Vermont Accent: Endangered Species?
WATERBURY - Early in the morning at The Feed Bag, a local eatery in a dilapidated barn off Main Street, the oldtimers gather to talk about logging, taxes and the sap run. As much as the substance of their conversation suggests that they grew up in Vermont, their accents almost guarantee it. When Dwaine Marshall, a logger who sold the family dairy farm in the early 1960s, confides that he never did like "ka-ows" much, it's cows he's referring to. And when Marshall proclaims, "I be 80 in June," his manner of speaking seems to symbolize Vermont as much as the plaid wool cap that sits on his head.
Long before Larry, Darryl and Darryl popularized a "yup-nope" parody of the Vermont accent in the Vermont-set sitcom, Newhart, the Green Mountain State was known for a Yankee dialect that might not be as identifable as Maine's or Boston's, but is still a vital part of the state's heritage. However, the rural isolation that preserved the accent from one generation to another is slipping away with the Vermont family farm. And as more non-natives move to Vermont, and children grow up listening to standard English at school and on television, some people worry that the Vermont accent is disappearing and a colorful dialect -- stereotyped by such exclamations as "Christly" and "Jeezum Crow" -- is being replaced by a more homogenous, anywhere-USA-speak.
Careful listeners say the accent is an endangered species in Chittenden County, the state's population center, and a haven for newcomers to Vermont. Hence the saying: "It's nice to live in Chittenden County because it's so near Vermont." Bill Mares, the Burlington co-author of "Real Vermonters Don't Milk Goats," says he rarely hears the distinctive Vermont accent he noticed when he moved to Vermont in the 1970s. "You're just as likely to hear a Rumanian or Russian or Czech accent in Chittenden County as you are to hear a real Vermont accent," Mares said. Statewide, 57 percent of Vermont residents were natives as of 1990, down from 62 percent in 1980 and 72 percent in 1960.
Vat of chocolate
Any infusion of outsiders to an area is bound to dilute the dialect of the native speakers, said Gayle Belin, a clinical supervisor at the E.M. Luse Center, the clinical arm of the University of Vermont's Department of Communication Sciences. "If you have a vat of chocolate sauce and you slowly add butterscotch, pretty soon you are going to overwhelm it and it's going to taste like butterscotch."
The Luse Center has launched a study to help define the Vermont dialect and document sub-dialects within the state. If the Vermont accent is fading, speech expert Julie Roberts will be surprised. "What's happening in general in this country is that dialects are not dying out," said Roberts, a UVM assistant professor of communication sciences, and director of the study. "In fact they are becoming stronger. It's very much a way to signal group membership."
The trademarks of the accent include: Broad "a" and "e" sounds, making calf sound more like "caaf" and there like "thair"; dropping of the post-vocalic "r," making farmer sound more like "farm-uh"; and the swallowing of "t" sounds made by a momentary closure of the glottis, making bottle and Milton sound more like "baht-ul" and "Milt-uhn." The Vermont dialect, like other New England accents, also can be identified by a tendency to add "r" to words like idea, making it into "idee-er."
Another feature is the habit of dragging out one-syllable words such as "that" into "thay-at." A more exaggerated version of this tendency is also a trademark of some Maine accents, making "there" into "they-uh." The Maine accent leans toward even longer and broader vowel sounds than the Vermont accent, resulting in the pronunciation of bath, as "baaahth," for example.
But speakers in the two states share some pronunciations, said Gerald Lewis, the Garland, Maine, author of "How to Talk Yankee," a book about Maine expressions. "Accents make regional expressions more authentic. "When they are rendered properly in the idiom, the accent makes the expression more colorful," Lewis said.
The accent's origins
Conventional wisdom holds that around Vermont there are audible differences in the dialect. And according to Roberts, geographical barriers such as rivers and mountains can separate speakers and result in subdialects. Ethnic groups also have an impact. In central and northern Vermont, for example, the influence of French-Canadian immigrants is heard in the way English is spoken and the use of French instead of English.
But Vermont was primarily settled by the English and many features of the Vermont accent can be traced directly to England, said Ralph Aldrich, associate professor of English at Lyndon State College in Lyndonville. One example: The dropping of the post vocalic "r", as in "farm-uh" and "heif-uh" is common in London and North London, where many New England colonists were born.
If it is dying out, the loss represents much more than a few broad vowels and dropped consonants. The accent is the hallmark of oldtime Vermonters who prided themselves on saying more with less, said Vermont native Norm Lewis. "Correct English was not as important as what you said."
Lewis ought to know. The retired Derby Line school superintendent grew up on a "10-cow starvation farm" and has popularized the values of his rural childhood by creating a fictitious alter-ego known as Danny Gore. Gore, a.k.a. Lewis, has run for governor (and lost) every term since the 1960s.
Because the Vermont accent is spoken by relatively few people, and because it is fairly close to standard English, it is not widely imitated or known in the national pop culture.
Hard to capture
But within the state, the accent has long been regarded as a unique aspect of Vermont's character. Many Vermont writers have tried to capture it on the page. They include Rowland Robinson, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, D. L. Cady and David Budbill. Irasburg novelist Howard Frank Mosher has never tried to convey the accent in his writing, although he often incorporates syntax and phrases that are common in Vermont. When actor Rip Torn was hired to portray on film the Vermont logger that Mosher created in his novella, "Where the Rivers Flow North," the actor tried briefly to learn the Vermont accent. He eventually scrapped the effort. "It isn't anything that can be picked up in five or six days," Mosher said.
The writer, who was raised in upstate New York, heard a distinct Vermont accent when he moved to the Northeast Kingdom in the mid-1960s.Now it's disappearing, along with some of the expressions that Mosher delighted in hearing, such as the ironical "yes sir," the heated "Christly" and the enthusiastic "Mister Man." The result is a more homogenous way of speaking. "As these phrases are lost the language becomes less colorful and less precise and further away from nature," Mosher said. "And that is sad."
Burlington Free Press