About anywhere in New England, they’re sneakers, not tennis shoes, and it’s a rotary, not a traffic circle.
Travel west of the Connecticut River, and Italian sandwiches turn into foot-long grinders.
Head north, and you’ll smack headlong into a word that appears to be singularly Maine: “Ayuh.”
For Bert Vaux, it’s not a regional curiosity. It’s a career.
The University of Cambridge professor has studied language for years and been part of two major linguistic surveys, parsing meanings, pronunciations and myriad regional vocal quirks.
And do those quirks get quirky.
In New England, rain falling while it’s sunny out is a sunshower. Down South and in parts of the United Kingdom, France, Syria and Japan, the phenomenon is more popularly known as the devil beating his wife.
Sometimes that beating takes place behind the kitchen door or around the stump; with a codfish or a frying pan; and for not salting his soup or not making him crepes.
“There are frequently interesting roots of regional differences,” Vaux said in an email interview from England. “For the sunshower, there’s a whole book on the weird inventory of expressions across the world and why there are striking similarities across them.”
Through research, he’s counted hundreds of different “world Englishes,” or English as we know it, but spoken in various parts of the world with a twist.
Those include Brummie, spoken in Birmingham, England; Boston, spoken in Massachusetts; and Singlish, spoken in Singapore.
Maine’s in a pack called the Eastern New England variety of American English, and there’s more to the story than “pahking the cah” (which has a formal name: deleting non-prevocalic ‘r’).
Just whip that one out at your next dinna pahty.
Vaux was one of three professors behind the Harvard Dialect Survey that wrapped up in 2003 and is now part of the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes, which has logged a quarter-million responses and counting.
His goals include identifying regional patterns (like the sneakers/tennis shoes dividing line), recurrent patterns (how Floridians sound more like New Yorkers than fellow Southerners), how similar concepts have different names (pop vs. soda), and how seemingly similar concepts aren’t quite the same (like using frosting and icing interchangeably or using the words to mean slightly different things).
“Some regional features are archaisms [or] things that used to exist in English and have died out in the standard language but are preserved regionally,” he said.
In Maine, think “yonder,” which used to be a common old English way of indicating something was not here and not there — it was yonder.
“It still survives to a limited extent in English varieties such as Irish, Appalachian, Cowboy and Maine,” Vaux said.
Look to founding fathers in southeast England for what Vaux calls the local “long a” that can be heard in some Mainers’ pronunciations of bath, ask and can’t. (Pronouncing the ‘a’ as in “father,” versus the a in “trap.”)
“When the Puritans came from that part of England to Massachusetts in the 17th century, they brought the new ‘long a’ with them,” he said. “The other two main settlements of the U.S., in Philadelphia and the Chesapeake Bay, came from areas of England/Scotland/Ireland that hadn’t undergone the lengthening of ‘a’, and those areas still have the ‘short a’ in bath today.”
It turns out, the Connecticut River is a linguistic dividing line in New England. Besides Italians versus grinders, there’s also the ‘r’ factor.
“West of [the river] they’re rhotic [they pronounce ‘r’], whereas east of the river, many speakers still delete the ‘r’ when they’re not before a vowel,” he said. That, too, comes by way of southeast England. “Compare how a Londoner and Mainer pronounce car as ‘cah’ to how a Scot, Irishman, Cornish pirate or an American from Stockbridge, Mass., would say it, ‘car.’”
Occasionally, there’s no reason for our regional references — or lack thereof. In his Cambridge survey, for example, there are at least 18 names for the tiny pill bug.
“New Englanders tend not to have a word for [it], from which you might infer that the bug doesn’t exist in the area, but actually they’re just as common in New England as they are in areas that do have terms for them,” Vaux said.
Then, of course, beyond word choice, there’s the Maine accent, that beautiful, sometimes-puzzling, thick thing.
“[It’s] unrecognizable to outsiders, but utterly distinct for New Englanders,” Vaux said. “This appears to be connected primarily to the way [some] Mainers pronounce certain vowels, such as the one dialectologists call the NURSE vowel.”
It involves a softer, elongated, more nasal ‘r’ that some Mainers use in pronouncing words like nurse, hurt, term and work. Think ‘nuhhse’ vs. nurse. (To hear the Maine accent, go to http://www.dialectsarchive.com/maine-1)
Tim Sample grew up in Boothbay Harbor in the 1950s and remembers listening to the old men working the docks.
“They would say things right out of Elizabethan English,” he said. “It would not be at all unusual to hear one of these fellas say, ‘Well, how be ye?’”
The comedian’s career has spanned nearly 40 years, much of it having fun with the Maine accent. Among his many albums, Sample recorded “How to Talk Yankee” in 1982, and today, he teaches seminars in storytelling in the oral tradition.
“New England in general and the Maine dialect in particular is notoriously difficult and almost impossible to do if you’re not of the dialect born,” Sample said. “Dropping r, yes, that’s important, but you also have to include a few. We would say: ‘I have a neighba from Auguster.’
“It’s those little contrarian twists that make it almost impossible for somebody to fake,” he said.
When they try, actors can go too far verbally south.
“Steve King and I have joked about that for years,” Sample said. “[Once, back in the ’90s], we were having dinner together and he slapped this script down [for the ‘The Sun Dog’ book on tape]. He had just gotten through making a film where someone had just butchered the Maine dialect; that’s how I ended up getting that gig. I always thought, if Tom Bosley ever came to Maine after butchering the dialect on ‘Murder, She Wrote’ there would be a different kind of murder going on.”
Dialect, he believes, is, at its root, a sort of us vs. them.
“[It’s a] badge of being from a particular place. In a kind of fast-paced, homogenized world, there’s something, I think, appealing about simply what my wife calls ‘being from somewhere,’” said Sample.
Five years ago, Lori-Ann Willey set up a Talk Like a Mainer website celebrating her native tongue. She and her husband, Paul, both grew up in Palmyra and now live in T1R8 off the grid, 8 miles or so from Millinocket.
She noticed her own accent when they first moved away for his Army career.
“Some of the lingo that we would use, normal language for us, people would question, ‘What do you mean?’” she said. “Like the word ‘wicked’ used so interchangeably here, I would say wicked as in extremely good, nice, sweet or sour. They would say, ‘What’s so wicked about it?’ changing it to the negative, the horrible side of things.”
She’s collected Maine words that sound like “stayyyy-plah,” “buhk” and “be-ah.”
“You learn to have fun with it because that’s what you are, that’s who you are,” Willey said. “You go with it.”
And sometimes, you just nod along.
Years ago, while he was training in Massachusetts, a young Paul took one of his best friends home for the weekend to visit Lori-Ann. The friend was from Arkansas.
“When I was going to school in the Army, of course, people from all over the country, they always made fun of my accent,” Paul said. On the drive back, “He looked right at me, ‘You know, Paul, I’ll never make fun of your accent again.’
“He goes, ‘You and your family I could understand just fine, but Lori-Ann’s family, they could have called my mother a whore, and I would have just sat there and shook my head yes because I couldn’t understand a word they said,’” he said.
“It’s funny,” Paul added, “because [Lori-Ann and I] grew up in the same town, but Maine accents vary that much.”