Francois de La Rochefoucauld, the 17th century French author, pointed out that, “The accent of one’s birthplace remains in the mind and in the heart as in one’s speech.”
That explains the persistence of my Texas accent, and it’s why many new Americans wanting to speak like native speakers go to their public library and Literacy Council. Toward that end, our library owns “American Accent Training: A Guide to speaking and Pronouncing American English.”
For a textbook it’s fascinating, even for native English speakers. For example, a section titled “What to Do with Your Mouth to Sound American” states, “One of the main difference between the way an American talks and the rest of the world talks is that we don’t really move our lips … We create most of our sounds in the throat, using our tongue very actively.
“If you hold your fingers over your lips or clench your jaws when you practice speaking American English, you will find yourself much closer to native-sounding speech … If you can relate American English to music, remember that the indigenous music is jazz. Listen to their speech music, and you will hear that Americans have a melodic, jazzy way of producing sounds.”
“American Accent Training” was written by authoritative authors and has seen three editions, so it’s reliable; not so “The Top 50 Sexiest Accents in the USA,” an online article from Big 7 Media that “advises” travelers.
The only business description of Big 7 Media I found was a Zambian movie and TV production company, and, since they dubbed the Texas accent as “sexiest” in the nation, that makes sense.
My Texas accent lingers despite three decades among Alaskans, but then the Zambians ranked Alaskans dialect 47th (“A massive migration of Minnesotans during the 1930s means that the Alaska accent sounds all too similar to Minnesota folk”).
Boston, New York and Maine trailed Texas, and 17th was the Cajun accent of Louisiana, considered mighty sexy by many.
The state of Louisiana likes their French-based accent and created the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana to counter a sharp decline in French speakers (100,000 in 2013, down from 250,000 in 1990) by offering French-only elementary classes.
And they’re not alone.
According to the NYTimes.com, “there’s been a ‘growth explosion’ over the last several years of dual-language immersion programs, including in Spanish, Russian and Mandarin.”
This starkly contrasts with a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education that American colleges have recently closed more than 650 foreign-language programs. Only one was cut between 2009-13, but 651 were eliminated between 2013-16.
No one’s intentionally taught Texas English, and for good reason. Like Alaska, the state’s so big it has distinct regional dialects. My wife’s gentle East Texas intonations are more southern than my West Texas twanginess. It took Jim Everhart (a Chicago native) six volumes of his “Illustrated Texas Dictionary” to explain some of the more egregious Texas articulations, such as “blonde: without sight,” as in “love is blonde.”
Other examples include “main: of ugly disposition” (“that’s one main man”), “paypal: a body of persons” (“Where’d all them paypal come from?) and “ast: past tense of ask” (“Who ast ya?).
Even some Texans consider their pronunciations to be perstiferous, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “hurtful to morals or society; mischievous, pernicious.”
The OED provides a grand collection of “pestilence” terms like “pestiduct” (“a channel of the plague, or of any infectious epidemic”) or “pestilentious” (“noxious”).
Georgetown University researchers recently determined that “language is learned in brain circuits that predate humans.” That’s correct; “language is learned in such ancient brain circuits that also are used for tasks as diverse as remembering a shopping list and learning to drive.”
Children learning their first language utilize procedural memory, which also is involved in learning tasks like bicycle riding or playing musical instruments.
Adults learning a new language rely on their declarative memory, which is used to recall shopping lists or what we ate yesterday.
My memory and accent might both be declared deficient, but as the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno said, “All speech is a hazard, oftener than not, it is the hazardous kind of deed.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.