A Utah Linguist Talks to Gawker About Whitney Rose’s Hilling Journey
All season on Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Bravo’s shocking true crime/alpine sports series, cast member Whitney Rose has been on a hilling journey. On this hilling journey, Rose has been filling a lot of fillings as a result of uncovering traumatic details from her past, plus she’s anguished about the time her friend and co-worker Jen Shah may spend behind bars, wasting away in a jill cill. We’re all rooting for Whitney, but respectfully, it’s hard to know what she’s talking about without the closed captioning on.
Unless, like me, you’ve spent a lot of time in the state of Utah, home to the Great Salt Lake, plenty of Mormons, and a peculiar regional accent. Like our Wild Rose, lots of Utahns pronounce the word “heal” as “hill” or “feel” as “fill.” It’s a hilling journey.
I spoke to Dave Eddington, a linguistics professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who graciously watched his first ever episode of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City to talk about Rose’s speech patterns and pronunciations, similarities to which I’ve also noticed on my other favorite television program, Sister Wives. The only thing the women on these programs have in common: they were raised in Utah. Rose was raised in mainstream Mormonism and lives in greater Salt Lake in northern Utah; members of the Brown family on Sister Wives are part of a fringe polygamist sect called Apostolic United Brethren and were driven out of Utah by state police, after which they settled in Nevada and then Arizona.
Eddington has done work on so-called “Mormon accents” and “Utahisms” and has a forthcoming book next year called Utah English. Regional pronunciations of words often have to do with who settled the area, and Mormon pioneers were originally from the Northeast by way of the Midwest. Some pronunciations, like the older Utahn’s tendency to pronounce a town called Spanish Fork near Provo as “Spanish Fahrk,” can be directly linked to Northeastern speech patterns, according to Eddington.
Nowadays, women are usually the drivers of linguistic change, as they tend to have more social connections than men. According to a study that will be in Eddington’s book, the “hill” pronunciation of the word “heal” (called the “feel-fill merger”) is a newer phenomenon in Utah, largely adopted by young women like Rose, who appears to have been born in 1986.
“If you’re Protestant or Catholic, you may go to church occasionally, but there’s not this society connection that [LDS] church members in Utah have where they’re in each other’s homes,” Eddington said. “And so when you get a lot of contact like that, you start to get a lot of linguistic influences among a group.”
Simply, you talk like the people you hang out with. Whitney’s friends from childhood, women raised in Utah in their early to mid-thirties, probably talk like this too.
Eddington’s research has specifically looked into the “feel-fill merger” in terms of religious affiliation, and found that practicing LDS members were more likely to say they are “hilling from a back injury” than people who had never been a part of the church . People like Rose, who is one of the only cast members of Real Housewives to be raised Mormon (but is now secular), tend to be more varied in their pronunciation.
Eddington also found that the “feel-fill merger” is one of the characteristics that people most associate with Utah, but it’s common in places like Texas and Nevada.
“The L does wacky things to vowels, and the feel-fill merger is becoming more common in the state, especially among younger people. Another one is the pool-pull-pole merger,” Eddington said.
According to Eddington, Utahns tend to have other linguistic quirks, such as how they exhale air on the second syllable of the word “mountains” or “buttons.” Instead of a standard American pronunciation wherein the speaker releases it through their nose, Utahns tend to release air through their mouth, changing the sound of the word so it’s pronounced like “mouh-in.”
Greater Salt Lake, where the LDS church is headquartered, is undergoing somewhat of a great migration from surrounding states due to economic factors, and some of the old Utahisms are falling out of usage so quickly they may be extinct in the next twenty years. For example, Californians brought the word “soda” to urban areas of Utah, whereas rural Utahns say “pop.” They also might use something called “pro-predicate do”: saying, “I could do” in answer to a question like “Would you be interested in eating dinner?”
One of the joys of watching Housewives is hearing how women across the country pronounce certain words. Dorit Kemsley, a self-described “child of the world” on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, who was raised in Connecticut and now lives in Encino, flows in and out of a British accent. Ramona Singer and Sonja Morgan have strong New York pronunciations and speech quirks that simply don’t exist in the city anymore among younger people. Rose’s Salt Lake co-star Meredith Marks speaks with a slow, glamorous slur the likes of which might only be found on her home planet of Mars (by way of Chicago, where she was raised). Rose’s fillings on her hilling journey are a welcome addition to a franchise, made up of women screaming about their trauma in any way they please.
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