In the 1964 musical "My Fair Lady," Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) tried to turn flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a lady by teaching her to speak properly. He mocked the many misuses of the English languages, saying: "There even are places where English completely disappears. In America, they haven't used it for years."
University of Pennsylvania linguist Bill Labov just published the results of a long-running study on American dialects in The Atlas of North American English, co-written with Charles Boberg and Sharon Ash. The researchers found that, contrary to popular belief, American dialects are not disappearing — they're growing more distinct, don’tcha know.
At the University of Wisconsin, bashing people for where they're from and the Ugg boots they wear or don't wear is a popular hobby. Let's step it up a notch and hassle people over how they talk.
December's issue of National Geographic reported that Western American English has yet to develop a consistent dialect because the region was settled relatively recently. By contrast, the colonial roots and thickly populated cities of the Northeast spawned the largest number of dialects in the United States. The South is hanging on to its twang, so don't mess with Texas.
Soda or pop? Fountain or bubbler? It's not just the way we speak, it's the words we use. My Californian roommate had a "hella" cool freshman year, while my friend from Boston had a "wicked" time at Brats Tuesday.
Local slang gets especially colorful when it comes to booze. Did you get "faded," "wasted" or "pissed," the English term for that state of mind that leads to slurred speech and incoherence in any dialect? Apparently New Yawkers — always a step ahead in American trends — have taken to the phrase "brown out." If a night on the town is hazy the next day but you remember some of it, it's a brown out, not a black out.
I asked my friend Rachel about New Yawk accents, and she said that she could only comment on Long Island lingo, noting: "We mumble and whine when we talk." Apparently a large number of Big Apple residents are sensitive about their accents. Sam Chwat founded the New York Speech Improvement Services and works with clients to rid themselves of their fast-paced, nasal accents.
Others take pride in their quirky way of speaking: a line of dishes in Brooklyn features items labeled "creamuh," "dinnuh plate" and "cawfee mug." And the movie “Fargo” certainly canonized the accents of the far northern Midwest, with its endless barrage of "oh yahs" and "eh ders."
Whether you pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd, buy sahsige in Chicahgo, say hi or hah, you probably didn't know you had an accent until you left your hometown. Yet it's amazing that exposure is all it takes — move somewhere new, develop a new accent. When my family moved to Chicago, my older brother gave me grief for how quickly I picked up the Windy City's flat a's.
And anyone who's lived with friends from different places knows shooting the breeze with those friends leads you to develop a bizarre accent of your own. When my roommate goes home to San Francisco, friends mock her "’Sconnie" accent; yet true Wisconsinites would single her out as a Coastie in no time.
Like many college students, what she's really developed is a hybrid accent not easily linked to a particular region. Friends who hang out constantly don't just develop inside jokes — they create a language of their own. We also adjust our speech to those we're hanging out with. (Would you say "that's so money" to your grandparents?)
It may be a comfort to some that, according to National Geographic, despite frequent contact between Americans and Canadians, the dialects on either side of the border are not merging. How aboot that?
In “My Fair Lady,” Professor Higgins instructed Ms. Doolittle to "Think what you're dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language. It's the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sounds."
A bit flowery and overstated, perhaps, but there's no question that dialects, accents and regional slang provide an endless source of humor.
Cynthia Martens ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in Italian and European studies.