Arts & Literature

Waxing Rhotic

The documentary American Tongues offers entertaining insights into what it means to speak like a native.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

I'm a freak for accents. I love hearing the differences in how native English-speakers wrap their tongues around the endlessly malleable syllables of our common language, and I collect imitations of far-flung varieties of English at every opportunity.

I grew up in the Deep South and Texas, a fact which prompts the same question over and over: "Where's your accent?"

The answer is that, thanks to the universal blandness of suburbia, plus my living in New Orleans for several years (where the accents, weirdly enough, sound more Brooklyn than Memphis), it was never there so much. Still—get me on the phone with my Arkansan parents, and the words start spreading out and the rhythm changes. And it always surfaces in certain words—I can't tell you the difference between "pin" and "pen," and as far as I'm concerned, "coin" is a two-syllable word.

I often wish I had more South in my speech, despite the hound-dog chewing of vowels common to my native soil. In a time when regionalism is dealt more and more blows from the homogeneity of mass media, it feels like a force for the good to speak differently, no matter what kind of different it is.

In getting a handle on a few of the accents extant in the British Isles (learning a convincing Liverpool scouse took years), where sounds seem to change every 10 miles, there's one truism I've come to believe about our American speaking style in comparison to that of other English-speakers. It was confirmed for me by a friend from Yorkshire, England, who told me, "You know, we have a lot more fun speaking than you Yanks."

We Americans tend to get lumped into a few overly broad categories accent-wise: Southern, Midwestern, New York and New England. Live anywhere for long, and you realize there's a lot more variation than that.

As a transplant to the Valley, I've long tried to get a handle on what qualifies as a Western Mass. accent. In a documentary called American Tongues (more on it later), a linguist declares that the Connecticut River divides non-rhotic (dropping the "r" sounds) and rhotic speech. Make it "Connecticut River Valley," and that's probably about right. An older gentleman in Dudley I met upon first arriving in Massachusetts referred to Northampton as "Nothampton," but clearly, few residents of the town do so.

It seems instead that the Valley is the eastern fringe of an accent that I find harsh on the ears, a tight-mouthed sound in which vowels are hog-tied, clipped, and sent toward the sinuses, while "r" sounds are ridden with abandon. Ask a native of these parts to say "Berkshires," and the resultant sound is a non-mellifluous "Burk-shears," each "r" an uncomfortable respite from the near-bray of the tight, nasal vowels. Boston it ain't.

If such stuff fascinates your ears as well, it's a good time to head to the website of PBS show POV, which offers interesting documentaries of all sorts. The first episode of the show, which aired back in 1988, was American Tongues. Through the end of July, you can stream the entire film on the site.

American Tongues feels, as the realtors say, "dated." It could, in retrospect, have easily been titled Regional Hairdos of a Lost Decade. Look past the slower pace, the VHS feel and the awesome feathering, though, and the film is a funny and often enlightening beginning point for tuning one's ears even to the subtler differences in American speech.

It visits several extremes—an island off Virginia whose inhabitants are basically incomprehensible; North End Boston, where a family is embarrassed at the sound of one of its members—but also explores differences that are harder for outsiders to hear, like Kentucky versus Texas. The film touches on deeper truths, at the psychology and sociology of speech patterns, at what accents reveal about regional culture. It doesn't go far enough to offer many answers, but the questions it raises are worthy ones.

It's hard to know where to go from there—I'm sure other films must have taken on this grand topic, but I have yet to find much that's more recent. Maybe it's a by-product of our shrinking world, a symptom of the disease that also causes rashes of Home Depots and Chili's every few miles.

It's a worthwhile subject to explore, and that exploration does interesting things to your ears. Once you start hearing subtle differences in accents, you can't stop hearing them. It makes listening to strangers a great pastime, and, with questions like those raised in American Tongues, offers compelling glimpses into what constitutes regional culture.

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