Regionalisms and accain’ts

I write here about words, particularly written words and related business matters. Now for a word about spoken words. Having spent most of the year in the company of people with strong Southern accents — more unusual-for-around-here accents than I’ve heard since college — accents and regionalisms have been on my mind.

People tend to think of Washington as something of a delineator between North and South here on the East Coast. Granted, it’s the capital and the biggest city for quite a while, but look at a map: The District is well north of center. Sticking only with Caucasian accents — I’m not at all good with anything else — the Mid-Atlantic doesn’t get a real difference heading south until Richmond. “Old Washington” is said to have an accent of its own, though some say it’s more of an Eastern Shore thing that stretches into Delaware. You hear it most, or maybe at all, when someone says “Warshington.” But the creators of Max Headroom took notice of what I didn’t think existed: The actor who played the 1980s “computer-generated” cult-hit character was, according to an article, chosen for his ” ‘ideally exportable’ Mid-Atlantic accent.” (He sounds perfectly normal to me, but that’s to be expected ….)

Richmond, though. The first night of college, I was completely thrown upon finding a group of Richmond girls down the hall and literally not understanding a word they said. How was that possible? Of course, my first lesson in the clash of civilizations had come that afternoon when a gal across the hall, Margie from Mississippi, had popped in as I was unpacking. “Ellen,” she’d said, “kin Ah borrow a pin?”

“Sure,” I’d said, producing one from my sewing kit.

Margie gave a long look at the pin, then at me. “Ellen,” she said, “Ah kin’t wrate with this.”

(That’s when I learned the concept of the “ink pen,” which I found redundant. What other kind was there? But if you were pronouncing it “pin,” I guess you had to distinguish it from the kind found in sewing kits.)

Then there was the first day of chorus, when Lynne, after we exchanged pleasantries, promptly said, “So, what part of New York are you from?”

No one says that anymore, thank goodness, unless certain words come up: chawclit, awffice, dawg. Most of us who arrive fairly young lose our regional accents in the Great Melting Pot that is metropolitan Washington, DC. Maybe that’s why I swooned the instant Dennis opened his mouth. His accent is tempered by decades away, but hearing “Fuggedaboudit” in that baritone would still turn many a Lower Manhattan accountant pale.

As much as I found his New Yawkisms adorable, he found my adopted Southernisms baffling. Especially “y’all.” Why do you say that? he asked me once. Sorry, that one’s ingrained, I told him. It’s so useful that I can’t see ever not using it. The rest of the country depends on “you” for both singular and plural address, which leads to confusion; we often have to explain the context. The French avoid this by using “tu” and “vous.” They switch between them for singular address depending on the context, which can also get awkward — what if I think of you as “tu” while you think of me as “vous”? — but at least there are no “I don’t mean you; I mean everybody” explanations.

Many Southerners, at least in speech, have gotten around this: In mild form, “you” is singular and “y’all” is plural. In not-so-mild form, “y’all” is singular and “all y’all” is plural. All y’all? Now, I think that sounds silly, but I’m a long way from the Deep South. Those who use “y’all” for both singular and plural run into the same problem the rest of us have with “you.” So of course they make up something extra for the plural.

These days I think I’d understand those Richmond girls much better, even if I didn’t catch every word. But there are a few voices I find at least as disconcerting. Funny thing is, they tend to be Yankee voices. Franklin Roosevelt, the aristocrat: “The only thing we have to feah is — feah itself.” There’s not only the patrician inflection but the tenor of the words. He sounds like a lot of Hollywood actors from the same period. Did people really speak like that, or were they just directed that way? John F. Kennedy, the Boston Brahmin: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hod.”

“Because they are hod”? What? In the 1970s, people sure made fun of a candidate turned president who called himself Jimmeh Cahtah. I wasn’t here for the 1960 campaign — did they make as much fun of JFK? Did they ask one another, “What did he say?” I’ve never heard that, but it crosses my mind every time I hear a recording of his voice.

One of the many things JFK is famous for saying is that Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. Less so now, but he’d still recognize the place. Something similar could be said for the hybrid voices and vocabulary of its non-native inhabitants. A few years back, I met the mail carrier at the door and heard myself say this: “Hah thayer!” Where did that come from? Must have been the ghost of Margie from Mississippi, taking revenge for having heard me tawk once too awften about chawclit or dawgs.

Addendum, June 2013. Just came across the coolest set of maps I’ve ever seen: “22 Maps That Show How Americans Speak English Totally Differently From Each Other.” Joshua Katz, the NC State doctoral student who put them together, calls the y’all-versus-you-guys thing “the deepest and most obvious linguistic divide in America,” but the map that made my jaw drop is the one about pajamas. (He’s never heard of a Brew Thru? Must not have been in North Carolina long.)

Copyright 2012 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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