On Accents, Vernacular and Muscle Cramps

I woke up this morning with one of those cramps in my right calf. It was four-thirty in the morning. Like a stab from a long knife. I grabbed it and massaged it and finally the pain went away. I haven’t had one of those since I went backpacking through a snowy Rock Bound Pass back in 1997.

After I massaged the pain out and the knot that caused the cramp, I failed to go back to sleep. I lay there and thoughts shot through my mind, what I needed to do: pack, pick squash and broccoli, deal with movie-making decisions.

My thoughts kept returning to our just-completed trip to Minnesota. I could hear Minnesota voices in my ears. The way they speak back there, the accent I guess you could call it. The vowels stretched out like bolts of linen at the fabric shop.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the way people speak, the way they say words, the sounds. I guess that’s because I like to write poems. Poems are as much about sound as they are about the meaning of words and images.

When I say a word, for instance, “you,” I say it in the vernacular in which my ear was most recently trained, and I don’t imagine that my way of saying the word is “accented.” “Accents” are spoken by people from other places. In Rochester, Minnesota, the “oo” sound in “you” gets elongated into an “ooo” and farther north, around Hurley, Wisconsin, or Ontonagon, Michigan, that “oo” sound becomes more like “ooooo,” and in Texas you might hear the word “you” as “y’all.” Even though that intimates plurality it still gets used in the singular. In Pennsylvania the way they say “you” will be different than the way it is enunciated in Ohio or New York City or Boston or Farmington, Maine. People in Rochester, New York say words a little differently than they do in Newark, New Jersey and in the tidewater country of Virginia and the Carolinas, words sing a different song from what you will hear in the Appalachian terrain of northern Alabama. Then of course there is the Cajun patois of Louisiana and the Chicano banter of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California. I grew up listening to that particular vernacular and to this day love the rapid-fire skate of the words as they come into my ear.

I suppose with movies and YouTube and television, the prospects for these regional lingos to keep their power is not favorable. I imagine the various regional accents that have been influenced by our German, French, Scandinavian, Italian, Polish, African, Spanish, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Native American forefathers (to name just a few) will slowly become a common vernacular. Along with our all-American malls that from coast to coast have an Applebees and McDonalds, a Burger King, a Starbucks, we will have a lingo that sounds the same coast to coast. American spoken in Virginia will have no sound difference than what gets spoken in Oregon, or Marquette, Michigan from Brownsville, Texas. We may well drown in the boredom and muck of our lingual sameness.

Not that Starbucks or McDonalds are bad. I eat and drink their fare when I want or when I need. And I have nothing against mass media that speaks to us all. But yes, I am concerned about the death of diversity. And not just in our accents.

After I got those kinks worked out of my calf, I thought about all this stuff and a lot more. Then finally, I drifted off, again, into slumber.