Our theme for the month of September is Alphabet Soup. Each writer was assigned a letter and will title their post “___ is for ___.” We take a short break from the traditional English alphabet today.
/wɛn sʌnlaɪʔ stʃɹaɪks ɹeɪndʒɹɑps ɪn ðə ɛɹ | ðeɪ ækt æz ə pɹɪzm̩ n̩d foɹm ə ɹeɪnboʊ/
The goofy symbols you see above are me. Specifically, my accent. It’s a phonetic transcription, using the conventions of the International Phonetic Alphabet, of me speaking the first sentence of the “Rainbow Passage,” a standardized, public-domain text used by linguistic researchers to compare dialect features of English. In English orthography, it reads, “when sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow.”
This is me.
Perhaps you inferred this, but /æ/ is the IPA symbol for the first phoneme in the word “accent.” It also happens to be the first phoneme in my first name. It’s pronounced “ash,” and if you’re typing on a Mac, you can hold option + apostrophe to type it. /æ/ also happens to be a highlight feature of the Inland North American English accent, the accent I was raised with. In Grand Rapids (as well as Milwaukee, Cleveland, Syracuse, etc.) we say our /æ/, well, super /æ/-y.
With thanks to Dr. Bill Vande Kopple, sometime around 2011, I learned intellectually that I had an accent of my own. Through my early twenties, while studying linguistics, I absorbed knowledge about sociolinguistic variation. I learned to mimic other English accents while travelling to other regions. I took surveys and looked at maps. I knew I had an accent.
But I still couldn’t hear it. I knew it was there, but my brain couldn’t register my own voice as anything other than baseline. Normal.
And then I moved.
In August of 2015, my dad and I crammed my meager collection of possessions into his Volkswagen Jetta and drove across an isogloss to my new home in Minneapolis, where I would begin graduate study. On a map of dialect variation, an “isogloss” is a line that separates distinct features. I changed an aspect of my identity when I relocated, and my speech began to change with it.
The shift was a slow and somewhat nuanced burn. I didn’t really notice anything until the second time I went home for winter break, when I noticed abruptly that all of my family members were speaking in a way that registered as different. Shortly after, my mom told me that sometimes she heard me say things like a Minnesotan.
Clear, broad distinctions exist between Inland Northern American English (that’s you, Grand Rapidians) and North-Central American English (that’s you, Minnesotans). You hear it mostly in the vowels. The difference lends itself well to parody (think Frances McDormand in Fargo), and it looks good on a map. Many of us likely think of different dialects as fitting into neat boxes like this. They’re easier to handle that way.
But if you zoom in to the level of individual speakers, things start to get weird in a way that’s kind of beautiful. Sociolinguist William Labov calls this an “uncommon eloquence.”
An example: I had a friend from college who was born and raised in Michigan, but her extended family had their roots in the southern United States. Most of the time she talked like me, unless she was talking about football—then it was full-on Deep South. The accent change was context-based (like it always is); it was just a really specific context.
This past July, I drove to Grand Haven to stay with my parents for a week. I heard in real time my accent shift back as I talked to my parents, and then shift back again as I returned to Minnesota with Sarah (herself Minneapolis-born and Fargo-raised). This is the new normal for me.
Our speech bears various imprints of the people we’ve been, or are, or want to be. So when I say “Plaster Creek,” the second word sounds like crick, but when I say “Target,” the first vowel sounds roughly like a rising note on a slide flute. But I also say “soda” because my cousins in California say “soda” and, when I was eleven, I thought that was smarter than saying “pop.” And I say “alright” with glottal fry and without the L when I want to sound cool and masculine. Part of the way I speak is a geographical history, but part of it’s ambition and in-grouping and self-identification. It’s my own Mirror of Galadriel.
It turns out we can say a lot just by speaking.