JONESPORT — Even for someone from Maine, the lingo is sometimes difficult to understand.
Thanks to Tim Sample and other Maine humorists, people “from away” often think that Mainers speak a different English than do their cousins from “civilized” Boston, New York, and points south. There is a distinctive Down East accent, of course, in which Rs become “ahs,” but there’s another way to speaking in Maine, too.
This involves official place names.
How many times during the 1991 troop flights did Mainers wince when a news commentator referred to “Bang-ger” (rhymes with hangar)? Anyone who wondered if the national media could get anything right knew that the commentator hadn’t done any homework; Bangor’s pronounced “Ban-gor,” with the accent on the last syllable, thank you.
Unfortunately, a few entertainers performing at the Cross Insurance Center since last fall think it’s located in Bang-ger.
And then there’s Calais. The French call their port on the English Channel “Cal-lay,” a name that’s survived its transition to English.
Just try asking a bonafide Maine Yankee for directions to Cal-lay (Calais), however, and watch the confusion register. “Oh, you mean Cal-lus (that’s “lus,” not “louse”),” the Yankee will reply. “Well, it’s out Route 9 (or up Route 1) a ways…”
And there’s the story, perhaps apocryphal, about the out-of-state con men who tried to shyster an elderly Milbridge resident out of her life’s savings.
Seems the Milbridge woman didn’t recognize the men. See, in rural Maine, everybody knows everyone else, or at least knows somebody who knows someone, ad infinitum. Having grown up in coastal Washington County, the Milbridge resident figured she knew everyone from Prospect Harbor to Lubec, and the smooth-talking con men weren’t Alleys, Beals, Looks, or Merchants, that’s for sure.
Where do you boys live? the Milbridge woman asked her visitors.
“Oh, we’re from Steuben,” the out-of-towners replied.
Steuben’s the first town west of Milbridge, so that shouldn’t be a problem. However, the con men pronounced Steuben as a Germanic “Shtoy-ben,” accent on the first syllable.
The Milbridge woman immediately knew a scam was afoot. Authentic Mainers pronounce Steuben as “Stew-ben,” accent on the second syllable.
One phone call to the authorities, and the out-of-towners were run out of town to the Washington County Jail in Machias (pronounced “Ma-chi-as” by those who care).
Over in western Penobscot County there’s a town called Carmel. In Israel, this town would probably be called “Car-mel,” accent on the second syllable. In Maine, it’s “Car-mel,” accent on the first syllable.
Maine’s largest city is Portland. Anyone who pronounces it as “Port Land” must be from away. North and east from Portland, the name becomes “Port-lund” or “Port-lun,” depending on whether or not the speaker drops the letter D.
And there are other ways to tell who’s a real Mainer and who’s a wannabee. The ultimate test lies in correctly pronouncing the Indian place names that dot Maine.
Names like Molunkus, Mattamiscontis, Penobscot, and Wytopitlock. Tourists could be excused for pronouncing the last place as “Why-top-it-lock,” even for wondering if it’s on the map (yes, in Reed Plantation). The natives know Wytopitlock exists, though, and know it’s pronounced “Wit-o-pit-lock,” with the accent usually placed on the third syllable — or simply reduced to “Pitlock.”
What about Mattawamkeag, a town that showed up as “Mattawamk” in the 1994 edition of the “Maine Atlas and Gazetteer”? Bad enough that tourists can’t pronounce the correct name… and the issue was corrected in later editions.
Tourists should also try their tongues on Skowhegan, Norridgewock, Magalloway, and Damariscotta.
And Saco. It’s not “Say-ko,” but “Sock-o.” In Maine, Seiko is a watch, not a city.