Speaking of American English …

We have a multitude of regional accents, or even dialects, in the United States. I loved listening to all of them when I was around guys from all over the country, in the Army. But I wonder if these regional ways of spinning the spoken word are starting to die out.

Listen to the younger people you hear as news anchors, talk-show hosts, etc., on TV nowadays — especially the young women. I don’t know where so many of them got the same accent, unless they have a school where they teach them “TV English.” The accent is bland, a little sing-songy, and — to me — somewhat  irritating. It’s hard to describe it, except that when they say words like “bed” and “bread” the words come out sounding like “baaad” and “braaad.” In three years in the Army, I never, ever heard that accent. And I have a pretty good ear for things like that.  

In my day — that is to say, the early to middle 1960s when I was serving in the military — you could spot someone from New York City with no problem at all. Final “r’s” were dropped, “r’s” in closed syllables were softened, and words like “chalk” and “walk” were pronounced “choak” and “woak.” They tended to talk fast, too, according to the Midwestern and Southern ears of many of us. Guess that came from growing up in a huge city where you had to get it said quick, or someone else would out-talk you. Make that, out-“toak” you.

New England — or parts of it — wasn’t hard to spot either. Bostonians are always quoted as saying, “Pahk the cah in the Hahvahd Yahd.” Or words to that effect. Those “a’s” are VERY broad.

Go across the river from New York City, and North New Jerseyites always seemed to me to talk pretty much like New Yorkers. I couldn’t detect a difference.

But when you got to Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, the accent was subtly different. In a way, it was like New York City, only with hard final “r’s” and hard “r’s” in closed syllables.

Western Pennsylvania, around Pittsburg, sounded closer to the Midwest, speech-wise. Instead of saying “go” or “row,” it was “guow” and “ruow.”

Cincinnati is probably one of the smaller cities with its own, distinctive accent. If you’ve ever listened to Pete Rose the baseball player in an interview, that’s pure Cincinnati talk. The accent bleeds over across the Ohio River into Covington, Newport, and the smaller cities in Northern Kentucky. But go 30 miles south, and you’re hearing what we’d consider the typical Kentucky accent again.

Oddly enough, the Cincinnati accent is not quite as unique as one might think — because people in Baltimore, Maryland, talk in a very similar fashion. Hundreds of miles apart, very similar accent. Go figure. Maybe it’s because there are a lot of German-descended people in both cities.

Swing south, and you hear a multitude of variations of the “Southern Accent,” which we all think we know from watching “Dukes of Hazzard”, “Hee-Haw” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” But they aren’t all the same. Appalachian Southern has an almost Elizabethan flavor to it, and the “r’s” are pronounced. Plantation Southern (maybe they’re calling it something else now, as “plantation” is one of those words that supposedly causes blacks “painful memories of slavery”), sounds more — well, like an aristocracy might speak — refined, drawling, with the final and inter-syllabic “r’s” once again softened. Think of Scarlett O’Hara.

Of course, African Americans traditionally have had an accent of their own, which most of them seem to cling to, no matter where they move in this big country. I remember talking to a black recruit when we were both in basic training. He was from Flint, Mich., and I could not detect one smidge of the typical “black talk” in his speech. I was so surprised that I told him so. He didn’t seem to take any offense at the statement; he just talked the way he talked. Close your eyes, and you’d have sworn he was a White guy from Michigan.

Some of the most fascinating Southern accents came out of Louisiana. New Orleans? Think of Brooklyn, only with a little more drawl, and a Southern veneer. Traditionally White, working-class areas of New Orleans have their own slant on it, called “Yat” (as in, “Where Yat?”)

Then there are the Cajuns, who are in a class of their own — “I garantee!” Their unique culture, based on that of their French Canadian ancestors, leavened with Irish, German, black, and other admixtures, has its own non-English language — Cajun French. But the Cajuns sound different even when they speak English. Think of musicians like Doug Kershaw or Steve Riley, or of that famous Cajun TV chef, Justin Wilson.

Not long ago I had the privilege of talking with two young men, construction workers, in Madison on one of the projects now going on. They were both originally from East Tennessee. It was refreshing to hear that Appalachian accent again — well, a modified version; not extreme. But their speech seemed to come from down deep, instead of through their noses as our Southern Hoosier speech often does. And they were polite — said “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” consistently.  That’s the Southern influence, also.

Go back up north — way, way up north — and you come to Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota. E-yeah! You betcha! I knew guys in the service from those areas, and their accents, influenced by the large number of Scandinavians who settled in those areas, were unique and refreshing to hear. If you’ve ever seen the excellent movie, “Fargo,” that’s how people up there talk.

And that just about brings us to the end of the accents I can enumerate. I know there is a “typical” Texas accent, distinctive sounds made by people from the Northwest, and supposedly a “California accent” which pre-dated all the in-pouring of immigrants, American, Mexican, Asian, et al, that hit the state after World War II. I’d say that accent is just about extinct by now.

The fact is, once you cross the Mississippi River, American accents are much harder to pin down. It tends to “bland out,” unless you’re an expert on American language, which I’m not. But I hope some of you have enjoyed this brief little tour through the American language, courtesy of what I learned in three years in the U.S. Army.


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