typical midwest pronunciations that carry through. Most people say eltse for else, bolth for both, korder for quarter, and rul for rural. (Our mail came to RR1: Rural Route 1 or Rul Raut Wun.) Like most Americans, we said kalm instead of kahm for calm and dook instead of dyook for Duke. It’s pop - not soda. We also gave our own pronunciation to foreign words for place names, just like most Americans. I lived in Buena Vista County: Byoonuh Vistuh, not Bwaynuh Veestuh. And, just like most Americans, it’s Counny, not County - get rid of that t after an n. (git rid, I should say.)

It’s not Southern, though. That’s one mistake people will make when they think of an Iowa accent. That Southern accent quality doesn’t really kick in until you get a little ways into Missouri.

Even in this tiny community of 900, there was some diversity in the accents. I grew up about 75 miles from the Minnesota border, so there were some elements of that Minnesota accent that carried into some residents, if not most. The main element of that was probably the twang of the Upper Midwest sound. You may hear that throughout Iowa, depending on the individual, but up north and in smaller towns especially (which is most of what Iowa is – even the cities are big small towns). But some people would even have a hint of that almost Canadian sound of the Minnesota/North Dakota accent: The oh sound would drop the second half of the diphthong and become a long ooo instead.

Iowa Accent Audio Samples & Examples

You’ll hear a few examples in the Iowa accent audio included with the AccentHelp download for the Central Plains Midwest Accent. There’s a bit of a southeast Iowa speaker at the end of the sample audio for that download where you can hear some of that twang, for example.

You can find a few examples on YouTube, too. This young lady has that back-of-the-tongue placement and that ooo, and she happens to say eltse. She also has the correct Iowa attitude. You’ll see it if you know it… Iowa Governor Terry Branstad is another good native Iowan example. If you listen to the accents of the students in this piece from my old college, you’ll hear a number of Iowans.

Iowa Accent Recordings

In addition to some other dialect recording destinations, I’ll be back in Iowa this summer to pick up more samples. I’ve also got some fun planned: I’ve got a high school reunion and I’ll be home for Newell Pride Days. As of May 1, I’ll find out if I’m selected to be able to ride RAGBRAI, a week-long bike ride across the state of Iowa, which I’ve always wanted to do! (I’ll also be doing a Warrior Dash run with my son and my nieces down near Des Moines – a muddy mess with beer at the end, though not a distinctly Iowa thing to do…) My greatest hope for the visit, however, is to get some hometown sweet corn. Ain’t nothin can touch the sweet corn I can get back home. Nothin.

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