Soda, scribbled out and replaced with POP, crawdad scribbled out and replaced with CRAYFISH, and missouri with the last two letters circled and the letters RAH? next to it. Under those it says Q&A with Matthew Gordon, author of the Origins of Missouri English

Many Missourians — depending on where in the state they’re from or reside — don’t think they have an accent, but all of us say words and vowel sounds in certain ways that could be either subtly different or extremely unlike another Missourian. 

The way Missourians tend to talk is varied, and what’s more — it’s changing. Matthew Gordon, professor of English in the College of Arts and Science, is a sociolinguist who studies these changes in the way we speak over time, and his latest study was detailed in his most recent book, “The Origins of Missouri English,” in December. 

Co-authored with Christopher Strelluf, associate professor at the University of Warwick in England and Mizzou alumnus, the study uses voice recordings from an oral history project conducted for the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri in the 1980s. The recordings feature Missourians born between the 1880s and the 1930s and demonstrate how the dialect landscape of Missouri has shifted since that time. 

We spoke with Gordon about this study, what he enjoys about the research process and what’s next for his work. 

Matthew Gordon

Matthew Gordon, English professor 
in the College of Arts and Science

Tell us more about this oral history project.

The mule is a big part of Missouri history and an animal that the state celebrates. This CAFNR professor realized that many of the people who had been essential in establishing the mule industry here in Missouri were getting old and retiring or passing away, so he wanted to collect their stories. He recorded hundreds of interviews with Missourians from all over the state who had been involved in the mule industry generally. There were even instances where we could hear mules making noises in the background of these interviews. 

You might think that those are exclusively folks from rural areas, but there were people from St. Louis interviewed who worked in the city as mule traders and farriers — specialists in equine hoof care — so it includes people from urban areas as well.

When we were going through the recordings, we selected which interviews to use based on the quality of the audio, but also how old the participant was, prioritizing the ones who were born in the late 1800s through the 1930s.


The Origins of Missouri English book cover. Features views of Kansas City's downtown area and the Missouri mule.

What did you find out about Missouri speech patterns through the study? 

We found that since these folks were born, there’s been a shift in Missouri’s regional dialect affiliation, as we were struck by the fact that these recordings were filled with people using vowel sounds that we associate with a southern accent. It might not be incredibly strong, but the technology that we’re able to analyze these sounds with can pick up on subtleties, and the patterns suggest a much more Southern way of speaking than you would find in Missouri today. 

We also found that some features that have become prominent in Missouri speech today appeared in a kind of embryonic stage a century ago. For example, most younger Missourians today pronounce words like ‘lot’ and ‘thought’ to rhyme and make homophones of pairs like ‘dawn’ and ‘Don.’ This is a change that has swept across the state in the last few generations, but we found a handful of people born much earlier who showed this pronunciation pattern well before we expected it to have been present here. It’s not an accent feature that is ever commented on, and only linguists really notice it, but those are the kinds of things that have driven the evolution of English throughout its history.

What sparked your interest in sociolinguistics? 

I grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and I went to college at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., and that was the first time where I felt like I was a linguistic outsider. I would ask for a pop instead of a soda and you know, people would give me these weird looks. So that really sparked my interest. 

Eventually that led to me thinking about the huge evolution we’ve had in language over time. How did we get from Beowulf to Chaucer to Shakespeare? Sometimes language changes happen rather quickly, but we study slow, qualitative differences over time that eventually lead to marked differences in language.  

How do you involve students in your research? 

In this book project, we had some students who did some of the initial hunting around in the archives, listening to and digging through the records to try to mine viable materials to analyze. More broadly, I’ve always had my students collect dialect questionnaires from friends and family to collect more recent data on Missouri patterns. We’d ask about pop vs. soda and crawdad vs. crayfish and things like that. 

It's always kind of eye-opening for the students because they were aware of some differences between them and their family members. Like, for instance, they might know that their uncle pronounces the state like Missou-rah (vs. Missou-ree) — but they might not have realized they say some words with subtle vowel sound differences from their parents. And it can be surprising how these changes can happen in a single generation.

Because regional speech patterns are always changing and we’re exposed to so many types of speech through social media, are we going to all talk and sound the same in a few years? 

This is something people have been worried about since listening to the radio became popular. I think the influence of social media isn’t so much homogenizing speech as exposing people to all this rich variation. So one-off changes in speech will sort of spread more rapidly. You might be exposed to a new, cooler way of saying a particular word, but from a linguistics perspective, it’s kind of superficial. It’s about one specific word, or a slang term, something like that. It’s not going to fundamentally alter their grammar or their sound system. 

What’s next for this study? 

First, we’d like to synthesize the insights from the book in a way that more people who aren’t sociolinguists can understand. For instance, earlier in the semester I gave a talk at the Missouri Conference on History, which was sponsored by the State Historical Society. We also have ideas for a podcast, which is obviously a good medium to explore these auditorial differences. 

And then to expand on this work, I’d like to apply for more funding to continue to explore archives of audio recordings from the Missouri State Historical Society and beyond. There’s a ton of recorded material just sitting in archives, and librarians and archivists just love to have people work with their material. There’s a treasure trove of information out there just waiting to be analyzed.