Monday, May 21, 2012

Bluegrass Country Voices

Heritage Farm, 2012

I was at a party the other night where I learned that another guest, someone I’ve known casually for years comes from a prominent “old” Louisville, Kentucky, family. When she learned I’d been in Louisville recently she hastened to my side to hear my impressions of her hometown.  
I had to be tactful. I’ve been to Louisville before, and like last week’s trip that first trip was business-related and didn’t leave much time for walking, sightseeing, museum-going or parsing the social histories of “old” Louisville families. Besides, on last week’s trip I was interviewing groups of men who are, generally speaking, short on teeth and vocabulary and long on accents that can be hard to understand.
One of the pleasures of my work is that I get to travel around the country from time to time listening to people. It disappoints me when I see regional accents and dialects increasingly replaced by a standard American media English. I used to be able to identify which part of Michigan or Indiana people came from. Now they all sound like they come from Cincinnati. (Except for on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where you can stumble across someone from, say, Parksley who still speaks with what is thought to be traces of Elizabethan English, or Baltimore, where a good diner waitress will still call you “Hon.”)
When many Americans think about regional accents, they gravitate first to either “Brooklyn-ese” or some Southern twang. Coming from the coastal Mid-Atlantic region, I’m familiar with both the affected accents of upper class Central Virginians (e.g. people who pronounce “house” as “hoce”) and the gravely drawls of Eastern North Carolina (which I can’t begin to reproduce). I once knew a prominent international businessman from Eastern North Carolina who, when he traveled to Asia, required the services of a fellow Tarheel to translate his North Carolina drawl for fully bi-lingual English-speaking Asians.
Nothing prepared me, though, for some of the guys I met in Louisville. It would be easy to look down my nose and say they’re simply not well educated and have not been exposed to many articulate speakers, and in some cases that wouldn’t be far from the truth. But that would display the kind of arrogance that speaks of difference and disrespect, and what bridge building was ever successful that began with difference and disrespect?
It was my job to ask these guys a few questions, listen intently as they told me about their lives, and then come back to the office and boil hours of tape and piles of notes into some kind of articulate and actionable summary.  
Let me tell you: this isn’t easy when the people you’re listening to don’t leave spaces between spoken words, when vowels and consonants rub up against each other in all kinds of wacky combinations until what the speaker assumes was a clear articulation of a thought instead melds into just one long unintelligible mumble.


  1. Parksley is my home town, but you have to climb other limbs of the family tree to here that accent.

  2. Speech patterns are fascinating throughout the country--it saddens me that some of them are dying off. Some of my favorite authors are masters of hearing dialects and colloquialisms. That photo above is very inviting!

    I remember accents from "Lool-ville" well.

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  4. We moved from Detroit, MI to a small town in southern Indiana when I was 14. I remember coming up short when I heard my first "Hooserism" come out of my mouth. My mostly Wisconsin accent still has a little Hoosier from time to time.