GPS Lexicon

“I’m serious as a heart attack, she was about to fall out!”

When we moved back to North Carolina and I started high school there was a language barrier, and the previous statement rang especially odd to my ears.  I spoke English, the same root language as my new classmates, but there was a definite learning curve to, shall we say, the fringe on top.Colloquialisms (I’m shocked; I spelled it right the first try.  Lord love a spell check.).  The local color of our language.  It’s y’all versus you guys (Mom’s from Jersey, I use both interchangeably).  It’s hind end, versus hiney, versus butt, versus bum (It’s how the folks on my Dad’s side of the family say it in Pittsburgh).  It’s tennis shoe versus sneaker.

When my sister-in-law from Perquimans County was cranky, she’d later apologize for being “ill”.  And people from that area also call chicken and dumplings, “chicken pot pie”; or maybe her family is just kinda “quirky”.

An illustration from the New Orleans novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy O’Toole.  If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so.

Linguists used to be able to tell by your speech where you were born and raised.  In New Orleans they had completely different accents and word usage within blocks of each other.  There was one neighborhood where everybody had both a New York and Southern accent, with a soupçon of French.

In Baltimore the natives had an odd mélange of Southern, Northern, and a dash of almost British.  And you probably won’t have a waitress call you “Shug”, to her you are “Hon”.  And their hometown has two syllables, not three, as in Ball’more.

The cast of the first season of Homicide: Life on the Streets.  The best show ever on television, and based in Baltimore.

Pittsburgh, my dad’s hometown has a completely unique accent and vocabulary.  I can always pick it out when I hear it.  I have surprised the heck out of many strangers in grocery stores and malls.  But it’s so very distinctive that once you hear it, you can always identify it.

Folks from the upper Midwest speak with a unique inflection—think Sarah Palin and the movie Fargo.  It comes from the large number of immigrants from Nordic nations.  They also have a vocabulary that’s all theirs.  Don’t ask your new workmate where the water fountain is; they call it a “bubbler”, which I must say is way more festive.  If you’re ever at a potluck in Minnesota, there’s no casseroles, but plenty of “hot dishes”. Anyone who’s ever listened to a JFK speech or a bad imitation of one knows that from Massachusetts northward people have a distinctive way of talking.  They also have unique pronunciations—Worcester becomes Wooster, Grosvenor?  That “S” is silent.

If you’re hungry and order a sub, you’ll get funny looks, but no sandwich.  Ask for a grinder.  If you want an after-dinner drink, head to a “spa” (corner store), or a “packie” a liquor store.  It’ll be wicked good.A visit to the Southwest could require the occasional use of a translator.  If there’s word of a haboob in the area, it’s not a scarf, a body part, or a bird.  It’s a dust storm that is so massive it can be seen from space, so go inside.  Norteño is a style of music from Northern Mexico that is dangerously catchy.

And California?  Some (but not all) residents really do sound like surfer dudes that have spent a bit too much time in the sun.But the sad truth is that all these distinctive words and accents are disappearing faster than hushpuppies at a fish fry.  Because distance and unfamiliarity are dissolving due to connectivity and the migratory nature of the population, all those interesting geographic differences could soon be a thing of the past.

And the very thought of that makes me tore slam up.Thanks for your time.

Watch Your Language

When I was sixteen, I got my first job.  After school and weekends, I was a secretary at the lab in the hospital in Elizabeth City.I answered the phone, dealt with out-patients coming in for testing, alerted staff to emergency orders, and carried in-patients’ results to the appropriate floor.

As first jobs went, it wasn’t terrible.  I made $2.75 an hour, which was pretty decent in 1980.  I didn’t go home smelling like French fries like a lot of my friends.  And I had a lot of friends who worked at the hospital (including Petey; we began dating about a year after I started at the lab). My biggest stumbling block when I started was the lexicon.  When I was a newbie and answered the phone, what I heard on the other side honestly sounded like a foreign language.  I recognized the articles, and a few verbs, but everything else was totally incomprehensible.  When I had to place a call, the message had to be written down, word for word, phonetically.

That’s because it literally was a foreign language to me.

The specialized language of an occupation or social group is called jargon, and defined as, “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”.  And, the reasons for the unique vernacular are two-fold.One is to define the terms that are particular to the group.  If you’re a baker, you don’t need a vocabulary for types of blood cells.  And if you’re a lawyer, you don’t have a lot of call for the names of different parts of a shoe.  That’s the main reason.The other reason is a snapshot of human nature.  It’s done to create an exclusivity.  So that outsiders are immediately pegged as outsiders.  It’s a verbal secret handshake.

Slowly I learned the parlance of the lab.  One day, after I’d been at the lab for a few months, I realized that I understood.  I could take a phone call, and know what to do about it.  And when I needed to make a call, I could do it all by myself.

i can do it

As a Coastie kid (Dad was in the Coast Guard), I’d lived in NC, Alabama, Michigan, San Diego, and Puerto Rico.  Maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by human speech.  By the accents and colloquialisms, by the very words spoken in different languages.

From every place I lived, I learned the language of the sea and sand.  Tides and undertows and breakers and dunes.

From Alabama in the late sixties, I learned words like conflict and struggle and equality.  I also learned words like azalea and Mardi Gras and y’all.From Michigan, I learned the language of stillness.  As a toddler I would sit quietly every afternoon and a fawn which had become a friend would approach me, every day venturing a little closer for a silent chat.

Our moves and the change of environment changed my vocabulary.  That is also how it works in the wider world. When the Normans conquered the Anglo Saxons, they brought martial words of conquest like jail (spelled gaol in England), armor, and battle.  Once the occupation began in earnest new words like tax, rent, and state.When the new nation of America expanded, they discovered the patois of life in the west, mainly from the Spanish who had already been there for couple hundred years.  Words such as lariat, vista (not the Bill gates kind), pinto, and buckaroo.

Next time you sing that bossa nova tune, The Girl From Ipanema at karaoke (the translation is “empty orchestra”), and eat tapas, thank the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Spanish.Thanks for your time.