Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Speaking My Language

After nearly 20 years in the south, I've lost a lot of my nawthern speech patterns, but one thing I can't shake is "sneaker." No self-respecting southern says, "sneakers." They say, "tennis shoes" regardless of what they'll actually be doing in the shoes. Example:
"I'm going for a run."
"Great! Don't forget to tie the laces on your tennis shoes!"  
I have this fear that someday I'll be in a Waffle House far OTP and I'll slip and tell the kids to get their muddy sneakers off the bench. Whatever Miranda Lambert song that was playing will screech to a halt, there will be an ominous silence, and the fry cook will stop smothering, covering, chunking, and dicing the hashbrowns, stalk over to my table and shout, "Out! We don't serve Yankees here!" And he'll point at the door with his enormous spatula and I'll slink away like a cowardly dog.

Basically, it'll be like that scene in Inglorious Basterds at the bar when Michael Fassbender (British, but pretending to be a Nazi) orders three glasses of scotch and holds up his hand:

and gives away that he's not German because apparently in Germany they indicate three by holding up their thumb, index and middle fingers. So, my Waffle House encounter will be like that, except no one will get shot. However, I do think that Diane Kruger may be there, smoking cigarettes and shaking her head.
When I first moved to Georgia, I got some lessons in local pronunciation:

Ponce de Leon Avenue - Pons-duh-LEE-on (all one word)
Marietta - May-RETTA
Houston Mill Road - HOUSE-ton Mill Road (easy for me since it's the same thing in NYC)
Buchanan, Georgia - BUCK-an-ugn
Cairo, Georgia - CAY-ro

In Austin, Texas, I had to learn:

Burnet Road - BURN-it
Guadalupe - Gwada-LOOP
Manor Road - MAY-ner
Manchaca - Man-SHACK
Bexar - Bear (San Antonio is in Bexar county)
Most confusing to me was the fact that there was a highway called Loop 1 on maps, but no one ever called it anything but MoPac. This isn't a pronunciation issue, it's just weird.

In Maine, there aren't too many place names that aren't intuitively pronounced, but there are definitely different names for things:

Jimmies - sprinkles
Bubbler (bubblah) - water fountain
Frappe - milkshake
Grinders (grindahs) - sub sandwich
Cunning - cute
Wicked - very ("Ahnt you wicked smaht?")

You'd think that with television and the Internet these regionalisms would be declining, but they still persist. People actually study this, which is something I wish I knew before I went to law school, because it sounds a lot more fun than writing briefs. Something that doesn't sound more fun to do than writing briefs (because it involves coding, which scares me), but is fun to look at, is creating maps to represent the different regionalisms. A guy at NC State named Joshua Katz used language data to create maps to show how people across the United States use language differently. This is the kind of thing I love (because I'm weird, probably), so I thought I'd share some of his maps.

The way the maps work is that the darker the color, the more likely it is that a particular answer predominates in that place. So, a really dark red color means that nearly everyone from that place would give the answer coded with red. Got it?

Last year I wrote about my poor classmate who thought that you called the end of a loaf of bread, "the ass" of the bread. We all mocked him and I still wonder over it 20 years later. It turns out that perhaps he wasn't all alone:

While "ass" isn't one of the choices, "heel" is way less common in New Jersey than in a lot of other parts of the country.

Here's one that brings me back to the days of standardized testing:

I think we said scratch paper, which must mean that my all math teachers were imported from North Dakota or Montana.

Whatever you call them, they used to freak me out when I was a kid...still kind of do:

I called them roly polys, which I tried not to think about when I ate at the restaurant of the same name.

More than political views, religious convictions, or musical taste, the thing that divides America is the name we have for the fizzy drink that almost half of all Americans consume every day:

I have to admit that I still wonder if people are serious when they say, "pop." Obviously I need spend more time in the upper west.

I still get a little jumpy on the night before Halloween because when I was growing up the big kids (who are getting close to retirement age at this point) would maraud around town, smashing jack-o-lanterns, egging houses, and spraying shaving cream all over cars. I'm torn between feeling glad that my children don't have to experience the trauma of seeing their pumpkin's guts spilled out all over the street in front of our house and feeling like it's a good way to learn about senseless violence without anyone actually getting hurt. In any case, you can guess from this map what I called October 30th:

Mischief night, of course.

So, those are a few of the highlights, but there are 122 different maps, so this is an awesome time-waster if you like this kind of thing. I encourage you to check them out.

Do you all have any interesting regional sayings or pronunciations to share? 


  1. Funny, when I was researching southernisms I came across this quiz: Take it. It's fun.

    I've always said sneakers. And, thank goodness I'm a yank!

    1. I'm 60% Dixie on that test! Lord ah Mercy, as Suzann would say! :)

    2. I am also 60% Dixie, which makes sense. One other question - what do you put groceries in at the store? A cart? A Buggy? Are those regional?

  2. I used to call those bugs isopods and my friends on the internet agree. Who knew that we Old Bridge folks know our science terms? Sneakers, subs, soda and scrap paper for me! Some people call running shoes trainers here. Hmmm. Sneakers!

    1. There's a real name? I thought that the scientific name was rolyius polyius. No?

      Isn't trainers British? If those people also say jumper for sweater, boot for trunk of the car, and loo for bathroom, they might be secretly British...or just being snooty. :)

  3. My grandparents lived on N. Ponce de Leon & always pronounced it Ponce-duh-lyn.

    I've always said tennis shoes, I frequently bless hearts & ask the Lord for Mercy by saying "Lord ah Mercy." I often describe familial relationships by stating "we're kin" which I'm pretty sure my hubbie finds less than amusing!

    1. Ponce duh lyn? Boy, that's one I've not heard. I guess the one unifying theme is that no one pronounces it like poor Ponce de Leon himself would have.

      You have the best accent ever! Keep on using all those southernisms or they'll get swallowed up by the Yankee and California slang and the United States will just be a boring old beige country.

    2. My son has developed a deep southern drawl because of Suzann. Words like ball sound more like bawllll - even with me being 60% Dixie and my husband being from Mississippi, we do not have the Suzann drawl. It's pretty cute.

  4. Dern-It, it's Burn-It! The MoPac thing was confusing to us too - especially the first time we went to the Harold's outlet barn at Loop 1. I swear, we were never going to find it.

    I am a native of Bexar County and our marriage license is from there. Stan's first trip with me, he told me he thought I was from Bear County, and asked "What is BeX-ar?" Bless his heart.

    And for other Texas things, don't forget that Blanco Road, and the city, are pronounced Blank-o, not the Spanish word for white.

    1. MoPac puzzled me for months before a nice transplant explained it to me. I lived there before GPS (back in the 90s), but I wonder whether it uses Loop 1 or MoPac. I may have to take a trip to find out!

      I love the silent X in Bexar. I'm going to change my name to Susxannah, but tell everyone that the x is silent.

      Right on Blanco. Like the Kathleen Blanco, the Louisiana governor during Hurricane Katrina. (Louisiana is like if Texas and Mississippi and France had a baby, if you ask me.)

      I also forgot Amarillo, which we butcher by pronouncing the Ls, even though it's straight up the Spanish word for yellow.

    2. and Llano - which was always a debate in our house.

  5. I am fascinated by these Joshua Katz maps! there is one studying "merry /marry / Mary." THIS Long Island girl hears a distinct difference among the three. My Maryland husband hears absolutely none and somehow, our kids, who spend way more time with me, all copy his Maryland speech pattern. Anyway, the map shows that only LI, NJ and a small part of New England recognize a difference in pronunciation!

    1. I say marry and Mary the same, but merry differently. I have a friend from law school named Kerry who is originally from New Jersey. It drove her crazy that our southern friends didn't hear a difference between Kerry and Carrie. They said "Kerry" for both.

      My kids all say merry, marry, and Mary the same way.