WNW: Mr. Smith, You Have an Accent Too
I get the Utah jokes. I really do. I get the cultural jokes. The political jokes. I can laugh right along with the best of them.
I do, however, get a teeny, tiny bit annoyed with what I call the California Syndrome. I first ran into it in the form a kid named Jake in high school geometry who had unwillingly just moved from California. In hindsight, I think he was just bitter over his parents' divorce, but the way he lashed out, everything in Utah was just plain stupid.
Back then I was a very quiet and shy kid (you'd never know it, huh?). I still had strong opinions, but I kept them bottled inside nearly all the time. But this kid? Man, he just wouldn't stop. One day I turned around finally laid into him about how Utah isn't the the armpit of the world, so would he shut up already? He pretty much hated me after that. Like I cared.
More years than I want to admit later, my son has a teacher at the junior high who is from California. He loves to poke fun at the Utah accent, or what word nerds would more accurately describe as the Utah dialect.
His favorites are how we leave out the "t" on mountain so it comes out as moun-ain and how we leave off the "t" at the end of words like right. (Oooh, he's creative . . . Utahns use lots of glottal stops. I could have told him a lot more than that about the Utah dialect.)
So Son comes home from school thinking that Mr. Smith is downright hysterical, going on about how funny Utahns speak, and Mom, did you know that we talk like this?
(Um, son, you do know who your mother is, right? A word nerd person? So yeah, I'm very aware that many Utahns speak like this. And I could add a whole lot more to the list than Mr. Smith did. So can your linguist grandpa.)
I say that in a more gentle form then add, "Did you know that Mr. Smith has a California accent?"
After a moment of puzzled silence, Son says, "He does? Really?"
What both Son and Mr. Smith don't get is that everyone has an accent. It doesn't matter where you live. Standard English as a variety of pronunciation does not exist naturally. We just think it does.
I had theater major friends who, for an assignment, had to choose a Dr. Seuss book, practice it in the Standard English dialect, then record themselves reading it. It didn't matter if they were from Spokane, Mesa, Salt Lake, Boston, LA, or Tallahassee. This was a tough assignment, because every one of them spoke with a dialect that they had to learn to overcome and instead speak in a fake dialect that sounded geographically neutral.
After I was first married, I told my linguist father about some neat quirks in one of my new grandmother-in-law's speech, assuming they were indicative of an Idaho dialect. Not so, he told me. They were definitely a Southern dialect. Confused, I asked my husband about it. Sure enough, his grandmother grew up in the South. Her accent had softened a lot in the 50 years she'd spent in Shelley, Idaho, so I didn't pick up on it right away, but some of her Southern dialectal quirks still came through. It was fascinating.
Back to my son. "So what does the California dialect sound like?" he asked. I had no idea, but I knew it existed, because every location has its own dialect.
So I looked it up and showed it to him. I pointed out something I'd already guessed, that northern and southern California have different speech patterns. Something else I read made sense too: California didn't develop a clear dialect until after the Gold Rush, Dust Bowl, and other immigration settled down. In other words, not until they developed their own community where their own dialect could develop.
But develop it has.
I showed my son several words that Mr. Smith probably pronounces differently than Utahns do. For example, stand for southern Californians often becomes a slight diphthong with a long E at the beginning, so it sounds a bit like stEand.
Son was downright fascinated as we went through the list and even listened to recordings of two words in the southern California dialect. (You can see the web page we were looking at HERE of linguist Penny Eckert's work.)
Yes, some of the older farmers in Spanish Fork, Utah, might refer to the crick instead of the creek and their harse instead of their horse, but in California, the brook is the bruck and and it meooves instead of moves and if you ask whether you went there, you say you ded instead of you did.
We all have our quirks, no matter where we hail from.
Or in Utah, that might be "where we hell from."
And that's okay. No dialect is inherently better or worse than any other. To show we're educated, we do need to learn Standard English and use it in writing and speaking (although good luck getting rid of your dialectal pronunciation).
So here's my plea: regardless of where you're from, don't fall into the California Syndrome by thinking you're better than someone else because you're from another area and supposedly "don't have an accent."
'Cause guess what? (And I'm talking to you, too, Mr. Smith.)
You DO have an accent. Just like everybody else.