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Immigration To Southwest Kansas Is Creating A New Accent

Mirna Bonilla Salazar, K-State Research and Extension
Kansas State University

Southwest Kansas has a new accent due to the rapidly growing Latino population in the area.

New research from Kansas State University and its Kansas Speaks Project, which documents language shifts in Kansas, shows younger people in the region have started to take on the characteristics of Spanish speakers, even if they don’t speak Spanish themselves.

“It dispels the myth of the idea that Kansas in a monolingual state,” said Mary Kohn, a linguist at K-State. “That’s never been the case."

Kohn and her students, Trevin Garcia and Addison Dickens, interviewed more than 90 people across the state for the project.

They found pockets of communities in southwest Kansas, like Liberal, where younger residents say their vowels in a Spanish style, including those without any Hispanic heritage. They also speak in a similar rhythm to Spanish speakers.

Liberal has gone from about 20 percent Hispanic in the 1990s to about 60 percent today.

The developing accent presents an opportunity to see what happens when cultures meet.

“When we talk about language what we’re talking about is culture and history of people,” Kohn said. “Whenever we’re studying language what we’re really studying is people and how they move through the world, and language is a part of that."

Other communities with large Hispanic populations, like in Texas and Florida, have similar accents, though they’re not exactly the same. Southwest Kansas provides Kohn and her team a unique opportunity to study the early development of a regional dialect.

Kohn said accents are always changing — the only language that doesn’t change is a dead one.

“Language will always vary according to the social constructs that matter in a culture,” Kohn said. "Because we do use language as a way to construct our personal identity."

Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.