My siblings and I talk like Midwesterners, although none of us live there (or have ever lived there). Our mother was a Midwesterner: born and raised in Chicago. Daddy was also a Midwesterner, born/raised in St. Louis, although he had Southern roots: his mother was born/raised in Tennessee, as were her people, while his father’s people were South Carolinians all the way back to the 1600s.
This Southern thread manifested itself in the way we were allowed to call our parents’ friends names like Miss Diane and Colonel Frank or Uncle Bill and Aunt Elaine, rather than the more traditional Mr. and Mrs. Ours was a household in which “C’mon in this house!” was a lifestyle straight out of my father’s Southern upbringing in the heart of the Midwest. (His speech, however, was unadulterated Midwest. Witness the way he prounced his home state of Missouri, which came out Mizz-ooo-ruh.)
My father was in the air force; over time our family lived in various places all over the country. We kids met and played with kids from other places who were in our situation. So I was exposed to regional differences in speech (among other things) at an early age. Oh yes, accents are fun. I can tell Illinois from Missouri, Wisconsin from Michigan, Tennessee from Georgia, North Carolina from South Carolina (no mean feat). But my parents were essentially Midwesterners, and we all sounded like that.
Until we moved to California when I was seven (and where I stayed through school). I pretty quickly became a California girl (far out, man), but those family vacations “home” to Illinois, where I had a multitude of cousins, were a great source of material to feed my budding interest in regionalism—both accents and words. In Yorkville everything was woulda, coulda, shoulda, things my mother, the amateur linguist, had painstakingly trained out of us. (We said ed-you-cation, not ed-joo-cation. And we by God said yes, not yeah.) Most interesting to us kids, my cousins called carbonated drinks pop—it sounded like pahp—whereas we called them soda. (I was delighted to stumble on this pop/soda map awhile back; you can imagine my joy. However, it doesn’t cover the designation soda pop, which my father used. In the South, of course, the point is moot. We drink Coke.)
Words are just as interesting as accents, I think. Some years ago a friend of mine moved from Tennessee to Michigan and followed up with this report:
“People almost never say you’re welcome up here. Synonyms include sure, you bet, you betcha, and no problem. All four responses really mean you’re welcome, but on a deeper level no problem means you are welcome, although it was a bit of a pain for me. I’m not kidding.”
I thought of this when I stumbled on an interview with Henry Alford, author of Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners, who says, “Don’t say no problem unless an actual problem has been averted. It’s false modesty.” (Your Editor makes a mental note to stop saying no problem.)
Now I’ve lived in the South for … well, a long time. When I go “home” to California, my friends giggle and say I have a southern accent. Here in Tennessee, I often get asked where I’m from. If you want to know where you’re from—or where your accent says you’re from—you can take this little test. Me? I’m from “the Midlands.”
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