Tuesday, December 06, 2011

You Say Potato, I Say What The Hell Are You Talking About?!

Growing up an Army brat, I became accustomed to regional differences in speech. What was a "soda" one place was "pop" in another and "tonic*" in still another. Though these differences occasionally tripped me up (an example of which is coming soon), I mostly thought of them as quirky linguistic flavoring and collected the best of them, some of which are still with me.

For example, before I lived in Mr. High School's hometown in central Pennsylvania, I always put "soon" after the verbs in my sentences, like pretty much everyone I'd ever known--"I'll be leaving soon." By the time I moved away (the first time), I was mostly putting it before the verb, like everyone I was close to in that area did--"I'll soon be leaving." I have long since reverted to my default of after-the-verb, but every once in a while, a before-the-verb will slip out and make me all nostalgic.

Not all linguistic differences are created equally, though. Growing up primarily in towns around Pennsylvania, I pronounced--and still do--the word "aunt" the same way I pronounce the insects that live in hills. When I was in ninth grade, we moved to New Hampshire, where everyone pronounced it like the word "on" with a "t" stuck on the end. Of course, I had been aware that it could be pronounced that way--maybe even that it should be pronounced that way or may, at least, have been intended to be pronounced that way. But! That was not the way I pronounced it.

I couldn't bring myself to pronounce aunt "their" way, but neither could I bring myself to pronounce it "my" way for fear of being made fun of--a valid concern considering that I was badgered for months after moving about my so-called "Southern" accent. My understanding of "Southern" and theirs differed, of course. But I had little ground to stand on in that department, since Pennsylvania was, technically, south of New Hampshire--and apparently everything south of New Hampshire qualified as "Southern."

The point being, the entire two and a half years I lived in New Hampshire, I never once used the word aunt in mixed company. When I spoke about one of my (many, many) aunts, which was admittedly not often and probably less so under the circumstances, I always referred to her as "my mother's sister" or "my mother's brother's wife" or whatever verbal gymnastics were required to avoid that damned four-letter word.

After those years of bouncing around, I am still fascinated, though rarely shocked, to find that people from different areas have new and different ways of saying things, which brings me to tonight's story.

Recently, I pulled the halfway house van (commonly called, among the guys themselves, the Druggy Buggy--another turn of phrase that was novel when I first heard it) alongside the curb at the grocery store to wait for several residents. I was chatting with the residents who were already in the van when a man I had never seen before came to the window on my side and shouted, "Next time, instead of giving me the finger, maybe you should use your signal!" and then stormed away.

I was too stunned to respond and to this day have no idea who he thought I was or how he could've mistaken our very large, bright red van for any other very large, bright red van (there's not another in town, to my knowledge--in a town of right around 5,000 people, I'm pretty sure I would've spotted it by now) or me for any other driver from the halfway house, for that matter.

In any case, I was sort of sitting there with my mouth hanging open, figuratively if not literally, when the resident in the passenger seat beside me said, "You didn't finger him, did you?"

Uh, no, no I did not.

*I'm not sure if it's still true, but when I moved to New Hampshire in the '80s, "tonic" referred not merely to "tonic" but to any old soda.


  1. hahaha. Glad to know you didn't.

  2. After several formative years spent in Vermont, I still get a little nervous before I say the word "aunt" and try to avoid it as much as possible. You shouldn't finger people when you're driving. Naughty.

  3. For no reason other than I like the way it sounds, I say "soda" instead of pop. And, it drives my kids crazy!

  4. In Southern California, we called all soda "coke." As in, "Can you run to the store and get me a coke?" Sure, what do you want? RC Cola?" "No, Double Cola, if you don't mind."

  5. I love the mysteries of language too. They are so much fun. I listen to the national newscasters and marvel at how bland their speech is - not much color there. Too bad. I suppose the idea is to pitch to the least colorful so as not to offend anyone or lose anyone's loyalty
    (and, by extension, their money).

  6. Ok, I'm confused- where do they say 'soda pop'? Or is that just horribly antiquated? I think my penchant for old novels is showing

  7. Ah, "soda pop." As an amateur linguist, I'm guessing "soda pop" was/is used in the no-man's land(s) between pop territory and soda territiory. Oh, and by old novelists hoping not to alientate either the "soda" loyalists or the "pop" loyalists. That sounds semi-scientific, right?

    My paternal grandparents used it occasionally. Until they retired, they lived just outside Pittsburgh, PA for their whole lives so maybe Pittsburgh was a border town. ;)

  8. I've heard soda pop in the direction of Oklahoma.

    I love regional vernacular and accents and tend to inadvertently adopt the speech cadences and phrases of the people around me to the extent that my neighbor recently asked me where in the heck I was from because he couldn't place my accent.

  9. Haha, your ending made me chuckle.

    As a lifelong Mainer, I use the term "wicked" as a synonym for "very" as in "This cake is wicked good!" Since I have started blogging, I have become very self-conscious about this, and deliberately disallow myself from using it in my writing for fear that someone from elsewhere might read it, get confused, and subsequently hate my blog.

  10. Wicked was big in New Hampshire too. It drove me INSANE when I first moved up there. Within months, I was using it so regularly I barely noticed it anymore. It's been almost 25 years since I lived up there and I still find there are times when only "wicked" will do. :)

  11. Youngest sister12/8/11, 11:13 PM

    I have always loved the sub/hoagie/grinder debate myself!

  12. YS--Oh that's a good one, too.

    "Hoagie sounds so gross."

    "Yeah, but you can VISUALIZE a grinder."

  13. What about "sodey pop? Whose idea was that?!

    I recently learned that not everyone has potlucks. Some people have pitch-ins. And, not everyone uses an ATM. Sometimes, it's a money mover. Carts at the grocery store? Buggies.

    And we wonder why non-native speakers struggle with the language!