Posted by: gdevi | October 16, 2010

Hunten eggles in the crick

Viewpoint, Lock Haven Express, October 25, 2010

There is another side to the debate as to whether new technological applications such as instant messaging, texting etc ruin the English language or not.  It is to be expected that language purists and parents of a certain generation would shudder at each new instance of language change: the cryptic abbreviations, the mangled grammar, the new and shocking vocabulary. Are you worried that your kid is AATK doing something D&M?  If we are to go by historical patterns, it is probably best if you GOYHH and GWI.  Language is in a constant state of evolution and while the newness of the vocabulary or the non-standard uses of grammar might shock the more conservative speakers amongst us, the fundamental matrix of the English language is remarkably stable and is not going to devolve into incoherence any time soon.

When I teach the introductory principles of sociolinguistics to my students–how social variables influence language–I am always reassured at how self-sustaining, healthy and vibrant English language is despite dire predictions to the contrary.  The healthy state of our local dialects is strong evidence and best proof of how resilient language is amidst all kinds of social changes. Local dialects are one form of language variation that is relatively impervious to overnight changes in vocabulary and grammar.  Take our central Pennsylvania dialect, the English those of us who live in the region bordered by the counties of  Northumberland to the east, Bedford to the south, Clearfield to the west, and Lycoming to the North speak,  for instance. I was reviewing the vocabulary, phonology and grammar of the central PA dialect with my students, and one student said with a broad grin, “this is exactly how we speak at my house!” Every example we reviewed was literally right out of their mouths, their parents’ mouths, and their grandparents’ mouths. For generations, it seems Lauren’s family has only “redd up” their rooms, not “tidy” or “clean” them. That is great, I told her; “redd up” is an old Norse form that survived through Old English, Middle English and Modern English in certain Scots-Irish dialects of English and which probably came to Pennsylvania with its first wave of Scots-Irish immigrants. It is a historical form that our central PA dialect has preserved intact for thousands of years, I told her.  You don’t find it anywhere else in Standard English. Isn’t that totally cool?  Nothing has taken its place in our community.   And now you will probably transmit it to your kids the same way you learned it from your folks, I told her. This is how dialects create a strong sense of place and local identity.Another student enthusiastically agreed that there is no plural form for “turkey” where she comes from: you are driving along when you see “three turkey,” not “three turkeys.” Game animals in central PA have no plural forms; only domestic animals do.  Strangely enough, this is an approximation to match other game animals such as “deer,” which have no plural forms; if “deer” has no plural form, why should a “turkey” have one? Local dialects are terrifically economical!

Five years ago, I remember my surprise when my daughter’s friend had a sleep-over at our house and in the morning asked that I make her a “dippy egg.” I had just arrived in Lock Haven from Dallas, Texas where there are no dippy eggs. I had not heard of dippy eggs in India or North Dakota either, two other places where I had lived for extended periods of time.  I had no idea what the kid meant and I asked her to describe to me what a dippy egg looks like. She said that it is cooked on one side with runny white and yolk on the other side so she can dip her toast in it. Do you mean “sunny side up”? I asked her. Okay, she said. Aha, in India we call it a “bull’s eye,” I told her. But two weeks ago, I surprised myself when I heard myself say, “the deck needs cleaned.” We all say that, my students said in a chorus–the grass needs cut, the car needs washed, the deck needs cleaned, the room needs picked-up, the windows need cleaned and on and on. Well, I guess I am officially now a Lock Havenite, I told them.  You don’t use the “to be” infinitive here, I said. In most parts of the English-speaking world, the use of the auxiliary “need” is followed by the infinitive “to be” before the past participle.  The car needs to be cleaned. The grass needs to be mowed. That is, except in central Pennsylvania. And why not? It is not an anomaly at all; we use the need without the infinitive only for certain types of transitive verbs. It is not arbitrary at all. It is part of our dialect’s grammar and is quite systematic in its usage.

But some of our usages are really crazy, John said. Why do you say that, I asked him. Well, do you know the expression, “jeet” he asked me. I come from the coal county region, John said, and we say “jeet,” “juze,” and “jugo.” They stand for “did you eat”? “Did you go?” An interesting phonological change, don’t you think? In casual, unemphatic speech, “did you eat” in fact does sound like “jeet.” I am sure there are no such extreme phonological contractions for other auxiliaries such as Does or Have. Again, it is rule-based and not random. It is not incorrect.

My students were surprised to learn that the accent that we call Standard American English, or the newscaster’s English is the relatively feature-less English of the American mid-west speech; the English spoken between southeastern Nebraska, southern and central Iowa and western Illinois, or as one newscaster once put it: “we have to sound like we are from nowhere.” In fact, Americans who speak a recognizable dialect, or with a regional accent have certain stereotypical qualities–often negative ones for comic relief in Hollywood movies– associated with them. Movies like My Cousin Vinny, Fargo, The Usual Suspects, Deliverance etc intentionally or unintentionally document the linguistic features of particular regional dialects, even if they are at times unflattering to the people they represent.  The most profound irony of our times though is the fact that the most heinous villains in Hollywood films speak the Queen’s English, once the most prestigious dialect of English. Perhaps there is some poetic justice to that as well; you don’t really get to be a Lord or a Duke or an Earl without exploiting a lot of people along the way, right?

How we talk is closely connected to how we regard  the world and our place in the world, ultimately. One of the sweetest things about the English of the American south is how a conversation is never direct, never to the point; it takes a lot of talking about other stuff before you come to the point of the conversation. A conversation is a real interpersonal search; it is never just a transaction. This slowness and indirection can drive a New Yorker mad, where bluntness is a virtue. Our central PA dialect is not as distinct as that of Pittsburgh or New York but we do have certain unique features; we are a quiet people.  I like how the old folks–your “gram” and “pap”– in Lock Haven and State College express agreement –“how about it?”  How about it indeed. It is true; as a student observed, you don’t need a lot of yammerin when you are hunten eggles in the crick.

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