Thursday, January 26, 2012

Who Me? I Don’t Have Any Dialect

According to a study, conducted in 2009, newborns cry with an accent learned from the language patterns heard while in utero even though the full articulation of a language will not occur until seven or eight years after birth.

These are tidbits from the book published late last year entitled Now You See It by Professor Cathy N. Davidson, a local author and academician where I live, that I’ve recalled during the period that I've been forced to use voice-activated software to compose this blog while my wrist and arm continue to heal from an accident three months ago.

The software works okay but it has resulted in some hilarious typos. I was relieved this week when, without realizing it, I found I had actually been using the keyboard for several paragraphs until my hand gave out and I had to revert to dictating.Harvard Dialect Survey

Apparently the voice activation software has been struggling with my dialect, which is defined as “a particular form of a language that is peculiar to a specific region or social group.”

It obviously doesn't understand “North Carolinian” which my family out west humorously noted I had begun to pick up within a few months after I moved here more than two decades ago.  Actually, there are many different dialects in this state and it's definitely not the first time in my life that I've been exposed to a regional dialect.

Where I grew up, in the Yellowstone-Teton nook of Idaho, teachers worked very hard during the first years of elementary school to convert any sign of the dialect of that region into Standard American English just as they did when my parents went to school there.

My paternal grandparents, with whom I had almost daily or weekly contact during my early years, spoke with a dialect they picked up from their grandparents who, in the mid-1800s had migrated up into those Rocky Mountains from the New England, Mid-Atlantic and South regions, where dialects had evolved from those of European ancestors.

For example, my grandparents used the words “crick” for “creek,” “card” for “cord,” and “harse” for “horse” etc.  It was probably more pronounced because they had ranched and homesteaded in that extremely rural area after migrating north from where my grandmother was born near Franklin, Idaho, the first town in that state and just a few miles south of where the Bear River Massacre had occurred just over two decades before my grandfather was born a few miles south in Richmond, Utah.

As humorously noted in this month’s issue of my university alumni magazine, that even today that dialect softens but varies only slightly as you move south from Eastern Idaho through Utah.  And I've noticed that in, Durham North Carolina where I live now, when history books portray quotes in the dialect of people living here back in the mid to late 1800s, it is very similar to those of my grandparents out in Idaho.

A good way to see what I mean or to check on the dialects in other states is to click on this link and then click on “maps and results” and then on the state of your choice or you can just click on a word or pronunciation and then see maps of the United States showing locations where that pronunciation is found.  For example, you can check facts such as the percentage of people who pronounce the word a certain way, e,g, those who say “pee-can” (17%) for “pecan” as we do in North Carolina or “pa-cahn” (21%) as we did in Idaho.

Durham isn’t listed but it would be interesting to see what percent pronounce it “Dur-Ham,” as some telemarketers do, or “Derm” as some North Carolinians do or “Dooorrum” as others do or the much more prevalent “Duram” as I do. It is easy to identify “transplants” to this area simply based on how they pronounce Durham.

The link above is to The Harvard Dialect Survey.  But you probably won't be able to actually see how far your own diction has strayed until you test drive voice-activated software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking which I continue to use and am grateful for its invention.


Rodney Derrick said...

My father who grew up in central Georgia and whose family owned a lot of pecan trees, from which I had to pick up pecans for many years, always said a "pee-can" referenced something you kept under the bed for a certain process of elimination. I have really not heard such pronunciation here in North Carolina in the 20 years I have been here.

Andrew Edmonds said...

Those Harvard maps are incredibly non-informative; the reliance on "one person, one dot" does nothing to help the user see the patterns.

Here are some examples of how a little aggregation and cartographic skill can greatly improve the communication of ideas, like the geography of dialects.

Pop Vs Soda:

Common Census NCAA allegiance (from the Wayback Machine, as it seems CC is currently defunct: