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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Plain Talkin'

What the Old Timers Said. Vermonters, such as the ones shown above, frequently used a visit to the local general store to swap stories and discuss the weather. But not too much.

Plain Talkin' in West Newbury. "Oxen were better for breakin' out then horses." This is how Arthur Carleton responded to an interview in 1938. This 1899 photograph shows oxen being used on the Carleton Farm in West Newbury. (West Newbury Women's Fellowship)

Journal Opinion , September 28, 2011

The old Vermonter said, “Oxen was better for breakin’ out then horses for when they’d come to a snag on a stump or a root, they’d ease off. Horses are better for snowrollin.’ Made quite a sight, six-seven pair horses, heavy fellers, too, big rollers squinchin’ over the snow and the rocks tumblin’ and thumpin,’ steam comin’ out o’ the horses’ noses, an’ men a shoutin.”

No, this is not a script for a television parody on rural Vermont life. These comments are taken from a 1938 interview with West Newbury farmer Arthur Carleton for the Federal Writers’ Project. Carleton spoke with the traditional Vermont accent and dialect. This column describes that dialect and how those words are spoken. It also lists some of the words and expressions that were common to this region in years past. As there is a whole raft of them, with tongue in cheek, I only scratch the surface of that task.

The Europeans who settled southern New England were British: English, Scottish and Scot-Irish. Many of the English came from southwestern England and spoke with the accent of that region. Settlers from southern New England settled our region and brought with them the traditional way of speaking. It has been said that the traditional Vermont way of speaking is quite similar to the traditional dialect of East Anglia, on the southeast coast of England. In Vermont, that dialect continued through much of the 19th and early 20th century, especially among those who were most isolated by their rural settings.

Contact with Native Americans and through the unique experiences of Vermont life brought some changes to the traditional vocabulary. Names on the land included traditional native titles, e.g. Ompompanoosuc or Cohase. A farmer in Vermont knew that “apron-off” was the test to determine whether maple sap was cooked enough to be finished syrup and a late snow was poor man’s manure.

Linguists such as Alan A. Metcalf say that Vermont has a “divided linguistic personality.” The Connecticut River valley shares the speech patterns of eastern New England, whereas western Vermont is more like that of western Connecticut and northern New York.

Some examples of the eastern rustic dialect include letter dropping. That means not sounding the “g” from words ending in “ing” (hayin’), swallowing the “r” in words such as farmer (farm-uh) and the “t” sound in words such as bottle (baht-ul).

It also includes adding extra sounds, dragging out or substituting sounds. Calf sounds like “caaf”and idea like “ideer.” Regardless become irregardless. Words that are plural sometimes have an extra “s” sound added. Recall the Ames’s store in North Haverhill. Yes and no are “yup” and “nope. Pumpkin is spoken as “punkin.” Across is pronounced as if it ended with an “ed” or “t” .

This traditional accent has been described by writers from away as droll, twangy, gravelly, flat, slow, clipped, nasal, chewy and even as thick as, “overcooked maple syrup.”

Of course, not all Vermonters spoke this way. Those Vermonters with more education usually lost most, if not all, of any dialect lilt they might have gained in childhood. Immigrants had their own way of speaking, even when speaking in English. The French, Irish and Italian immigrants added their variations to the collective language.

Our region had a strong Scottish presence. Mrs. Robert (Elizabeth) Oliver of West Newbury was interviewed in 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project. Of Scottish descent, she said: “Aye, I’ve the twa boys and four gels. Ooh, the times we’ve had. I come awa’ t’ this country twenty-eight years past. We furrst wint t’ Michigan where Rabert he’d some o’ his family t’come too. I dinnd like it there. It wasna’ like home t’ me.”

The linguistic division caused by the Green Mountains was also seen in the words used to describe things. Teeter-totters in eastern Vermont were sometimes called see-saws in the western region, fire-flies were lightening bugs, dropped eggs were poached and dish wipers became dishcloths.

The rise of standard English as spoken on radio, television and schools along with the significant influx of tourists and permanent residents from other states have hastened the decline of the more rustic accent. Under the influence of this nationalized language, words that were commonly used have disappeared while new ones were added. For years, I made frappes at the Fairlee Diner, until McDonald’s began to call those ice cream delights shakes. At that time, we had no idea what Tex-Mex foods like enchiladas or burritos were.

UVM Professor Julie Roberts has published several studies on Vermont’s traditional speech patterns. She finds it still exists, at least to some extent, among both older and younger generations of Vermonters.

She writes: “All speakers use language as a way to affiliate with (or dis-affiliate from) others. In Vermont, men tend to be more likely than women to affiliate with the traditional, agrarian lifestyle of Vermont, and are, therefore, more likely to retain a stronger dialect.”

Two generations of my students included in their conversations one of the most common grammatical mistakes in the Vermont vocabulary. It is the substitution of “didn’t” for “did, as in: “I went to the movies last night. Well, so didn’t I.” I hear the speech patterns in stores, meetings and when a group of traditional Vermonters gather in their dooryard to chew the fat.

Nothing in this column should be construed to say that I think rural speakers are dumb. I grew up around men with very strong local accents. Woe be it to the person who took that as a sign of ignorance. I recently spoke to Joe Sampson of Bradford about the dialect he picked up from childhood contacts. Sampson is proud of that accent. He says it has served him well in dealing with others, who, because of that accent, underestimated his ability to uphold his side of a discussion.

Just as speech patterns have changed in our region, words and expressions have also undergone change. Bradford historian Harold Haskins, author Charles Edward Crane and Burlington Free Press writer Molly Walsh offer many examples of words and expressions used in times past. Many of them have been part of the vocabulary of my growing up.

Things around the house were called tumbler (water glass), spider (frying pan), nappy (small serving dish), all of which might be stored in the buttery or pantry. If ma had enough gumption (pep) after a day of hard work galore, she might stodge up a suppa. The youngin’ might wait out on the stoop (steps). The folks never thought to splurge by going to a hifalutin’ vittlery, that would be “livin’ high on the hog.” “Thingamajig” was what you called an item when the proper name eluded you. .

Events of life were described in terms that have disappeared. A guy might have a girl on the string and might call her the cat’s meow, that is, quite a rig. But if she was no longer interested, she would give him the mitten. From his point of view, that might be just hunky dorey, water over the dam. A person who died had bought the farm and was dead as a doornail.

Vermonters were careful with their hard-earned money; it was scarcer than hen’s teeth for many. But they might criticize a skinflint (miserly cheat) who was tighter than the bark on a tree. There was little patience for laziness or failure to act with intelligence. One might be described as a bump on a log, too dumb to suck alum and drool or pound sand in a rat hole. There was also contempt for the educated fool.

Individuals might be busier than a one-armed paper-hanger with the itch, independent as a hog on ice, or have a face that would stop a clock. They might be mad as a wet hen, fit as a fiddle, as quick as greased lightning or slower than molasses. There were those who felt bluer’n a whetstone or stood out like a blackberry in a pan of milk. Things might be just a fine kettle of fish or perhaps even fair to middlin’.

There are words frequently used today that would never be used in days past, at least in polite company. What passed for profanity in those days might be expressed by any of the following: land o’Goshen, for the love of Mike, land sakes alive, my stars and garters, shucks, my soul and body, fiddlesticks, jeezum crow or the more profane hell’s bells.

They knew proverbs of vernacular advice. Living close to the edge, many Vermont farmers recalled the adage: Half your wood and hay you should have on Candlemas Day” (Groundhog Day). Others included: least said, sooner mended, mind your p’s and q’s and let every man skin his own skunks.

With “Silent Cal” Coolidge as an example, Vermonters became known for being laconic in their speech. The expressions are, in a way, examples of that. They create a familiar picture in the mind with a simple simile or metaphor. While some may not be much of a hand to talk, I have spent too many sleepy evenings waiting for my Vermont-born father to finish discussing a deal to say that all Vermonters are short on speech. I have, over the years, enjoyed stories told by my elders, often in the greatest detail, even if the incident occurred decades before.

I always encouraged my students to talk with the elders they knew. I will never forget the terse response that one elder East Corinth resident gave to the student question: “Did you ever go to a city?” The reply was: “Went once. Didn’t like it. Never went back!”

Even for those who are short on speech, the weather is always a topic for discussion. There is of course, the old saying about weather in New England: “If you don’t like it wait a minute.” Rain before seven, done by eleven or fog goes up the mountin’ a-hopping, rain comes down a droppin’ might be a guide to a farmer planning his day. Seasons bring days that are hotter than the hubs of hell or colda than your grandma’s preserves.

Writing this column as summer draws to a close, I am thinking there might be frost on the pumpin’ tonight. I should look to see what the bands on a wooley caterpillar coat are as a predictor of the harshness of the coming winter and know that when there’s snow on Moosilauke, it will be in my dooryard in six weeks.

Tradition has shown that many Vermonters display a terse sense of humor, “that loves understatement.” It lives in the dry comment or retort. Forty years ago, Dartmouth professor Allen Foley collected some examples of that humor in a book entitled, What the Old-Timer Said (to the Feller from Down-Country and even to His Neighbor—when He Had It Coming!)

Foley was a frequent speaker at gathering throughout the valley. You may actually have had the opportunity to use one of his favorite retorts when asked: “Lived here all your life?” to which you respond, “Not yet!”

Foley writes: “Yankees from the hill-country are noted for responding to questions by asking one of their own, as epitomized in the exchange: “How’s your wife?” a neighbor inquired. “Compared to what?” was the canny counter query.”

Personally, my ear is tuned to hear the words spoken with a traditional way either in myself or others. I have been addressed as Mr. Mawdratah and have addressed others as Mister Man or Lady Jane. While I may not know what it means to be a ringed-tailed snorter or to bust a gusset, I do know what it means to feel like I have been dragged through a knothole, have too many irons in the fire or be pulled in forty-‘leven different directions.

Readers will undoubtedly have examples of the local dialect, accent and humor from both sides of the river. Those parts of our language help to define our traditional culture in a voice that is different and to many, more familiar. Hearing that voice brings back memories of local folks we have known in our past, in both rural and village settings. And while this article has not listed the whole kit and kaboodle, for now, its nuff said!

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