Like most Midwesterners, I always thought that only other people had funny accents. I imagined that I sounded like Walter Cronkite. Growing up near St. Louis, it took a long time before I realized that I pronounced “fork” as “fark” and that our first president was not George “Warshington”. Someone once said that all those “r’s” they drop in Boston (where they say “paak yaa caa ” instead of “park your car” ) migrated southwest and are alive and well in Southern Illinois.
According to Dennis Baron, a University of Illinois professor of linguistics, our speech is the most important thing that people judge us on, aside from physical appearance. Accents are those noticeable differences in speech sounds, rhythm, stress, and emphasis. Dialect refers to broader variations including things such as vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. Both are related to where we come from, our primary social group, native language, and social-economic status.
A study in the Journal of Employment Counseling found that speakers with accents or dialects were routinely given lower employability ratings by a panel of human resource professionals.
Experts disagree about just how many dialects there are in theUnited States. Typical estimates range from 3 to over 24, depending on what you consider to be a “language community”. Language communities are groups that share a common dialect and some radical scholars contend that there may be thousands of dialects inAmerica.
On dialect maps, Southern Indiana usually falls in the South Midlandregion. Dominated by Appalachia, common speaking conventions include pronouncing “th” as “f’ ( It’s my birfday”), leaving out the word “are”, and placing an “a” in front of words ending in “ing” and dropping the “g” (“I’m a-goin to town”). This region has also retained a large number of words from the Elizabethan English spoken at the time of Shakespeare, such as “reckon”, “sorry” (meaning inferior) , “trash”, “well” (meaning healthy), and “guess” (meaning suppose).
According to Matt Campbell at East Central Oklahoma University, about 59% of Hoosiers routinely use the word “pop” as the generic name for a soft drink, but there are some significant regional differences. Northern Indiana uses “pop” almost exclusively, but in Indianapolis and Southern Indianathe more southern term, “coke”, is often used. When I worked in Mississippi I frequently heard people refer to Seven Up® as “white coke”.
I noticed that St. Louis and Eastern Wisconsin, where my wife Diane grew up, both use the word, “soda”— maybe that’s why we are compatible. But don’t ever ask Diane where she is from, unless you are prepared to hear her formal presentation, which includes the use of her hand as a visual aid to understanding the geography of Wisconsin. The base of the thumb is Green Bay, the thumb itself is “DoorCounty” and she is from a knuckle. When we visit the knuckle, Diane’s accent changes abruptly and I have trouble following it when she and her brother start talking. I can discriminate Wisconsinfrom Minnesotabut I am still fooled by a U.P. Michiganaccent.
At PBS’s Do you Speak American website, (http://www.pbs.org/speak/), linguistics professor Dennis R. Preston (who once taught at IUS) reports that Americans believe that some regions speak better English than others. He found that while some areas favor their own speech and others don’t, there is wide consensus that New York City and the South are on the bottom of the barrel.
When we lived inFloridathere was a jumble of accents because of all the transplants, although we always found the native southern accent charming. When our middle son was in kindergarten, we moved and he unfortunately was assigned to a teacher fromNew Yorkat his new school. Her voice must have sounded harsh and demanding in comparison to the dulcet tones of his previous sweet southern teacher. Her speech somehow communicated an urgency that put him under tremendous pressure. Before we were able to rescue him, he pathetically kept bringing home stacks of pictures to color. He felt like he had to work all night, just to keep up in the rat race that was his kindergarten class.
Professor Preston had Southern Indiana residents rate all the states for both speech correctness and pleasantness. Southern Indiana residents ranked the state of Indiana on top for pleasantness and ranked New York, Arkansas, and New Mexicoas the least pleasant. However, for speech correctness, curiously Southern Indiana residents rankedWashingtonState on top, with a score of 8 out of 10. I have no idea how they even talk out there. Indiana was in the middle with 6 out of 10, and the southern states (except for Florida) were rated lowest with scores of 2 out of 10.
Southerners don’t do very well on international comparisons either. A paper presented the International Communication Association described a study in which Northeastern American college students rated speakers from England, India, Jamaica, Russia, and the southern United States. They were rated for attractiveness, friendliness, and intelligence. The posh-accented British speaker ranked highest in all three categories. The American Southerner ranked lowest in both intelligence and attractiveness. Despite some evidence that Southern speech patterns are spreading nationally, there still seems to be considerable prejudice.
Some career counselors even recommend that people with “maximally perceived” accents or dialects, undergo accent and dialect modification therapy in order to be more competitive in the job market. While it’s very important to be able to communicate effectively, this homogenization of our language somehow just seems wrong. We need the color and spice of diversity. Maybe we should be teaching tolerance instead of pronunciation.
Well I reckon that’s all. H’it’s time to be a’goin for a coke, I guess. And when youse go to bed tonight don’t be a’ forgetin to pull up the kivvers to keep warm.
Based on a News Tribune column.