Outsiders define Western New York by many things: Our weather, for one. Our sports. Our ex-residents, celebrated and notorious. But there's another marker, and it's every bit as identifiable as our proximity to a natural wonder or our wings. We're reminded of it whenever we stray from home only to have someone peg us as outsiders.
"You're not from around here, are you?"
Was it something we said?
Maybe it's because we prefer "pop" to "soda." Perhaps that singsongy pattern in our speech gave us away. When in doubt, blame the diphthong.
In Boston, a famous saying separates the natives from the rest of the world: Park the car in Harvard Yard. Or, to use the accent of the region: Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd. Buffalo Speak can be detected just as easily. Say, "Ann bought a van at Gambino's." If you converted "Ann" into the two-syllable boy's name "Ian," congratulations. If it came naturally to you to call Gambino Ford "Gambino's" -- just as you might call Wal-Mart "Wal-Mart's" or Mighty Taco "Mighty Taco's" -- you get a gold star in Buffalo Speak.
"If something is really good here, it's not 'fantastic.' It's 'fayantastic," says linguist Wolfgang Wolck, offering another example of our famously flat "A."
A University at Buffalo professor and a native of Germany, Wolck has been studying the Buffalo accent since the 1970s. He has examined the ethnic features of different immigrant groups -- primarily Italians, Poles and Germans -- and how they were integrated into Buffalo English.
Among the chief traits Wolck notices:
The flat A. See Ann/Ian and fayantastic, above. He found this tendency strongest among Buffalonians of Italian descent.
The hard A, which makes words like "Don," "pot" and "box" sound like "Dan, "pat" and "backs." Western New Yorkers notice this speech characteristic less than outsiders would, particularly our neighbors across the border. It's safe to say that Canadians make fun of our hard A probably as often as we tease them for turning the word "about" into "a boot."
A lowered E sound in words like bad, bed and rest. As a result the words sound like "bad" or "bud," "rust" and "bust," respectively.
The "ai" diphthong, a combination of vowel sounds that makes words like "right" and "pine" sound like "rate" and "pain."
One of the more famous Buffalo feel-good advertising campaigns featured a bunch of residents strutting down the street and "Talkin' Proud." Early in his research, Wolck realized such a sentiment didn't sum up Western New Yorkers' feelings about their own accents.
"People got mad at me. They would say things like: 'Whom did you talk to for your research -- the animals at the zoo? We don't talk like that. They did not want to be identifiable. They somehow felt that, if they were identifiable, it was not necessarily to their benefit."
And yet, talking the talk isn't necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, showing one's roots can often benefit a person, particularly in his hometown.
"There is a great deal to be gained in a local society by being local, such as jobs, housing housing and all kinds of privileges," says William Labov, a dialect specialist at the University of Pennsylvania. "When you contact people from around the city, recognition of that person as local undoubtedly makes a difference."
At century's end, some people believe that, with transience and decreased immigration, regional accents around the country are fading. But from a nationwide canvassing of English speakers, Labov found the opposite. In fact, regional accents are thriving. What's more, in Great Lakes cities such as Buffalo, the accent is growing even stronger.
"People used to think with radio and TV, (accents) would die down, but they haven't," Labov says. "We don't know why language changes in general. It's so very mysterious."
Linguists aren't the only one curious about Buffalo Speak. At the usenet group alt.culture.ny-upstate, there's a simple test for determining the Buffalo accent.
If you pronounce the words "Mary," "merry" and "marry" the same, you have it.
Dan Tasman offers another check.
"Say the name of the municipality north of Buffalo. If it sounds like 'tahn-ah-tahn-ah-wahn-da' there's no doubt you're severely affected."
A former Buffalonian who now works in Colorado, Tasman took an interest in Buffalo English when he returned to the area after living in New Mexico. "Welcome home, Dy-an!" people said to him. Funny, that didn't grate on him before.
From that curiosity, Tasman created "The Guide to Buffalo English" on his Web site (http://www.cyburbia.org/buffaloenglish). It includes an extensive glossary of Buffalo terms such as "Cheektovegas," "the Canadian Ballet" and "Mary on the Half Shell," which is described as a "display of a Virgin Mary statue under a partially buried, upright clawfoot bathtub or similar object."
While Tasman's Web site includes many of Wolck's findings, he and other Buffalo contributors have highlighted several linguistic traits of their own. Among them are Buffalonians' tendency to turn business names into the possessive case.
In describing errands for the day, a Buffalonian might say, "I gotta go to Fleet's to deposit my paycheck, then I gotta drive over to Quality's and get some groceries, then maybe get some lunch at Burger King's and buy some fertilizer at Wal-Mart's later."
Then there's what Tasman refers to as "the-ification": When Buffalonians give directions, they add a definite article before an expressway number. "To get downtown, take the 90 to the 33 East."
"I'm fascinated with the little things that make Buffalo unique," says Tasman, whose Web site also features a devotional to Cheektowaga lawn ornaments.
"You look around the country and there are Applebee's everywhere and McDonald's everywhere. The architecture looks alike; the suburbs are monotonous.
"I just started grasping for that sense of place, to try to figure out what makes a place unique."
In other words, we should rejoice in our accent. We oughta be talkin' proud.
So go ahead. Order that beef on weck from a waitress named Ian.
Or do you say "wick"?