Wednesday, November 23, 2005

You Say Tomahto, I Say Tomato

We have been having fog everyday so I see nothing....nothing but whiteness out on the water. It kills me, too, because last year on Thanksgiving day we saw orcas on the glassy water. The J pod is out there because I received a report yesterday of a sighting off of the Edmonds ferry of orcas in the fog! But this is all I can see:

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Rather than looking out the window, I am looking at the National Geographic Magazine. Language has always fascinated me as it does my son who is a linguistics major. Particularly, regional accents in the United States are fun to figure out. This month's National Geographic has a North American Dialects map (though it is only the U.S.). They have the entire western part of our country the same color from Nebraska to California and Montana to New Mexico--with the statement that because the West was settled so recently, no regional dialects have clearly developed. Thankfully, they have included part of Eastern Montana in with North Dakota and Minnesota. My nephew and his wife live in Glendive, MT and believe me, the natives there sound like they are from North Dakota.

So why does all of this interest me? My Dad was great with accents and he could tell jokes with a great German, British or Scottish accent. Of course, his parents were English. My Grandfather lost most of his English inflections but my Grandma never did. Furthermore, my Dad spent 9 months as a POW held by the Nazi's in Germany and Poland during WW2. Most of his prison mates were Brits and all of them had to pick up German as they were marched across the European countryside without food. Learning German was a means of survival. As a kid, my Dad taught my brother and me a little German and my Grandma always said "tomahto".

I also learned after living in Kansas City for five years and having in-laws who were from Kansas that Montanans do not sound anything like Kansans. In fact, when I was working as a law clerk during law school, in the days before fax machines, I delivered documents to law firms all over Kansas City. At that time, female law students were an anomaly (Ok, I was 25 and attractive) and I always found myself seated in some white guy lawyer's office being questioned teasingly about who I was, where I was from and why I was invading their turf. On one occasion, in an upper floor office of a Kansas City, MO high rise, an attorney asked me where I acquired my "interesting brogue".

"Me, I don't have an accent--YOU, on the other hand, have quite a drawl! And I am from Montana, thank you very much. Are the papers ready yet?"

I have also learned after living in the Puget Sound area for over 25 years, that we do not sound like Vancouverites and we do not always speak like Montanans. Differences in pronunciation have always caught my ear. My husband is oblivious to all of this. The kids and I discovered early on that though my husband is a brilliant man and he may some day find the genetic key to why some of us get cancer, he is language retarded. He could not hear that his parents had a significant Kansas drawl--like "yella" instead of "yellow". Luckily, my children take after my side of the family when it comes to language giftedness.

Amazingly, shock of the world--the map in National Geographic Magazine is wrong! The West is not uniform in its speech and I will provide examples:

1. Creek v. crik In Montana, it is crik and I still say crik except when it is part of a name of a city--like Mill Creek. Then I say creek.

2. Bag and tag I say these words with an "A" almost like the "a" in ate or page. I do not say bag with an "a" like in hat. In Seattle, people say the "a" like in hat and my kids actually say it like I do which caused confusion in phonics in school.

3. V-A-ncouver, C-A-nada or Vehncouver, Cehnada. This is hard to describe but we say the "a's" like in hat or can but they close them down so that they can spot an American very easily.

4. Out or about v. oot or aboot. Yes, they really do say this and Vancouver is only 120 miles away.

5. But then in Kansas, they open up the out so it is practically two syllables--"ahout". Likewise, we say "no" very curt and short.

6. Whaddya gonna do? v. What are you going to do? Montana v. Seattle

7. pop v. soda In Montana and here we use the word "pop" to refer to Coca cola or 7-UP or orange or sprite, etc. Soda means club soda which you mix with alcohol. Which reminds me, we say Ohrnge with a long "o" and one syllable. We do not say "Ah-range" as two syllables.

8. cot v. caught In Montana and here--there is no difference in the pronuncation of these two words--they are both "cot".

9. pin v. pen Montana and here--these two words are very distinct. One of my best high school friends, who grew up in Florida (pronounced Floor--ida by us and not Flahrida) said both of these words like pin.

10. In Seattle and Montana, if you are waiting to get an X-box for Christmas, you wait "IN" line. You don't get on line like they say east of here when describing how to line up.

Update--I thought of two more:

11. In Kansas City, it was pointed out to us early on that Missouri was pronounced Missouruh. I never changed my pronunciation because I grew up near the point the Missouri River has its beginnings. To me and to Puget Sounders, it is pronounced Missoureeee. My Dad's ashes are sprinkled at Beaver Crik on the Missoureee River, thank you!

12. measure and treasure The other day, Kaley and I noticed that Dave continues to say masure with a long "a" like in mate; likewise with trasure. We say mesure and tresure with a short "e" like in met. I'm not sure where that comes from--I think his parents.

National Geographic explained that regional dialects are actually becoming more distinct rather than more uniform. At one time, it was thought that with our mass media, we would all have the same speech. Interestingly, this is not happening. The map may be wrong about the West but I do agree with their premise.

As the years go by, my brother sounds more like a Montanan and I do not. Seattle, with its strong Asian influence, its proximity to a major Canadian city, and its isolation now that Snoqualmie is impassable, will continue to develop a distinctive brogue, I predict. I hear it in my daughter's speech which has very little Montana influence and they say it is the teen agers that cause the change.