Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Hey yo Chahlie! Y'all listen up, hear?

Every so often, I toy with the idea of writing a post phonetically, the idea being that the post reads as if it were being spoken out loud by someone with an accent. I'd thought about doing that today, but opted not to because really, there's just too much room for confusion. That, and I don't particularly trust myself to do so just yet. After all, how can you convey an accent in writing if you don't have one when you speak?

Oh... who am I kidding? The issue isn't that I have no accent. It's that I've had too many of them. I have no idea what normal everyday speaking English is anymore, and whether or not I'm a good example (Remember, we're talking accent here - not word usage. Were the latter to be the case, I'd fail miserably. Potty mouth times ten.) Come with me on a voyage back to yesteryear, won't you?

It would be reasonable to assume that the two greatest influences on my current speaking voice would be those two towering pillars of strength and support, Ma and Pa (little joke there - only The Waltons say 'Ma & Pa.' There's no set rule for Bostonians. Some say Ma. Some say Dad. I say Mom & Dad, although within the past ten years I've occasionally called my Dad, 'Pops' because it sounds retro and cool. He just chuckles and shakes his head. Next year I'll switch to 'Daddy-O.') My father has no accent to speak of. Growing up in smallish town Pennsylvania, his environment was heavily influenced by the Amish and other such boring folk who didn't do much, other than drive horse drawn wagons and knit. It's reflected in their accent. Often referred to as "Pennsylvania Dutch", it's this weird sort of German influenced English that isn't so much a distinct sound as it is a distinct choice of words. They have weird expressions. For example, "My off is all" means "My vacation is now complete." Go figure. To hear my Dad speak though, is to hear the sound of middle America - i.e. what many would consider "normal."

My mother (who I hope is not reading this) has a Boston accent on most days. It's not over the top by any means, and she can tone it down a bit when she needs to, but by and lahge, it's noticeable - especially when she's drinking Cutty Sahk in the pahk with an aahdvahk.

(Note: I feel the need to clarify just what exactly a Boston accent is before we go any further. It has been misrepresented in TV and film for way too long and most people think it sounds completely different than the way it actually does. This is due in large part to the Kennedy's. The Kennedy accent is not a Boston accent. The Kennedy accent is a Kennedy accent. No one in Boston but the Kennedy's actually speaks that way, yet they've shamefully been allowed to set the example. I'm not quite sure where they got it to tell you the truth. It sounds like it might have been a Boston accent at one point, but over the years has been corrupted by shady political practices, excessive alcohol consumption, and weekend road trips off of island bridges. Most actors, when they're trying to speak Bostonese, seem to be trying (and failing) to emulate the way the Kennedy's speak, as opposed to the average Bostonian. As a result Bostonians, as they're portrayed in most of TV and film, sound more like New Yorkers. Personally, I can think of little that's more insulting.

Put simply, the letter "r" is missing where it's normally pronounced with the exception of places where it sounds like it does in the word "red" or "pronounce." There's more to it than that of course, but that is, without doubt, the defining characteristic. The only film I've ever seen where the accent was correct was 'Good Will Hunting' and even then it was butchered in certain places. Robin Williams tears it to shreds. Ben Affleck is so-so. Matt Damon nails it. The BEST example of it in that film was by the judge who sentenced Matt Damon's character to prison about a half-hour into the film. You only hear him for about 30 seconds but that little snippet is pure perfection. So, if you're watching the news and you hear some Kennedy yapping away, feel free to mutter the word "fraud" under your breath and change the channel. Now you know the real scoop. Back to the post.)

You would think then, that my siblings and I would all have very slight Boston accents. Not so. That happens to be the case with my brother, although you'd have to strain yourself to hear it. Neither of my sisters have any accent whatsoever. They've done well. I... well, I'm not sure what I have. Early on I used to have a very very slight accent, but I was so aware of it I would often overcompensate and sound like an overenunciating dork. Seriously. Think of your 8th grade English professor with the bow tie and the spring in his step. I probably sounded like a pre-pubescent version of him. This was exacerbated one Christmas season when I had seen 'It's A Wonderful Life' like 80,000 times and I, unbelievably, decided that Jimmy Stewart sounded cool... so I tried to emulate him. ("Well of course I like her, she's a peach!" or "Seen your wife?!? I've been to your house a hund'erd times!!!") As I hit my formative years however, I became much more influenced by what was prevalent in the popular culture. I (very briefly... and embarrasingly) went through my Ebonics phase back when BBD, Digital Underground & Ice-T were all the rage. Thank God I quickly realized how foolish I sounded. Then when I turned 16 and took my first job, I found myself working among people with horrifically thick Boston accents. So, there I was, a green 16 year old kid, sounding like George Bailey meets Ice Cube and surrounded by people named Ralphie and Cheryl (pronounced SHEH - RULL) from "down the prawjects" and "Oak Squayuh." I know what your thinking, and yes, you're damn right I took a ribbing from them. So much so, that I decided it necessary to reinstiute my Boston accent in an effort to gain acceptance from my coworkers. Again, I overcompensated, and most of my family and friends were simply dumbfounded. What the hell? Where did this accent come from that wasn't there before?

Long story long, by the time I got to college and started doing airchecks for the college radio station and listening to how I sounded, I found myself so distraught over this amalgamation of accents that I was spewing forth (which basically sounded like a Canadian who'd spent a lot of time in Buffalo) that I decided to scrap everything and try again. I took a Voice & Articluation class (which was actually required at my college) and started paying very close attention to how I was forming my words, to the point where I would stop and start again if I noticed myself mispronouncing certain things. I found, believe it or not, that you can change your accent if you want to and that there definitely comes a point where, if you're consistent enough, it becomes second nature. As an added bonus, you never really "forget" your previous accents so you can break them out when necessary. For example, I find it useful to use the Boston accent any time I decide to visit Jimmy's Cod Shack for a haddock plate (which is to say never) or when yelling at the right honorable gentleman from Billerica who has nearly missed clipping my vehicle as he cuts me off in traffic (which is to say too often.) It is NEVER useful for me to break out the Ebonics accent. Ever. Glad we cleared that up. I have never really been completely comfortable with my speaking voice, but it's at a point now where I'm happy enough and, for the most part, I've stopped caring.

Now, this might come as a shock you (it certainly did me), but I am 24% Dixie. Really. What exactly Dixie is defined as I'm not sure, but I just took the "Are you a Yankee or a Rebel?" test and discovered that, lo and behold, I've apparently got a smidgen of Southern twang. I remain skeptical. The results must be thrown out of whack by my recent trip to Texas. Further, the test told me that I was a "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and regardless of what ANYONE says, I will never identify as a Yankee. A northerner, maybe. Yankee, never.

Still, I'm confused. 24% is a lot. That's almost 1/4th!!! The last thing I need to do is incorporate a new dialect, wonderful as it is, into my repertoire. I mean, crap, I wouldn't even know where to properly use the words "y'all" or "grits" 2% of the time, much less 24% But, as Popeye says, I am what I am... so either I'll have to start saying things like 'Hold up, feller. Watch out for that there kudzu!'... or I'm going to have to retake the test. I'll give it about a week to let the after effects of Houston wear off, and then I'll see where I stand. Until then, I'll keep my mouth shut.

I'll leave you with a link I found which is somewhat related, although not really. The Simplified Spelling Society has compiled a list of short poems which show the absurdity of the English language and how words that look the same are pronounced differently. Looking at some of them, it's easy to see why English is considered among the most difficult 2nd languages to learn. An excerpt from my favorite:

When the English tongue we speak.
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it's true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of the verse,
Cannot rhyme his horse with worse?
Beard is not the same as heard
Cord is different from word.
Cow is cow but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with foe."



Blogger Tim said...

A very good friend of mine is a Swede who learned English in Birmingham and Baton Rouge. The Swedish-Southern accent is doubtlessly the craziest I've heard, and most unimitable.

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also was deemed to be 25% Dixie, which I find hahd to believe. I'm guessing that the creators of this exam are from somewhere in GA and feel everyone should be at least 1/4 "down home".

11:17 AM  

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