The first rule of talking about how people talk in Cincinnati is, don’t talk about how people talk in Cincinnati

I get disoriented, Zipf’s Law shows up, and I have breakfast.

Grits. Photo source: me.

I walked out of my room today–I’m on the road, visiting a research center with which I have a long-standing collaboration–and ran into a local.  We greeted each other politely, saying “good morning” and remarking on the exceptionally cold weather–see this post on the subject of saying hello to strangers in the US–and it was clear from his accent, as well as the accent of the other people that I ran into on my way out of the building, that I was in Kentucky.  I walked outside, looked around, and it was immediately clear that I wasn’t in Kentucky at all, but rather Ohio.  Southern Ohio, specifically–and therein lay my accent mix-up.

Southern Ohio has an identity issue, especially in the moderately large city in which I find myself: is it in the North, or is it a part of Appalachia?  The local Kentucky-like dialect is very strongly socially marked, and people around here do not like having their dialect remarked on, especially if they speak that particular dialect.  Ohio dialects are actually quite diverse–Columbus, in the middle of the state, has four dialect boundaries, roughly corresponding to the four parts of the city divided up at the intersection of High St. and Broad St.–and around here in Cincinnati, there is a long history of prejudice related to social class.  Around here, that social class is reflected most strongly by which dialect you speak, or at least which dialect you speak in public.

The Zipf’s Law connection: I stopped by the cafeteria in the research center to pick up some breakfast, and was happy to see a big vat of Cream of Wheat, a childhood favorite with which my father’s second wife often fed me.  There was something wrong with it, though–what were all of those little yellow specks in it?  A quick look at the menu confirmed my suspicion: it was not Cream of Wheat at all, but rather grits.  Grits is a food of the southern United States, similar to a thin polenta.  Staring at a vat of grits immediately raises a question: how do you say grits in French?  In turns out that you don’t.  It’s actually a complicated issue.  The word can be singular or plural in English, and the French Wikipedia article on it starts out like this:

Le ou les Grits est une préparation culinaire…

“The (singular) or the (plural) Grits is a culinary preparation…”

That is, the word the shows up twice–once in a singular form, le, and once in the plural form, les.  To find some actual French Zipf’s-Law-type words related to grits, let’s look at a couple of sentences from the French Wikipedia article, this time on the subject of the manufacture of grits:

Le grits trouve son origine dans la préparation du maïs par les amérindiens. Traditionnellement, la semoule du grits est réalisée par un moulin en pierre qui broie le maïs. On tamise ensuite et la poudre la plus fine est utilisée comme farine, alors que la plus grossière est destinée au grits.

“Grits originates in the preparation of corn by the Native Americans.  Traditionally, the semolina of grits produced by a wood mill that grinds/crushes the corn.  It is then sifted and the finest powder is used as flour, while the coarsest powder is reserved for grits.”

Let’s just focus on the verbs.  Definitions from

  • réaliser: to make, produce, or create.  (Several other meanings, too, but that’s the one here.)
  • broyer: transcription: [bʀwaje].  To grind or crush; figuratively, to destroy or wreck.
  • tamiser: to sift, to sieve.
  • destiner à: to reserve for.

Click here for a collection of materials from different Ohio dialects.  And yes, the title of this post is a reference to the book/movie Fight Club.



2 thoughts on “The first rule of talking about how people talk in Cincinnati is, don’t talk about how people talk in Cincinnati”

  1. I only discovered grits were polenta last year. Anyway, if you want to explain to a French person, you’d say it’s a “gruau de mais” (i with the umlaut not on my keyboard) – gruau being “gruel”

    Liked by 1 person

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