Accent the positive

He thinks he has curbed his New Jersey accent but sometimes it springs free like a wild animal escaping its cage.

I have always been skeptical of people who claim to pick up the accents of the places they visit. For example, a friend of mine from Maine spent a summer in Edinburgh some years back and returned with his tongue aflutter in a mean Scottish burr, bent on going to McDonald's for a "ham-burrr-gerrr."

Although such affectations provide conversational interest, I don't believe an adult can easily lose something so deeply imprinted as an accent or manner of speaking. I think of some of my foreign-born friends who have been in this country for decades and speak English well, though with very pronounced Russian, French, or Spanish glosses.

My impression is that the tongue and facial muscles accommodate themselves to the peculiar sounds of one's native language very early on and are resistant to reeducation in adulthood. Like our minds, they become set in their ways.

As for myself, although I have lived in Maine for more than 20 years, my roots are firmly in New Jersey. And nowhere is this more apparent than in my speech. My stomping ground when I was growing up was Hudson County – the part of New Jersey that is most often satirized for its fractured grammar ("he don't got none") and blended words (jeet – "did you eat?").

Here in Maine I teach at a university and make conscious efforts to flatten my speech and to speak distinctly and correctly when giving lectures. Otherwise I'd sound like a thug. I take pains to direct my class, "Would you please read Chapter 3?" instead of what comes more naturally: "Would yuz read Chapter Tree?"

Believe me, the struggle has been a mighty one. During my formative years in the 1960s and '70s, when I was running the streets of Jersey City, I thought my state was the center of the world. And I had the evidence to prove it: The Statue of Liberty was down the road, right in my backyard. I hung out with a gang of like-minded neighborhood kids who spoke just like me.

One day – I think I was 12 – something got into me and I made fun of a kind and decent woman who was sitting in a chair in front of Mr. Riley's candy store. Mr. Riley came out and cast an accusing finger at me. " 'Fi ever hear you say dat again, I'm gonna cawl your fadda. Get outta here!"

I scooted home, and Mr. Riley didn't call – or rather, cawl – my fadda. Or my mudda. For that evening, at least, I was safe.

During my time in college, when I interacted with students from all over the country, I grew self-conscious about what I came to regard as my vulgar way of speaking. Poor word choices I could correct – it doesn't take much effort to learn to jettison one's ain'ts. But curbing my accent and grammar was another matter: It was like trying to cage a wild animal. In casual conversation I was largely successful; but when it came to heated arguments, well, the animal leapt from the cage and all of a sudden it was, "Don't gimme dat," "Sez you," and "I don't gotta listen to dis."

I am happy to report that at this juncture I have largely brought the beast under control. Rare is the instance when my enunciation isn't crystal clear. My grammar follows suit: the right tense, subject and object pronouns, and even appropriate use of the subjunctive mood ("If I were you?" as opposed to the Jersey-fied "If I was you?").

Still, I have my moments. During one of my recent university lectures, I found myself really rolling along with a cutting-edge issue in genetics. It was one of those moments when I felt everything was going right and the words were just precipitating onto my tongue. The students seemed engaged and were scribbling notes to keep up. Until I said, "Remember that the sister and the brother of this cross will carry the same trait."

At least, I thought that's what I had said.

My students, for their part, fell silent. Perhaps I had stumped them.

"If you have any questions, now is the time to ask," I said.

A young lady raised her hand.

"Yes?" I prompted.

"What on earth is a 'brudda'?"

Prune the tree as we will, the roots are beyond our reach.

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