Years ago, when I landed in Dublin after the long flight from Denver via Heathrow, I popped into a cab for a ride to my hotel.
My cab driver was a chatty lad, carrying on a one-sided conversation in which he’d rattle off a few sentences in rapid-fire fashion; turn his head back over the seat for a quick look in my direction; and ask, “D’yaknowwhatuhmean?”
This continued for the entire 30-minute cab ride. Even though he was speaking English, the ONLY part of his conversation I understood was his repetitive “Do you know what I mean?” Each time I would dutifully respond “yes” – sometimes even an enthusiastic, emphatic “YES!” – despite not having a clue what he was saying.
I’ve never forgotten the first time someone told me I have an accent.
At the time, I lived in Michigan and was driving through the beautiful limestone hills and small towns of rural Missouri.
“What do you mean I have an accent? You Missourians are nothing BUT accents!” I thought to myself.
When I moved to Colorado, I learned what people meant by the ‘flat vowel’ Michigan accent.
Colorado accents, if any, are subtle. I can’t really point to any distinct accent markers that scream Rocky Mountain region; it’s more the absence of markers that gives us our accent-less distinction. Colorado vowels, when spoken, are more clipped and upright – if that makes any sense.
No drawl; no nasal tone; no drawn-out, fading finish to our high-altitude vowels.
I like to think I’ve lost my flat-vowel, Midwest ‘tell’. After all, I’ve lived in Colorado more than half my life.
There was one little bugaboo, however, in my Colorado accent-less immersion that puzzled me in recent years. Every time I’d say the word ‘bag’ – and I’ve said it a lot the last 10 years because we’re often schlepping overnight bags, food bags and activity bags to and from our grandkids’ house – my daughter-in-law would say, in a slightly mocking (although still affectionate) way, “There you go with your Midwest b-a-a-a-a-g.”
“What the hell; I’m pronouncing it like everyone else!” I’d think to myself each time.
Finally one evening last winter, I’d had enough. When she made her predictable comment, I objected.
“Ba-a-a-a-g”, I said defensively (but affectionately). “Like bay or bake or baby or razor. I don’t see why you comment on the way I say bag. I say it just like I say all those other words. LONG A“
After a pregnant pause, she – a Colorado native and elementary school teacher – said gently, “Actually, the ‘A’ in bag is a short ‘A’, not a long ‘A’.”
“What-t-t-t-t ?!?” (my thought bubble)
“It is not!” I said incredulously. “It’s a long ‘A’.”
“No,” using her patient teacher tone. “It’s short; like map or rat or tan.”
“It can’t be.” I protested. “It’s always been ba-a-a-a-g. Long ‘A’.”
Hub – who can’t, by any stretch, call himself a linguist – piped up, “Parker’s right. It’s a short ‘A’ in bag.”
Out came my 1970 Webster’s Dictionary backed up by my I-Pad Wiktionary search.
“What … The … Hell? Call the Word Police. Someone screwed up, and it can’t possibly be me!”
Alas, in Michigan even though we boiled in a pan, took a nap, swung a bat, we:
Cleaned with a ra-a-a-a-g
Carried a ba-a-a-a-g
Not so in Colorado (or in Webster’s Dictionary either for that matter) …
Now I find myself mimicking Raqi when she was three years old and constantly whispering words to herself to sear them into her toddler brain.
“Lap, mat, bag … ran, pat, bag … map, brat, bag …”, I chant just loudly enough to reach my own ears.
I’m not sure I’m all that successful at mastering my personal vowel paradigm. No worries. It’s a measure of my fondness for my Michigan roots that I now take my suitcase and pouch to visit my grandkids, and take my ba-a-a-a-gs on my trips to Michigan.
Photos courtesy of Google Images