One man's dialect is another's 'rubber band'

My friend Gillian's voice on the answering machine never fails to make me smile. She's not only marvelously, sincerely upbeat, she's also Australian, and I find few things as easy on my ears as a down-under accent.

"Could you tell Charlie," her message began, "that I have some aluminium and other scrap metal if you want to come by and pick it up?"

Aluminium! Gillian's voice makes the light, malleable stuff of lawn chairs and cooking pots sound like spun gold. The American spelling and pronunciation, dropping the final "i," sounds just plain dull by comparison. But then I'm a soft touch for dialects, including the subtle regional distinctions discernible within my own country. Charlie's blend of rural midland and Southern cadences - in my mind he embodies the best of both dialects - won me over long ago.

I realize that some people - notably children - have a gift for languages and their dialects. They quickly learn to communicate in the vernacular wherever they find themselves. I also know that I am not one of these.

Though I came to love the voices of Yorkshire when I once lived near Leeds, England, it was largely an affair of the heart. My ears strained for purchase in the robust rural lingo of the moors and dales. Earlier that same year, while near Zurich, Switzerland, I'd also struggled mightily to understand and to make myself understood in the local dialect. I could read and haltingly speak High German; Zuri-Deutsche was vastly more musical - and challenging. Entering a shop, I'd venture a confident "Gruzi" ("Gruss Gott" in German; "praise God" in English), hoping not to trigger yet another polite and indulgent English "Can I help you?" If I succeeded, my first attempt at a full sentence invariably did me in.

Onkel Robi commiserated, and told me of a tourist he'd overheard "expertly" interpreting a pedestrian traffic light for his wife.

"When it says 'Gee-hee,' that means 'go.' " For anyone who knows that the German Gehe begins with a hard "G" and ends with a short "e," this was deliciously funny - and I suddenly felt better about my limitations with the talk of the town. I also learned that if you travel from one Swiss valley to another, you encounter folks who may not understand one another with complete, fluent ease. I felt better still.

The tables were later turned when the Swiss cousins I'd lived with on the Zurisee came to America. Tino tried vainly to order the only available lunch from a hot dog stand in Baton Rouge, but the clipped precision of his foreign pronunciation threw the vendor off her slapdash rhythm with relish and buns. His wife, Babbi, stepped up and - with a credible Southern drawl - asked for a "hot dauuuwg" on his behalf. She has the gift. That there was any doubt whatsoever about Tino's own order goes to show what interpretive challenges unaccustomed accents can present.

My favorite story of this kind comes from a friend who took a trip to Scotland a few years back.

Arriving in the small village of Alloway, he was asked by a proud resident if he knew that this was where "rubber bands" had originated. Rich, a professional photographer, has a marvelous eye, but a linguistic ear about like mine.

Taken aback (rubber bands are eminently useful but hardly worth bragging about), he wisely kept his council and wholeheartedly agreed that this was a distinction, indeed. Then it dawned on him that Alloway's claim to fame is Robert (Robbie) Burns. So much depends on dialect.

As for Gillian's aluminium, we indeed picked it up. It won't fetch a higher price at the scrap yard than its "i-less" counterpart, but it sure sounds as if it should. As Robert Burns is to rubber bands, so is the poetry of another way of speaking to ones native tongue.

I'm told that I don't speak with the typical accent of my native upstate New York. Maybe it's because my mother hails from Florida and was raised a Quaker to boot. She still "thees" and "thous" her New Jersey cousins. Or, it might have to do with travel and the influence of international friendships. Not to mention my three decades of immersion in the linguistic milieu of the semirural Midwest. Indeed, I live very near the birthplace of another poet - James Whitcomb Riley.

Come this fall and winter, when the smoke again rises up the "chimbley" and the "hickernuts" come "rattlin down," I'll pull out one of Riley's volumes and "waller" awhile in the delightfully down-home Hoosier dialect. It's a linguistic journey that always bears repeating. The best thing is that the dialect of books can be digested at one's own pace - which is slower for some of us than for others.

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