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The Word

The devil strip

Learning to love regionalisms

By Jan Freeman
February 27, 2011

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I was back in my northern Ohio hometown last week, out where people drink not soda but “pop,” where yard sales are “garage sales” (with or without the garage), where the strip of grass between sidewalk and street is the “tree lawn” (or, three counties east, the “devil strip”).

As Bostonians know better than anyone, Americans have learned to cherish such regional differences in vocabulary. Since the mid-20th century, scholars have been warning that radio and television talkers, spreading their “neutral” accent from coast to coast, would erase all the local color from our language. In 1947, an English professor told the Lewiston Daily Sun in Maine that the end was predictable, if not yet near: “Mass entertainment, education, reading, and travel ultimately may cause many regional expressions to disappear.”

Some of this has come true; seesaw is crowding out teeter-totter, and dandle boards are the dodo birds of the playground. But regional dialects have proven surprisingly resistant to the leveling influence of mass migration and big media. Earlier this month, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported that a Louisiana cable company was directing calls to regional centers where customers would be greeted in their own idioms. Probably a good PR move, Joan Hall, editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English, told the reporter: “People feel at home with people who speak the way they do.”

And they can still be confused by people who don’t. Gabe Doyle, a linguistics grad student, was recently flummoxed by a crossword’s dialect choice, he reported on his blog, Motivated Grammar. The puzzle’s six-letter answer was “pie pans,” which Doyle had never heard of; in his native Pittsburghese, those are known as pie tins.

It’s all good fun, so long as our differences are limited to the names of common things: jimmies or sprinkles, subs or hoagies or heroes, gutters or eavestroughs. But when variants pop up in other constructions, we aren’t always so tolerant. Take take vs. bring, for instance: I’ll say “let’s take some wine to the party,” but my husband (like many New Yorkers) says “let’s bring some wine.” It’s no more confusing than, say, my regional past tense for dive — which is dove, rhymes with “clove” — but people who don’t use bring this way are often eager to label it wrong.

The same goes for the standing on line (common in the Northeast) vs. the more widespread in line; there’s no difference in meaning, any more there is between the American “on Mulberry Street” and the British “in Mulberry Street,” but the in-line majority can be quite cross about on line. “If I hear ‘Next on line’ from a cashier once more I’m going to scream,” frothed a Web commenter who probably shouldn’t have moved East.

Even the Midwestern “the car needs washed,” well known from Pittsburgh westward, can still inspire word rage, even as its native users spread it throughout the 50 states. “It is WRONG, in that it misuses the speech parts. It is WRONG in that it is incorrect English grammar,” declaimed a (minority) commenter at StraightDope.com.

But of course, if you want to denounce someone’s speech habits, any difference will do. Jacob Weisberg, assiduous compiler of “Bushisms,” once zinged the former president for using the locution “let’s don’t fear the future.” As linguist Mark Liberman and others pointed out, that “let’s don’t” is a standard variant of “let’s not,” especially common among Southerners.

It’s pronunciation differences, though, that really push people’s buttons. John McIntyre, esteemed blogger and editor at the Baltimore Sun, posted a funny video a few years ago explaining that “caramel” absolutely, positively must have three syllables. But guess what? Where I come from, it has only two. In an online survey conducted by linguist Bert Vaux, 57 percent of Ohioans chose the carmel pronunciation. That’s not a mistake (or an uneducated variant); it’s the local option. The same goes in reverse for “elegant” pronunciations like vahz for “vase”; if that’s the way you learned it at your mother’s knee, who am I to call it pretentious?

Pronunciation snobbery is often a comic spectacle, since hardly anyone uses all the “right” pronunciations. The same person who scorns often with the t as an ignorant “spelling pronunciation” will go for the upstart French-accented niche — even though dictionaries and orthoepists, or pronunciation gurus, say niche has been English, pronounced to rhyme with witch, for two and a half centuries.

This is not to say that there aren’t truly incorrect pronunciations, or that we can’t change them over time (I’ve finally learned to put two syllables in mirror, though my “grocery” is still groshry). But if I say tomahto and you say tomayto — if you take a gift to Mom, and I bring one — we don’t have to argue. Small differences like these should be allowed to peacefully coexist, illuminating our linguistic lives just as fireflies and lightning bugs do.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).