One summer evening when I was seven years old, I walked into the kitchen and asked my mother – who was bending over an open, hot oven – if she was my mistress. Mom responded with a back hand across my face. Shocking, I know…my mom had a wicked backhand. Oh, the mistress comment. I can blame it on the older, pretty girl next door. Being raised south of the Mason-Dixon Line I knew the three important words referring to females: Miss, Mrs., and Ma’am. Thus, to a seven-year old, the term ‘mistress’ seemed to fit nicely into my polite Southern vocabulary. I learned two very important lessons that day: don’t stand too close to Mom when she is bending over a hot oven and a colorful vocabulary can be dangerous. Okay, a third, don’t trust the pretty girl next door.
Thirty odd years later I was at the Wagon Wheel Diner, a local lunch spot in East Point, Georgia, when in response to the waitress asking if I wanted more ice tea I automatically replied, “No thank you, Ma’am.” I received a very indignant “I’m too young to be a May’uum!” Maybe it was my age in relation to hers; me being at least ten years older. Not sure. I just figured she was probably from the mid-West, where “May’uum” may very well referer to her mother’s older sister.
Sure I received a lot of ribbing from my co-workers who found the waitress’s sharp comment funny at my expense. Yet, both of those moments in my Southern linguistic travels have a lasting impression on how I approach language and the art of writing.
Every section of this great country has its own unique regionalism; localized vocabulary, pronunciation, and inflection. For instance, on their first trip to Maryland’s Eastern Shore, non-Marylanders are amazed at the adding or dropping of letters by the locals. Salisbury with a silent ‘i;’ or Worcester with an added ‘h and t,’ thus becoming Worchest’ter. New Englanders have a particularly difficult time with Worcester – ‘Whooster’ – while in Maryland. My aunt, for example, was a ‘Bal’ti’more’ person in a world of ‘Bal’more’ people; ah, that old Christmas favorite “Here comes San’ti’ clause.” Regionalism can play havoc on asking directions, then trying to watch for the place-name on a road sign.
We were living in the Netherlands when my three-year old – by virtue of a Dutch preschool – had adopted the most wonderful English, very precise, individually voiced words “Ma’Ma, may I have a cookie, Ma’Ma.” Less than two years later, and only after a few weeks at a daycare in Kennesaw, Georgia, “Ma’Ma, may I have a cookie, Ma’Ma” was overcome by “Maa’ma, ma frien’s fa’ve maam’ma’.” Thankfully, children are language resilient, and he would drop the Kennesaw regionalism after we moved.
People still laugh when I pronounce Norfolk as ‘Nalfak,’ and say I am going to the ‘Home Deepo.’ And don’t even ask about voice recognition software; regionalism is the bane of “please say the name of the…”
To put the minds of our Northern readers at ease, here’s a New York City antidote. A young woman I met in Germany had one of the purest American English pronunciation abilities I have ever heard; smoothness and purity, complimented by a wonderful sounding voice. Two years after she moved to Brooklyn we spoke on the phone. To my utter dismay ‘chäk-(ə)lət’ had become ‘ch-a-a-a-awc-let;’ akin to Farfel the pet dog puppet of ventriloquist Jimmy Nelson doing 1950’s Nestle Quick TV commercials. A true phonetic master, my friend – once removed from the Big Apple – would overcome the Brooklynese influence.
My personal phonetic tribulations became noticeable in college. On the first day of phonetics class the instructor complimented me on my ability to have a lack of regionalism when reading radio copy; which, at the time, was a positive for radio and TV announcers. Two phonetics courses later I was a pronunciation disaster; never to recover. Thankfully the college radio station let me play hard rock, and my pronunciation self-destructiveness was drowned out by the music. Nevertheless, as a writer I developed a true enjoyment with the diversity of our country’s regionalisms. People can make fun of how I pronounce a word, it’s okay, because at least it reassures me that some people are still actually holding vocalized conversations with one another.
A few years ago, I sent an email to re-contact a friend from the old neighborhood, now living in LA, whom I had not seen since the mid-70’s. As a writer I wondered how his years in LA had changed his ‘regionalism’. Reading his return email there was no way I could ‘hear’ his voice, because emails are vocal sterile. Maybe this is acceptable for some people; but not for me.
Sure I could have talked to him on the phone rather than use an email…WAIT, isn’t that an omen? Emails? Text messaging? Blogs?
I wonder if schools should start teaching our children how to ‘correctly’ misspell words to achieve proper regional inflections in text messaging?
“Proper Misspelling” copyright Steven S. Walsky, all rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (to include electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without written permission of the author.