Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Say What?

I never used to have an accent.

Oh, I had certain regional peculiarities in how I pronounced words and in which words I chose to use in given situations. But until I was in my late twenties everyone else around me had the same ones, and as far as I was concerned that meant that other people had accents. In Philadelphia we spoke the language the way it was meant to be spoken, obviously enough. Everyone around me agreed.

This held true even in college, where I was the local boy – actually born at the hospital attached to the university, which made college something of a homecoming, I suppose – and it was my roommates and friends who came from other places. My freshman roommate was from Trinidad, for example, and it was fun to listen to the musical cadences of the tone of his voice clashing against the stark crudity of the actual expressions that were apparently in common use on that island, at least among young men. Needless to say it was easy and enjoyable to figure out what he was saying and I wish I could remember more of it, though where exactly I would use those phrases without getting thrown face first into the street I am not sure anymore.

Then I moved to Pittsburgh, where the locals insisted on speaking as if they were gargling razor blades.

“Y’inz gahn aht ‘n’at?” they would ask each other. “Yeah! Gahn dahntahn, watch the Stillers, have an Imp’n’irn and a Jumbo sammich.” “Get aht!” *

It was as if I had moved to Mars.

Except that Mars was just outside of Pittsburgh, and I was living in the city itself. Seriously – there is a community named Mars there. It is not far from Moon Township. And thus one of the first newspaper headlines I ever saw in Pittsburgh, tucked in the back pages where the good news gets exiled: “Mars Woman Marries Moon Man.”

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick what have I gotten myself into, I thought to myself.

I now live in the midwest, and it is clear to me that somebody around here has an accent, even if it is me.

One of the things I learned in a class in college is that you can tell a lot about where someone grew up by how they pronounce the following list of words:


To me, growing up in Philadelphia, the last two are identical and pronounced more or less the way most other people pronounce the one with the “u.” The first two are pronounced differently, both from each other and from the last two.

I was amazed when I learned this. I called my mother and had her try it. “Hey!” I said. “You say them the same way I do!” There was a long pause on the line at that point. “You mean to tell me,” she said, “that the person who taught you how to speak pronounces things like you do?”

Sarcasm – it’s a family tradition.

Here in the midwest, though, the first three words are identical and pronounced more or less the way most people pronounce the proper name, while the last one is pronounced the normal way (i.e. the way I do – what else did you think I meant?).

You would think this would be just a fun little academic exercise to distract you from the crushing knowledge that there are still people out there who think Sarah Palin is presidential material, but it’s not. It has actual consequences in my house.

You see, I married a midwesterner and live on her turf.

This means we have some strange moments in our house.

For example, out on the Wisconsin River there is a transportation service called the Merrimac Ferry. To me, this is pronounced to rhyme with “furry,” but out here it rhymes with “fairy.” Thus Kim came into the room one evening as I was watching the news to find me laughing uncontrollably at the announcement that the Merrimac Fairy had been closed for the winter due to ice.

Let me just say that the mental images were compelling.

On top of that, we are friends with a woman named Kerri and another woman named Carrie, both of whom we see in work and social settings.

I can never tell which one Kim is talking about when she brings them up, because to me they are clearly different sounds, but to her midwestern ear both names are pronounced the same and rhyme with Mary.

Someday that’s going to get me into a world of trouble.

Translation: “Are you [all] going out?” “Yes, we are going downtown to watch the Steelers [play football]. We will have an [Imperial] whiskey and [Iron City] beer, and perhaps a bologna sandwich as well.” “Cool!”


tellthestories said...

Kerri, until recently, worked in an office with a Teri, which didn't work out much better in terms of mistaken identity. Oh, and Kerri and Carrie live in a neighborhood with another Carrie. :-) Not that I would know or anything.

I have been told by my mother, lifelong ro'dylanduh that she is, that I have acquired an accent and she can no longer understand me. Really?

What intrigues me is the regional variations on the colloqual 3rd person plural. I was raised in the land of "youse" and spent several years in the land of "y'all."

David said...

What I find fascinating is that Kim's pronunciation of both Kerri and Carrie does not match either of the pronunciations I use for them, so I can't even guess which one she's referring to.

She, and most midwesterners I've listened to, rhyme both with "fairy."

To me, "Kerri" rhymes with "curry" and "Carrie" has the same flat ae sound as the a in "cat."

I will have to ask my mother if I've lost any of my own native accent to creeping midwesternism.

But I refuse to say "pop" instead of "soda" in any case.

Katherine McKay said...

You have remained true to your Philly roots, pronounced ar-long u-ts. We Philly folk are stalwart people who can correctly pronounce the name of the river that bisects the city - Schuylkill- in addition to the lovely suburb to its west - Bala Cynwyd. Why would we mispronounce little words like "merry?" Have some "cawfee" and think about that.

KimK said...

Of course, the one that might earn you the most ribbing is how you say "orange" (aahrinj) and "Florida" (flaahrida). So you'll never land that gig for doing an ad for Sunkist, I'm afraid.

And Schuykill - named after a traditional macaroni dish? Oh, wait, no, that's kugel. One S away from being a homonym!

I do love listening in on local Pittburghers and Philadelphians when I visit there. Funny how the middle of the state creates such a large gradient in Pennsylvania language.

Beatrice Desper said...

The French "ou" and "u" are very differnt... at least to them. We don't have the "u" sound.
Instead of saying hello "Salut" to my swim coach during my junior year I said "Salo" (sonofabitch) Luckily he knew what I meant.