Proper Misspelling

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?

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“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.

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