Monday, August 17, 2015

You Say Potato ...

Posted By on Mon, Aug 17, 2015 at 8:09 AM

Anybody who's followed country music over the past few decades has a sense of the homogenization that mass media, mobility and the explosion of cell phones and PCs have wrought upon the American vernacular.

Why, Ernest Tubb would take today's Hollywood Nashvillians for a bunch of Yankees by the sound of them, even if he never caught sight of the T-shirts and blue jeans they substitute for proper stage apparel.

Yet 'n' still, as they say in the Deep South and Southside of Indy, twang is far from gone in the hillbilly music genre; and regional language diversity in general persists across this great wide land where everybody is subjected to pretty much the same TV. It's still tee-VEE in Chicago and TEE-vee in Biloxi.

click to enlarge Indiana remains a melting pot of regional dialects, with a pidgin tradition all its own.
  • Indiana remains a melting pot of regional dialects, with a pidgin tradition all its own.

I was reminded recently of the difference a few hundred miles can make when I visited family in Central Kentucky, home of the basketball Walled-Cats and grits for breakfast in a franchise restaurant.

Settling in, I found that "Wildcats" sounded funny coming out of my Northern mouth, and my conversation overall geared down to what felt like a buttery draw but, no doubt, still hit resident ears with the choppiness of a Norwegian bachelor farmer from Lake Wobegon.

This absolute relativity has had special resonance for me for many years. It began with my trek to college in Milwaukee, where the Hoosier dialect I'd assumed was the national norm was remarked, and even ridiculed, as "Southern."

It wasn't until I returned to Indianapolis to live and work four years later that I noticed that the typical Indianan now sounded like a Kentuckian.

In my childhood, Southern meant Kentuckian. Now, Kentuckian sounded Mississippian. Of course, when one has spent a good deal of time in Wisconsin, where talkers TOCK and sentences end with HEY ONCE DERE and the favorite sports team is the GRIN BEY PECKERS, Detroit can seem like Dixie.

Pictured is the headstone of Mary Alice gray, inspiration for the famous poem "Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley. - PHOTO BY RHONDA HUNTER
  • Photo by Rhonda Hunter
  • Pictured is the headstone of Mary Alice gray, inspiration for the famous poem "Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley.

Indiana, where there's nothing special about pronouncing it SPATIAL and you can go to JELL if the cops NELL you, adheres linguistically to its image as America's northernmost Southern city and southernmost Northern one. The peculiarity erodes every year, of course, as our small towns crawl toward extinction and cities absorb immigrants from both coasts and various continents.

Yet I can still joke that I'm bilingual -- speaking English and Hoosier -- and draw the laugh of recognition that affirms a shared distinction, a folk gospel that may have elements of myth (like snowstorms at hoops tournament time) but commands lots of anecdotal fact to back it up.

Go a little north or a bit south, and forget myth. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's oval polka-night syllables and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's sorghum-laced chords may not carry messages everybody in their states cares to hear, but they speak the people's tongue in the strict auditory sense.

Either man would need a larynx transplant to run for office in Indiana (where it's LAR-nix); but if Walker prevails in his current venture (Don't get me started), it won't be the first time America has elected a president who talks funny.

What's really funny about people talking funny is their awareness of it. I've already mentioned Hoosierisms. My Kentucky folks will get going on the scourge of "sugar DIE-betes," shortened often to "my sugar," and the need to take a SHAR after you've gotten all pitiful from changing your flat TAR. In Superior, Wisconsin, up DERE by DA big Leck, the guy who says "O, ja, she'sgonna be a cold one, eh" may be just talking or may be parodying his grandfather.

abe_martin_large04_2_.jpg

Writers notice and use all this, and do so without patronizing, if they're really listening to the music that speakers themselves often catch and savor. The Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry, for all his erudition, rhapsodizes about "what good talkers" country people were back in the day, and laments the fading of a tradition that managed just fine with its double negatives and dropped Gs from "ing" long before formal, standardized education established its tyranny.

"Have you one 'o them maters," a young produce seller said to me years ago. "They eats like candy." Was it Hoosier, down yonder or hybrid he was speaking? Ethnographers could parse it, I suppose. I'm just glad I was there to catch it when, like Halley's comet and Conway Twitty, it flew splendidly by.

Feelin' plumb fluent in Hoosier or neighbor palaver? Share your favorite expressions with us and prove you didn't just fall off the potahto truck.

  • Pin It
  • Favorite
  • Email

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Speaking of...

  • Seeking Submissions

    The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library challenges writers of every stripe to submit their best work for this year’s So It Goes literary journal.
    • Mar 7, 2016
  • High Society's Twisted Tongue

    Why don’t people talk like they used to in the classic movies?
    • Dec 17, 2015
  • Found In Translation

    Translating language from one culture to another means understanding its context -- rendering the translation an original work itself.
    • Sep 2, 2015
  • More »

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • Well-Endowed Artists

    Jennifer draws Seinfeld-esque parallels to artists' financial challenges with education, but offers easy ways to help.
    • Mar 2, 2016
  • Positive Impressions

    Ben chats with IMA’s artist-in-residence about introducing the process of woodblock printmaking to the masses.
    • Jan 10, 2016

About The Author

Dan Carpenter

Dan Carpenter

Bio:
Dan Carpenter is a man of his words: a former columnist for The Indianapolis Star, author of Hard Pieces and Indiana Out Loud and writer of short stories and poetry, including a published collection of poems entitled More Than I Could See. He also blogs for InForefront and writes columns for The StatehouseFile.com... more

More by Dan Carpenter

  • A Gray Sky-onara

    Dan looks back at some of his most memorable blogs at Sky Blue Window.
    • Mar 8, 2016
  • Baseball Salsa Style

    Indiana author Peter Bjarkman chats with Dan about his latest book Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story.
    • Feb 23, 2016
  • Roxane the Riveter

    Best-selling author and feminist Roxane Gay answers a few Qs from Dan ahead of her visit to Butler University as part of the Visiting Writers Series.
    • Jan 25, 2016
  • More »

Latest in Sky Blue Blog

  • The Nice Things

    Ben has enjoyed his opportunity to give notice to some of Indy’s 'nice things' with Sky Blue Window readers. He hopes you’ll find and share them too.
    • Mar 9, 2016
  • A Gray Sky-onara

    Dan looks back at some of his most memorable blogs at Sky Blue Window.
    • Mar 8, 2016
  • Well-Endowed Artists

    Jennifer draws Seinfeld-esque parallels to artists' financial challenges with education, but offers easy ways to help.
    • Mar 2, 2016
  • More »
© 2017 CICF
Twitter
Facebook
Privacy Policy
Contact Us:
P: 317.634.2423   F: 317.684.0943
info@skybluewindow.org
Central Indiana Community Foundation
615 N. Alabama St. #119
Indianapolis, Indiana 46204-1431
Sky Blue Window is presented by:

Website powered by Foundation