Ultralingua

I have a terrible, terrible habit of affecting the speech patterns of people I find fascinating. This is particularly true if the person has a fascinating accent. It’s less apparent now, since I’ve been speaking with my own voice and accent for the better part of thirty-seven years. In days past, however, it was tough for me not to pick up others’ vocal quirks. I was like a linguistic petri dish: insert a few unusual morphemes and incubate. VoilĂ .

In eighth grade, I spent a week at a camp where one of the counsellors was from a rather aboriginal part of Australia. She was wicked cool, mostly because she had the darkest, longest, curliest leg hair I ever saw, I know this because she only shaved from the knees down. Where she came from, ladies didn’t shave their legs (or anything else). And that was that. But since she was in the States, where just about everything (!) below-neck must be completely hairless to be considered appropriate, she made a courteous gesture of shaving her shins and calves. The important distinction was that she didn’t do it to fit in. She did it to be polite. And I was drawn to her like a magnet, partly because of her curious leg-hair and partly because she had a really, really neat accent.

By the time the week was up, I was saying things like “mate”, contorting all of my vowels like a foreign movie dub track, and having a heck of a time remembering whether or not “colour” had a “u” in it. I was completely besotted with this young woman, and I wanted to be just like her– at least, I wanted to talk like her. It was largely unconscious, too. And I think it wasn’t until the end of summer before my mid-continent un-accent returned.

After college, I lived a year in Pittsburgh, where there are some rather distinct vocal mannerisms. Shortly after moving back to my hometown, I went to a party at a high school friend’s house. Two different people commented that I had an “accent”. I didn’t use the common Pittsburghese colloquialisms, like “yins” [yinz] (meaning “you guys”) or “Dahn-nair” (meaning “down there”), but they both said I sounded a lot different. I still catch myself saying “rAAH-diator” instead of “rAY-diator”. What can I say? It’s a tough habit to break.

Somewhere else, I learned to say “soda” instead of “pop”. ‘Round these parts, just about everyone calls it “pop”. I can’t stand that. It’s “soda”. I’d go along with “soda-pop”, but “pop” all on its own is something you do to a button or a balloon. Then again, try going down to Alabama, where anything carbonated is called “a coke”. Can you imagine how confusing it is to tell the waitress you want “a Coke” and hear her reply, “diet, regular, or Sprite?”

Yesterday, I noticed my older daughter affecting different voices as she played with her Little People. The princess-girl has a normal DD1 voice, but the King-man has a deep, gruff one when she plays with them. She also likes to read out loud and use different voices for characters in her books. Sometimes she will use a silly voice, or she’ll roar, or even sing-song the words. We say the A-B-Cs together often, and she gets a kick out of it when I do a high-pitched, squealy “eeeee” followed by a deep, baritone “EFFFFF”. It’s even funnier when she imitates me.

I don’t know if DD1 has inherited my sponginess when it comes to language, but she does have an affinity for it. She loves it, which I did (do), too. She gravitated towards words and letters extremely early on, and seems more interested in language every day. My husband has started teaching her a little bit of Italian, and even though neither he nor I speak a second language fluently, she is starting to use her few Italian words without a second thought. It is fascinating to see her discover words and build her vocabulary, and then even more fun to watch as she plays around with manipulating and testing the words she already knows.

DD2 is starting to spread her linguistic wings now, too. She went from repeating the same syllable twice (e.g., “wa-wa” for “water”) to changing the second syllable to something slightly different (e.g., now she says “wa-wie” for “water”). She’s done this with several words: “La-la” (Cinderella) is now “La-lie”, and “Nana” (gramma) is “Na-nie”, to name a couple. She likes to make silly sounds, too, and silly faces to go with them. It is amazing to watch their speech progress from essential raw function to an art/play medium.

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