Hold up, 'Hon': Baltimore's black vernacular youthful, dynamic if less recognized than 'Bawlmerese'

Bawlmer or Baldamore? It's a tale of two tongues.

In national consciousness and popular culture — from John Waters' "Hairspray" to "Saturday Night Live" — Baltimore speech is populated with "hon," the "O's" and plenty of "Natty Boh."

Such "Baltimorese" or "Bawlmerese" is typically ascribed to a white working class — often of an earlier generation — and is relatively static, say experts and locals. But within Baltimore's African-American community is a vernacular that, though less prominent nationally, is youthful and highly dynamic, they say.

The difference even starts with the name: "African-Americans tend to pronounce Baltimore 'Baldamore,' whereas the 'hon' accent is more like 'Bawlmer,'" says Christine Mallinson, associate professor of language literacy and culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The sociolinguist has lived in Baltimore for the past 10 years, studying variations in American language, noting that while the white working class in areas like Dundalk, Highlandtown and Hampden has a distinctive name for its speech patterns, language among the area's African-American youth and working class bears no name. The accent and speech of black Baltimoreans — with words like "yo," an interjection and a nongendered pronoun, and "woe," a term for a good friend — prove to be ever-evolving, with influences from a history of segregation, migration and hip-hop.

"Language changes and develops for a lot of different reasons, and some of those are your social networks, your family networks, your mobility, residential patterns and migration," said Mallinson, who is working to publish her research on Baltimore speech in the Journal of English Linguistics later this year.

Evolving language

Migrants coming into Baltimore to work in factories from West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia likely had a heavy influence on Baltimorese, while migration from the South and nearby cities affected the city's African-American community, Mallinson said.

Baltimore's tight-knit communities, where locals often stayed and married other locals, meant a unique vernacular formed and flourished. The city's history of racial and ethnic segregation often determined the differences in speech styles in black and white neighborhoods, which saw little overlap. When locals' paths did cross, many African-Americans often "code switched," using their own distinct lingo within their own communities and more conventional speech when in the workplace or among other groups, Mallinson said. These patterns have continued.

Case in point: In the early 1990s, a mysterious person, dubbed the "Hon Man" by Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, repeatedly tacked the word "hon" to the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign on Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Each time, officials removed the addition, but a debate ensued, with then-state Sen. Barbara Hoffman threatening in 1994 to hold $1 million in highway funds hostage unless the city permanently added "hon" to the sign. But many members of the city's black community did not identify with the word. Then-state Sen. Larry Young lobbied for the use of "bro" instead. Neither side won, but the pushback made one argument clear: "Hon" did not represent all Baltimoreans; what was prevalent in speech in the black and white communities was different.

Today, the Baltimorese accent often consists of the "fronted o," meaning the speaker pushes the letter "o" to the front of the mouth, making it sound more like "ao" in words like "ocean" (pronounched oa-shin). Other words are transformed entirely — like "mere" instead of "mirror" and "warsh" instead of "wash."

For an interactive guide to Baltimore vernacular, click here.

In Baltimore's African-American communities, a distinct "oo" sound at the ends of words and syllables — "do" and "two" sounding like "dew" and "tew" — is common, Mallinson said. "Dog" and "frog" — pronounced like "dug" and "frug" — have also become emblematic of Baltimore's African-American community.

Baltimore rapper Tate Kobang, 24, born Joshua Goods, said he first realized he had an accent when people asked him to repeat words like "two" and "dog" once he moved to Pennsylvania years ago.

"It's like, if you're from France, you don't think speaking French is a thing. This is everyday, our everyday language. We don't even think about it like that until we leave town," he said.

Local vocabulary

Beyond a distinct pronunciation, the African-American community in Baltimore has also crafted its own vernacular, according to Mallinson and various native Baltimoreans. The word "lor" has evolved from the word "little" and is now cemented through texting, social media and nicknames, like that of late Baltimore rapper Lor Scoota, Mallinson said.

"Yo," which doubles as a nongendered pronoun and an interjection, has likely been one of the most intriguing Baltimorean usages to those in academia.

Harvard University education doctoral student and Johns Hopkins graduate Margaret Troyer, who formerly taught at a Baltimore public middle school, co-wrote a paper with the late Hopkins education professor Elaine M. Stotko called "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study" in 2007 to describe the phenomenon she saw in her classroom. Students used "yo" to describe people when gender wasn't obvious.

"Gender-neutral pronouns have been historically really difficult. There's a lot of motivation among the transgender community to come up with gender-neutral pronouns, but none of them have really caught on," Troyer said. The fact that the word was being used organically by teenagers as a form of slang made Troyer and Stotko believe that a gender-neutral pronoun could make it into mainstream language, she said.

Troyer helped devise a study of around 200 Baltimore middle school and high school students to elicit the use of the word "yo." Thirty-five to 45 percent said they used the word. Forty-five to 50 percent said while they didn't use "yo," they knew people who did.

The study also involved other cities to see whether the usage had spread beyond Baltimore. It had not, Troyer said.

Other terms like "draggin'"— the equivalent of showing off, feeling confident or exhibiting great style —and "cuttin' up" — a word with a similar meaning that can also refer to dancing — are also common in Baltimore, according to Kobang.

Chance Carter, a University of Baltimore graduate student originally from Hartford, Conn., has picked up on some of Baltimore's lingo — including the phrase "oh aard," used in replace of "all right" or "OK." His new verbiage is easily detected by friends back home.

"The first thing people say is, 'Where do you live now, because you don't sound like you're from here?' and, 'You sound Southern,'" said Carter, 22.

D. Watkins, 35, author and lecturer at University of Baltimore, says he has spent his life navigating the two worlds of "Baltimorese" and the slang of the African-American community, which "really don't cross paths."

He could be "hon" in Hampden, but where he's from in East Baltimore, he's more likely to hear "How you doing, dummy?" — a term of endearment depending on context — or "woe," an interjection also used to refer to a friend.

But the coolest thing about language within the black community is that "it evolves every day, every week," Watkins said.

For some, the constant evolution of words can make communication hard to keep up with. Carter is still learning new words. He didn't know that "dug" meant "dog" until recently. Kobang, who gets tripped up over words from the younger generation, said he considers "Baldamore's" language an art form.

"Everything here in Baltimore is different than what's on the outside. Not too many places got their own tempo of music ... their own vernacular. We've got a seasoning, you know? And it's making its way out of the city. It's just proving to us that people are paying attention and people are picking up on the lifestyle," he said.

Wither Baltimorese?

Meanwhile, some believe the "hon"-style Baltimorese might be fading.

Mallinson said her students conducted dozens of interviews with Baltimoreans, mostly in the Hampden area, inquiring about "Bawlmerese." Most people advised that the students speak to their grandparents or older members of the community, Mallinson said.

"There was a sense that younger folks didn't quite have the same accent or style of speech as in generations past," she said in an email.

Erin Freitas, 30, who has lived in the Baltimore area most of her life, said younger natives were often cautioned about their "Bawlmerese," which has likely made it less prevalent.

"We as Baltimoreans have been made fun of," Freitas said. "I can remember back in school, nuns made sure you pronounced it this way, not that way. I feel like it's ingrained not only in school, but as a culture."

Mary Rizzo, an assistant professor of American studies at Rutgers University-Newark, has studied Baltimore's culture and language. She said "Baltimorese" isn't necessarily fading but is static, continuously celebrated and defined by an earlier generation that lived in the 1950s and 1960s.

"It was set sort of in stone decades ago. ... I think on some level, 'Bawlmerese' and the way people have spoken for decades has been moving farther and farther apart," she said.

The influx of younger people moving into the city from out of town could have something to do with Baltimore's language change, Mallinson said, but Baltimoreans aren't going to give up on their linguistic distinctiveness that easily. There's still the open celebration of "hon" and the daily use of other popular terms to establish a sense of "insider familiarity" with city traditions and culture.

"I think folks can keep it alive, just like the Boston accent or the New York accent," said Denise Whiting, 57, the owner of Cafe Hon in Hampden. "It's still there; it's just not as prevalent around this part of town."

While HonFest celebrates the culture that spawned Baltimorese, Watkins believes the lingo used in Baltimore's African-American community could use some praise as well.

"I think it's interesting, and it's creative and it's colorful, and it's also needed as a coping mechanism for our own survival skills," Watkins said, adding that enslaved Africans once used coded language incomprehensible to slave owners to communicate and plan escapes.

"The demonization of black people is so prevalent in society that black people in this country really think they don't have an identity or that things they contributed to society aren't relevant … We don't need to tear it down," Watkins said of "Baldamore's" unique slang. "I think we need to celebrate it."

Adds Mallinson: "People have their opinions about what language means .... From a linguistic perspective, [language differences] are not deficits. Those are not failures. Even at the most simple level, it'd be a very boring place if everybody spoke exactly the same," Mallinson said. After all, centuries ago, "silly" meant "happy," and "hussy" meant "housewife," she added.

"Language is always changing and always varying."

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A sample of Baltimore lingo

Compiled by Brittany Britto, John McIntyre

Click here to explore an interactive of Baltimore lingo, including audio

ayo (aye-OH): interj. Used to get a person's attention, to express surprise or interest.

already (all-RED-ee): abbr. Abbreviated phrase for "you already know;" used to confirm or reaffirm the truth.

Bawlmer, Baldamore (Bawl-MURR, Bawl-DAH-more): n. The largest city in Maryland.

Baltimorese, Bawlmerese (Bal-tih-more-EEZ, Bawl-murr-EEZ): n. Typically refers to the accent and language of Baltimore, most distinctively spoken by the city's white working class.

crouchy (CROU-chee): adj. Crowded; populated with people.

cuttin' up (CUTT-in up): v. 1. Dancing. 2. Having a good time. 3. Behaving in a wild or crazy manner. adj. 1. A phrase used to describe someone who is showing off or looking particularly stylish or cool in appearance.

down the ocean (DOW-nee OA-shin): idiomatic To the seaside.

draggin' (DRAG-in): v. 1. Showing off or making a positive impression on people. adj. 2. Cool and stylish.

dug: n. A dog.

dummy (DUM-ee): n. 1. Term of endearment for a close friend. 2. A person of low intelligence.

fugg: n. A cigarette.

geekin' (GEE-kin): v. 1. To be ecstatic or overly excited about something; 2. To be in a silly or goofy mood.

half and half: n. A beverage of equal parts of iced tea and lemonade; also called an Arnold Palmer.

hon (hun): n. A short term for honey; a term of endearment.

irky (ER-kee): adj. Irksome or annoying.

lor (lohr): adj. Variant of the word "little."

mere: n. A mirror.

o ard (oh AHRd): interj. All right or OK.

O's (oaz): n. Short for Orioles, Baltimore's Major League Baseball team.

forreal (for-EEL, fuh-RILL): interj. A word that gives a stamp of approval or emphasizes accuracy of a statement.

Natty Boh (NA-dee BOW): n. An abbreviated term for National* Bohemian beer.

rey (ray): adj. ready; preparing or about to do something.

shorr (shore): n. An abbreviated term for "shorty," typically used to address a person in a conversation.

up next: adj. Soon to become successful or up-and-coming.

warsh: v. To wash.

wholetime: interj. 1. Used to emphasize a statement that is believed to be true, much like "forreal" is used. 2. Short for "the whole time" or "actually." (Battle of the Beltway: D.C. and Baltimore residents may debate about its origin).

woe (woah): n. 1. Term of endearment for a close friend. interj. 2. Greeting or exclamation. (Fun fact: Canadian rapper Drake popularized this word in his 2015 song "Know Yourself," but some Baltimoreans state that the word was used in Charm City prior.)

yo: pronoun 1. A non-gender pronoun; indicates any person. interj. 2. A greeting or exclamation.

yoking (YO-king): v. Dated word that indicates a form of mugging in which the assailant approaches the victim from behind and wraps his arm tightly around the victim's neck.

zink: n. A sink.

* Correction: This article has been updated. An earlier version referred incorrectly to Natural Bohemian.

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