You Say Potato ...



Anybody who's followed country music over the past few decades has a sense of the homogenization that mass media, mobility and the explosion of cell phones and PCs have wrought upon the American vernacular.

Why, Ernest Tubb would take today's Hollywood Nashvillians for a bunch of Yankees by the sound of them, even if he never caught sight of the T-shirts and blue jeans they substitute for proper stage apparel.

Yet 'n' still, as they say in the Deep South and Southside of Indy, twang is far from gone in the hillbilly music genre; and regional language diversity in general persists across this great wide land where everybody is subjected to pretty much the same TV. It's still tee-VEE in Chicago and TEE-vee in Biloxi.

Indiana remains a melting pot of regional dialects, with a pidgin tradition all its own.
  • Indiana remains a melting pot of regional dialects, with a pidgin tradition all its own.

I was reminded recently of the difference a few hundred miles can make when I visited family in Central Kentucky, home of the basketball Walled-Cats and grits for breakfast in a franchise restaurant.

Settling in, I found that "Wildcats" sounded funny coming out of my Northern mouth, and my conversation overall geared down to what felt like a buttery draw but, no doubt, still hit resident ears with the choppiness of a Norwegian bachelor farmer from Lake Wobegon.

This absolute relativity has had special resonance for me for many years. It began with my trek to college in Milwaukee, where the Hoosier dialect I'd assumed was the national norm was remarked, and even ridiculed, as "Southern."

It wasn't until I returned to Indianapolis to live and work four years later that I noticed that the typical Indianan now sounded like a Kentuckian.

In my childhood, Southern meant Kentuckian. Now, Kentuckian sounded Mississippian. Of course, when one has spent a good deal of time in Wisconsin, where talkers TOCK and sentences end with HEY ONCE DERE and the favorite sports team is the GRIN BEY PECKERS, Detroit can seem like Dixie.

Pictured is the headstone of Mary Alice gray, inspiration for the famous poem "Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley. - PHOTO BY RHONDA HUNTER
  • Photo by Rhonda Hunter
  • Pictured is the headstone of Mary Alice gray, inspiration for the famous poem "Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley.

Indiana, where there's nothing special about pronouncing it SPATIAL and you can go to JELL if the cops NELL you, adheres linguistically to its image as America's northernmost Southern city and southernmost Northern one. The peculiarity erodes every year, of course, as our small towns crawl toward extinction and cities absorb immigrants from both coasts and various continents.

Yet I can still joke that I'm bilingual -- speaking English and Hoosier -- and draw the laugh of recognition that affirms a shared distinction, a folk gospel that may have elements of myth (like snowstorms at hoops tournament time) but commands lots of anecdotal fact to back it up.

Go a little north or a bit south, and forget myth. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's oval polka-night syllables and Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's sorghum-laced chords may not carry messages everybody in their states cares to hear, but they speak the people's tongue in the strict auditory sense.

Either man would need a larynx transplant to run for office in Indiana (where it's LAR-nix); but if Walker prevails in his current venture (Don't get me started), it won't be the first time America has elected a president who talks funny.

What's really funny about people talking funny is their awareness of it. I've already mentioned Hoosierisms. My Kentucky folks will get going on the scourge of "sugar DIE-betes," shortened often to "my sugar," and the need to take a SHAR after you've gotten all pitiful from changing your flat TAR. In Superior, Wisconsin, up DERE by DA big Leck, the guy who says "O, ja, she'sgonna be a cold one, eh" may be just talking or may be parodying his grandfather.


Writers notice and use all this, and do so without patronizing, if they're really listening to the music that speakers themselves often catch and savor. The Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry, for all his erudition, rhapsodizes about "what good talkers" country people were back in the day, and laments the fading of a tradition that managed just fine with its double negatives and dropped Gs from "ing" long before formal, standardized education established its tyranny.

"Have you one 'o them maters," a young produce seller said to me years ago. "They eats like candy." Was it Hoosier, down yonder or hybrid he was speaking? Ethnographers could parse it, I suppose. I'm just glad I was there to catch it when, like Halley's comet and Conway Twitty, it flew splendidly by.

Feelin' plumb fluent in Hoosier or neighbor palaver? Share your favorite expressions with us and prove you didn't just fall off the potahto truck.

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