An amateur dialectician’s revenge manual

John Seabrook talks to the professors behind The Atlas of North American English, “the first coast-to-coast charting of all the major dialects spoken in the continental United States and Canada.”

The dialects are represented on a hundred and thirty-nine color-coded maps, and software that accompanies the book lets you click on different regions of the country and eavesdrop on people talking. Or you can search for single words — “go,” “do,” for instance — and hear how widely their pronunciations vary from place to place.

I’m sure it’s over my head, and I don’t have a spare $515.20 lying around, but I’d love nothing more than to hole up somewhere for a weekend and pore over that book.
 

Trying to place accents is one of my hobbies. Outside of southern ones, I don’t have much aptitude for it — “you’re from… the Midwest, right?!” “Uh, no. Buffalo.” — but I never tire of embarrassing myself. The chance to speculate openly about someone’s background is the main benefit of talking to strangers.

My interest in dialect was sealed back in college when a friend’s boss, whom I’d never met, talked to me on the phone for a few minutes and then said, “You’ve got an accent just like a girl I know who moved to South Florida from Texas. She went to a fundamentalist elementary school in Miami.”

Whoa. Bullseye.

I sat in silence for a minute and then wondered out loud if my friend had told the guy about me, but he swore up and down it was a coincidence, an educated guess. “I guess you could say I’m an amateur linguist,” he told me.

“From New York, right?” I said, trying my own hand at the game.

“No. Philly.”
 

The possibility that a person’s background could be deduced so precisely from her dialect has become a source of dread and fascination for me. I don’t particularly want my fucked-up upbringing forever imprinted on my speech; on the other hand, God, I have to admit, I’d love it if I could work out everyone else’s.

People say I don’t have a southern accent — and generally, having grown up in Miami, I don’t. But traces of my toddler years in Texas and the influence of my parents’ speech remain. A few years ago, after trying for a few minutes to decode a sentence of mine he couldn’t understand, a professor at City College pointed out that I say “are” rather than “our.” I’ve already copped to saying “sow,” as in a female hog, instead of “saw” as a teenager.

And at poker on Friday night, a friend who hails from Mississippi lit up like a Christmas tree when I said the word “umbrella” with the emphasis on the first syllable. (Yes, that’s right: umbrella. You got a problem with that?) He pronounces it that way, too, and it seems the rest of our Hold ‘Em cohorts, the Midwestern contingent especially, give him a rough time about it.

But once I get my hands on a library copy of that atlas, I’ll know all their dialectical secrets. [Evil laugh goes here.]


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