Saturday, January 22, 2011

Back Where I Come From

Little-known fact about me:  I was born in Kansas.  Really.  My father was working on his doctorate there.  We moved back to New York when I was two years old, but my earliest memory takes place in the state of my birth:  I am outside, chasing our dog around a garbage can.  Neither I nor anyone else in my family has ever gone back.

As part of our adoption paperwork, however, I had to contact the Kansas State Department to get a certified copy of my birth certificate, and I was astounded, though I guess I shouldn't have been, by the difference between the vital statistics people in Kansas and their counterparts in New York, where all the rest of my vital records reside.  The Kansas people were genuinely nice, kind, generous, and helpful.  They called and left a message when they had a question for me.  The state registrar herself helped me to complete my request because a very nice vital statistician named Betty, which seemed the most perfect name for a kindly low-level bureaucrat from Kansas, transferred me over to her during a phone call.

The New York people, on the other hand, have sent back my vital records applications several times for various oversights and infractions.  And they are, I'm chagrined to admit, not really all that nice.  I wonder if they'll ever cough up all my other vital records unless I go there in person and wait all day with cash in hand, which is exactly what I'd do if we still lived there.

Another little-known fact:  I've been told my entire life that I have an accent.  I always took this to mean that I actually had no accent, i.e., that my speech had had all regionalisms trained out of it through my long years of voice study.  But once, when I was in my teens and working at an ice cream parlor for my summer job, a graduate student in linguistics came into the shop.  While I was scooping his order, he told me that everyone's speech patterns were laid in place by the age of two, and that he could usually guess where people were from by the way they spoke.  I smirked; here was my chance to stump him.  "So where was I born?"  I demanded.  "Kansas," he said.

25 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

ROFL!!! Those linguistics students . . .

Have you ever read The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman, Pentimento? Two of the characters have a passion for linguistics and accents really are the first thing they notice when they meet a person. A minor character who shows up claiming to be from California gets their "spider senses" tingling: they know it can't be true--and they are right!

On a more personal note, I can relate to having an accent when I probably shouldn't. I won't bore you with a saga, but I guess it's worth sharing that when I lived in New Zealand, all the Kiwis accused me of being an American. But none of the actual American students, there for a single trimester, were fooled. They couldn't say where I was, but they knew it wasn't where they were from.

(It kind of reminds me of that story of the researchers who checked into a mental facility just to see if any of the staff would realise they were actually sane. Everyone on the staff took for granted that the researchers were mentally ill, interpreting perfectly normal behaviour as some kind of symptom. But the patients were not fooled at all and saw through the ruse nearly immediately!)

Pentimento said...

Oh, E., it sounds like a fantastic read! I'm going to see if I can BookMooch it.

Melanie B said...

What a funny and curious story. I'd love to meet your linguistics student and see what he told me about where I'm from. Most people don't guess Texas; though my Irish roommate would say she could tell when I was on the phone with my family because my "accent grew stronger."

Pentimento said...

I was called in college "Pentimento, with the accent from God-knows-where"!

Pentimento said...

When we spoke on the phone briefly last month, Melanie, no, I didn't hear a trace of Texas, come to think of it.

Melanie B said...

It's probably complicated by the fact that Austin is a city with a weaker regional accent and many non-native residents. Also, I've often wondered to what extent parents' accents shape their children's accents. My mom was an army brat and grew up all over the place, through both her parents were native Texans. My dad was born and raised in Illinois, though his dad was from Kentucky. Most New Englanders who meet him say he's got a Texan accent. One of my younger brothers sounds pretty neutral to me, the other has a strong twang and I always feel I'm drawling when I speak with him on the phone. (And oh my when I went to a family reunion in Kentucky, you should have heard how southern I sounded!) When we were younger, my sister was sometimes accused to putting on British accent. Most people round here don't guess Texas when they talk to her. But like I said, I'd love to see a linguist analyze the mishmash.

ex-new yorker said...

Oh, this is fascinating. I think it may have occurred to me while reading your blog at some point that you probably had a NY accent, though I wouldn't have imagined it to be the thickest. Still, sometimes it's surprising which even long-time ex-New Yorkers keep quite thick accents. Though I'm not sure you consider yourself an "ex"-New Yorker. Expecting it to be less has more to do with your perceived personality, though -- and the vocalist thing. I dabbled in the study of voice as well and that probably contributed to the accent awareness. Many things related to vocal production just fascinate me.

My son has an autism spectrum disorder, so I hope this won't come across as an offensive stereotype. But I feel like if whatever factors had come together to make me autistic, regional accents could be my area of fixation, savantism, or whatever. I can get distracted from what people are saying by listening to how they pronounce their vowels. There's so much more to New York (and other) accents than the big broad features bad actors with bit parts on Law & Order might focus on. We can be riding along in the car, music playing, me lost in thought, and then I suddenly share with my husband some new observation about exactly how a certain diphthong was pronounced in my native accent. I think he thinks this interest is cute or something.

Like Enbrethiliel, I'll try not to bore anyone (more) with the saga. But I once had a full-scale Brooklyn accent and it's possible that now even someone with an exceptional ear wouldn't have anything to pick up on a majority of the time. Much of it was changed before I left at the age of 21 but there have certainly been adjustments since. I do slip back into it at times (especially when angry or very tired, but only then.) My husband says he thinks that's cute, too.

Sorry for the long comment, this subject always sets all sorts of brain sparks firing excitedly for some reason.

Sally Thomas said...

Fun post. And I concur that people in Kansas are about as nice as it's possible to be and still be human -- even compared with people in the South (who are nice until we shoot you). My daughter and I went for a college visit last fall to Benedictine College, in Atchison, KS, and from the admissions people who met us at the airport to the girls in the dorm with whom my daughter spent two nights, every single person we encountered (and they were all from Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) were the most genuinely friendly people I think I've ever met. Even friendlier than people in Utah, who are friendly in that "why don't you come with me to the LDS ward picnic" kind of way.

In her college-choice lineup, Benedictine went from somewhere out in the side yard picking up gravel to tied-for-number-one after that visit, largely because she liked the people so much and felt so instantly welcome and at ease with them. And now, as we're planning a last round of visits, I'm spoiled: I think everyone ought to meet us at the airport, take me to get BBQ, agree to an unplanned second night in the dorm, etc. Apparently these things are the extra mile.

And I'd like to learn where I'm from, too. I know I come from Tennessee, but having renounced my hereditary accent at the age of four or five, because people on television didn't talk the way my grandparents did, I think I sound like a person from nowhere.

Pentimento said...

If truth be told, I think I also worked to get rid of my accent in childhood, because I didn't like the way the people around me sounded. And then singing killed the rest. But I probably do have a very, very slight New York accent. I've noticed it more since moving away, because people pronounce things quite differently here.

Rodak said...

Regional accents are fascinating. When I moved to New York City, having lived almost my whole life in Michigan (plus two years in Indiana), the native New Yorkers didn't know what to make of me. They found my accent hilarious. And they found my lack of any strong ethinic identity all but incomprehensible. The first couple of times people said to me "Dakin? Uh, what are you?" I had no idea what I was being asked. Once I figured it out, I started saying, "Well...my mother is half Swedish, so..."

Pentimento said...

Well, I have to tell you, when I was little I thought that people who had strong New York accents sounded stupid. And now, as am adult, I think the people here sound shockingly so. And of course it has nothing to do with what they're saying, but merely with how they pronounce their vowels. It's cliché to think of prejudice as a visual phenomenon; I must confess to having an aural bigotry, and, like a lot of things in my experience as an ex-New Yorker, I have to work to lose it.

We built a fire in our fireplace yesterday for the very first time. My husband went to get some wood and fireplace tools at Home Depot, and he told me that he explained to the cashier that it was just for a once-a-year Upper East Side-sort of luxury fire. Did she have any idea what you meant? I asked. "I'm not sure," he said, "but she laughed."

My husband, on the other hand, *does* have an accent. I must be very malleable in my speech (probably another functional tie-in with musicianship), because, back in our old neighborhood, I was asked many a time by Irish nationals asked me what county I was from. I would be like, "Um . . . Bronx County," but they meant back in Ireland!

Pentimento said...

Oh, by the way, Ex-New Yorker . . . yes, I have come to consider myself also an ex-New Yorker. I don't see us moving back anytime soon. I still have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure being here is not one of the recurrent dreams I often have on a variety of sad topics. But here I am, and it's not all bad.

Also, not an offensive stereotype at all. You probably know from reading here that my son is also on the spectrum, and I have a lot of admiration for his abilities, as well as mad love for his quirkiness. Linguistics would definitely be my obsession too, if I had time. My father told me that when he was working towards his Ph.D. (in Kansas!), he had to take some linguistics classes, and one of them required the students to be able to tell from reading transliterated British speech what county and township in Britain the speakers were from. In England, he said, the accent can change enormously when you cross one of the little streams that they call rivers over there. (My father is an English professor, and he has one of the worst New York accents I've ever heard.)

Speaking of England, I was there a few years ago on a gig, and a young man in a shop in the Birmingham train station said to me, "I love your accent! Where are you from?" I couldn't believe it was happening even there. I told him America, and he didn't believe me.

Pentimento said...

Sally, my dad says Kansas is full of Benedictines! I was baptized there by one.

ex-new yorker said...

When I lived in Brooklyn I didn't believe anyone had Archie Bunker's accent, but since I've left it's apparent to me that I'm related to people who do.

The thing that stuck longest with me from my NY accent was saying short "a," short "e," and short "o" the same way before the letter "r" as before other consonants. E.g., "vet"/"very," "cat"/"carry" and "pot/porridge" have the same vowel in NY (though upon minute inspection, I think it might be very slightly different with the o.) In most of the US, they apparently don't. The subsequent r seems to cancel the ability for an a, e, or o to be short for most American speakers. (I don't know the linguistic terminology to explain such things.) But I have noticed myself beginning to move away from the NY vowels there, too, and consciously trying to stop that, because I like the NY way better. I think (from such research as listening to the Clash) at least some British/Irish do as the New Yorkers do with those vowels.

Rodak said...

Ah, the Irish! It just breaks my heart that today, when somebody says something particularly obtuse, I can't make a wry face and say, "Ah, sure. Another county heard from!" to any effect at all.

Pentimento said...

Listening to the Clash is my kind of research. :)

Well, I talk like that too. Guess I'll always be an ex-New Yorker.

In fact, one of my son's aides at his preschool is named Kerri. At the open house I saw her with her nametag, and she introduced herself to me: "Hi, I'm Kerri." Not pronounced like Carrie, as it would have been if she'd been born and raised here. "Are you from New York?" I asked her. She told me that she was born in Brooklyn, but grew up here, and that naturally her parents, who named her, taught her to say her name correctly. :)

Pentimento said...

I think my husband feels the same, Rodak.

Pentimento said...

Enbrethiliel, I just BookMooched The Unlikely Romance of Katie Bjorkman. Thanks for sharing the YA love.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Pentimento, you are probably the only person on earth who took a chance on one book recommendation from me and was still willing to take a second! =P

Meanwhile, I love the way the discussion has bloomed. Something I didn't say in my first comment is that I, too, tried to change my accent. When I was a child, my mother and I visited some cousins who were born in California. I thought their accent was just lovely and tried to copy it. And my mother says that was when I started sounding as if I hadn't been born in the Philippines. What's really weird, though, is that it has proven irreversible. =S

ex-new yorker said...

Once I heard my voice teacher pronounce Anna, the name of a fellow student, "Ee-yanna" (though a normal person might have heard it as just Anna.) I had recently read something about that very pronunciation of that vowel which led me to ask whether she was from the Midwestern City she was in fact from. She was a very kind Christian woman, but I've always wondered whether the "Brilliant" she offered when I explained my inquiry into her pronunciation was on the sarcastic side...

In 2004, we were eating from one of those Kelly's Cajun Grill a-lot-like-Chinese-food places at a mall food court. My non-NY husband mentioned someone whose name sounded like John Carey. I knew enough by then to try translating it to Carrey, which I would have pronounced with a short a and he with a long one. So I wondered, who is that, Jim Carrey's brother? I guess it was from the ensuing conversation that it dawned on me that, as I'm sure you have figured out by now, it was that year's Democratic presidential candidate.

Pentimento said...

ROTF! You're even worse than I am, Ex-New Yorker. ; )

Mrs C said...

Hilarious!

Dorian Speed said...

I was all excited when I read this post, because my husband always wishes I had one of those nice Southern accents you find in Georgia. Maybe I really DO have a lilting drawl, and I can cultivate it.

Then I remembered we lived in New Jersey until I was 2.

Pentimento said...

It seems, at least judging from the comments, that accents are infinitely malleable. Be proud of the Jersey!

mrsdarwin said...

I was born and raised (until 12) in Virginia, and I spent a while trying to eradicate a certain twanginess from my speech, but that's probably a lost cause since my mother is from Baton Rouge and so the South is just in my blood.

My dad is from Boston and later, Philly, and so accentwise, we couldn't win with either set of grandparents.