Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Doesn't Have an Accent?

When people think of accents in America, they usually are referring to regional speech, especially pronunciation with a few quaint regional terms thrown into the pot.  Pronunciation  differences are technically accents, but  dialects include not only pronunciation, but grammar and words.  You may change your pronunciation, and still be recognized as having an accent, which is the colloquial way of referring to dialects.
Americans typically think of accents as being regional,  but both ethnic, and social class differences all abound in speech as well.  These include, besides pronunciation differences,  differences in grammar rules and lexical items (words and phrases.) The lexical differences aren't necessarily quaint, and speakers may be wholly unaware that they are using words or grammar that other speakers don't.  If, of course, one's native dialect has a word that outsiders comment on, or, worse, deride, then the speakers of that dialect do begin to perceive it as wrong, especially if their dialect is no longer a respected one.  This has happened in the Coastal South and Eastern New England.


When I was growing up, educated Eastern New England speech was considered very fine.  Movie stars were coached to speak that way.  What boosted its prestige is that it was the closest set of dialects to upper class British speech, and, often, people watching old movies today think they are hearing British speech when in  reality, the "pahk," glahs," and "ahsk" (park, glass, ask they're hearing are the kind of Rhode Island and Boston pronunciations I was familiar with.  Indeed, I spoke that way (but I never made the Boston o as in "dawlah" for dollar).  However, after World War II, British speech declined in prestige along with the breakup of its empire and Eastern New England speech lost its pre-eminence in education and finance. As people moved westward, manufacturing was no longer centered there, and the newer land grant universities, and Mid- and Western colleges became as prestigious as the Ivy League ones,.

First, among educated speakers, r's began to be pronounced where once they were dropped.  Speakers assumed that if they pronounced their r's wherever they were spelled, then they couldn't be identified as having an accent.  Whereas, in my childhood, one's accent was a good thing to have, letting people know where you came from and that you  belonged there, the new thing was that nobody should be able to guess where you came from.  That's not surprising since Americans began migrating wholesale from the place of their births to all over the country.  Regional loyalty was no longer important, and among those people who were most likely to seek careers far from their families' homes, naturally regional dialects were something to be gotten rid of.

Rule number 1 in dialects: people who identify with each other speak alike.  People speak like their peers.  Therefore, people in a region who planned to stay there were likely to retain their regional speech.  Also people who identify strongly with an ethnic group, speak with an ethnic as well as a regional accent. This has been so well studied, that we now know that examining social class, regional, and ethnic speech of a community is the most reliable way to map out the social divisions in a community, not  to mention people's attitudes towards other social classes.

For instance, Rhode Island has a large ethnic Italian population.  They settled here later than the Irish and, of course, the descendants of the original settlers. When I moved to a rural area, not yet settled by many Italians, I was shocked to hear people lapse into identifiable Italian speech when talking about Italians moving into the area.  Their attitudes showed by the way they mimicked the Italian ethnic speech.

Wherever you live, you  may know of something similar.  Young males from middle class homes often mimic African American ethnic speech, but they do it admiringly.  However, when I was growing up in an African American/Irish/Jewish neighborhood, kids didn't imitate African American speech.  The Jewish kids spoke like the Irish because our teachers were, for the most part, Irish.  Jews, for obvious reasons didn't want to sound "Jewish," so there was no ethnic Jewish speech in my age group.  However, New York, with its large Jewish American population did have a distinct Jewish dialect.  Nowadays, when ethnicity is no longer so important, that dialect has largely disappeared.

I started this by saying that what we think of accents are really dialects, differing not only phonetically, but in words and grammar.  For instance, in Rhode Island, a drink consisting of milk, flavored syrup and ice cream blended together used to be called a cabinet.   It differed from what most Americans call a milk shake in that it has the syrup in it.   In Boston, this was a frappe. When national chains like McDonald's came into Eastern New England with milk shakes on their menus, people began using that term for the McDonald's drink, reserving cabinets and frappes for the real deal.  Before the chains, a milk shake in Rhode Island was milk with syrup and no ice cream blended together.  My first dialect professor used to quip, "The milk shake has more ice cream in it as you travel westward."

I knew the Rhode Island dialect was being generally disvalued by residents when I was doing dialect investigating in the 1970's. Two responses were common. When I asked someone to be a participant in the study, they'd say, "I don't speak with a Rhode Island accent."  They thought that because they tried to pronounce their r's, they didn't have an accent.  Actually, it's not r-pronouncing that  marks you out regionally, it's  how you pronounce your vowels.

The second response I got when I was seeking out word usage was when I asked what the drink made of milk, syrup, and ice cream was called.  People would say they didn't know or they never drank them.  They didn't call them milk shakes, but they wouldn't use the very Rhode Island term "cabinet."  If I said to them, "Have you ever heard of a cabinet?"  they'd say,  "Oh, yes, that's what it's called." Similarly, in Rhode Island, a public drinking gizmo is a bubbler. Interestingly, it's called that in Wisonsin as well.   However, RI speakers think it's peculiar to them, so when I asked what the word was for a public place to get drinking water, they would also feign ignorance.  However, they're not aware of other RI or Eastern New England-isms like facecloth for  'washcloth', downcellar for 'down to the cellar,' take a right turn for 'make a right, elastics for what Pittsburghers call a gum band and others call a rubber band.  The term for a hot Italian sandwich with fried eggplant, cheese, and even roasted peppers or meatballs was always a grinder in RI and bordering Connecticut and Massachusetts.  This was the term used also for any large sandwich on a long, torpedo-shaped roll.. Other regions call these poor boys, hoagies, heroes, torpedoes   and subs.

In nearby Boston, subs is the term and as Boston based food shops invaded Rhode Island, many people have adopted that term.  Boston frappe  for 'milkshake has also come into RI via ice cream chain stores. Interestingly,when local terms clash, one may drop out of circulation altogether. However, another thing may happen, as with sub and grinder.)  Anyways (a term in RI and also some of the Plains states), you will see signs for 'grinders', often in the same eatery advertising 'subs'.  The difference is that the grinder roll usually has a hard crust and is filled with far more food than the sub.  Similarly, in some ice cream places, the terms 'cabinets, frappes,' and 'milkshakes' come into  contact.  One place in Bristol, RI advertises all three on their menu board. The difference is that a cabinet has the most ice cream, frappes have less, and milk shakes are lacking the syrup and has the least ice cream.  These terms are not fixed, as my students tell me in some shops, frappes have the most ice cream, but, in all of them that I've found, milk shakes have the least. (Of course, when was growing up, milk shakes had no  ice cream at all.), although this isn't the case once one leaves the Northeast coast.

Well, this post is getting too long, so I'll deal with grammar differences in a later post, but consider other regional differences in words.  What much of America calls hose, I call stockings.  What Southerners call a wrapper I call a robe.  The Southern baby buggy is my baby carriage.  Do you speak of lightning bugs or fireflies? Dragonflies or darning needles? Chop meat or hamburger when speaking of ground beef? Do you carry your purchases in a sack or a bag? Does anyone say poke for 'paper bag' anymore? Do you get water from the kitchen faucet or spigot or tap?  If your kitchen has a faucet, is your outside one called a spigot? Or is that term used for the tap on a beer barrel? Or for the faucet on the oil tank?  Do you drink beer on tap, or is it draft beer?  Does a house have shingles or shakes on its roof?  How about on its outside walls?  Do houses in your region have clapboards?  I've always wondered what pone is in the South. Is it like a  johnnycake or is it cornbread?  Ditto hush puppies?

Besides these differences in the Native English word stock, there are, of course, words from other languages, especially Spanish in regions like Texas and New Mexico, which were originally settled by Mexico, as well as words of German or Slavic origin in parts of the Midwest. Notice that these regionalisms aren't necesarily social class markers like ain't