Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue
- From William Shakespeares Hamlet
It isnt just the weather and the height of the corn in July that distinguishes the North from the South. No, as I learned again during my recent journey above the Mason-Dixon line, its also the way we talk - tawk, tahk, toke, whatever. And no word advertises that difference more clearly than the way we two halves of the country say the word aunt.
I may be Grandma to five children here in Georgia, but when I visit the homes of my brothers and their children, Im Auntie Barbara - not Anti Barbara - a dozen times over. Still, good, when-in-Rome Southerner that I am, I grit my teeth and say ant like the rest of you when Im down here, lest I give the impression of putting on airs. But when Im in auntie country, if I dont want to give a similar negative impression, Id better mind my ps and us.
Maybe its retribution. Growing up in Maine where we pahk the cah and call our parents fah-thuh and muh-thuh, Ive known a fair share of teasing about the way I tawk, too. So when I came South and met my equals in mispronunciation, I thought it was time to do a little teasing myself. Thats why I pretend to make such a big deal about the ant/aunt business and ask, Why do you leave the U out of aunt, and put it in pajaumas?
My son noticed the language barrier right away. The second-grade genius hadnt missed a spelling word in his young life until his first test at Bel Air Elementary School. Mum, he explained, Id never heard the word, whee-ut. It seems his teacher thought she was saying what. I understood my sons dilemma. I cant tell you how many Ginnys, Jennys, and Jeanies we misnamed because we couldnt get the hang of the Southern vowel E.
Language, I learned when I was taking spelling tests, too, is not an exact science. I think thats why Id rather teach music than first grade. A quarter note is always a quarter note and a C is always a C. Not so with any language, as I discovered in a German-American conversation class several years ago. After one of my German classmates read the word tomb as if it were spelled t-o-m-e, I dutifully corrected her by pronouncing it t-u-m-e, just like its spelled, I smiled.
Then why do you pronounce c-o-m-b like c-o-m-e? she asked. I didnt have the heart to tell her our come isnt pronounced like home, which she thought rhymed with her guess at the word tomb in the first place, but like kum, an obvious imitation of the word plum, right? Nor did I go on to explain the difference between bomb, comb, tomb, and dumb - which Im sure she then would have rhymed with my corrected rendition of tomb. I also saved fume and ex-hume for another day.
Feeling defensive, however, I thought Id point out that the German language has its flaws, too. To illustrate, I took their words for the English word on - all of them: auf, an, and am. The latter, I told them, I understood to be a contraction of on and the, but why, I wanted to know, do the Germans have one word - auf - for on the table or anything horizontal, and another - an - for on the wall?
I can understand your problem with on the wall and on the table, Grete said, but I dont understand why you use the same word for "on Monday.
She had me there, and I had to agree with the instructor: You dont question language; you accept it.
But I still think I have a good case for aunt and pajamas. Do the snobbish flant their airs, ghosts hant our houses, and soldiers march undanted into war? Do folks take pictures with a cawmera, serve hawm at Easter, and sawmple smothered vawmpire at a Halloween buffet?
Ill make a deal: Ill accept your misplaced or mispronounced vowels if youll forgive me when I drop an R or slip in a forbidden U now and then. After all, its tough moving to a different part of your own country and having to learn variations on your own language.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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