Sunday, March 25, 2012

Regional Accents

For ten years, beginning with the day I entered the Army, I was part of a tossed salad of men of different backgrounds. Among those in their first - perhaps only - hitch there were enlistees and draftees, the latter being older as a class, and sometimes already established in their chosen professions. There were hustlers and slackers, guys who were friendly or remote, rednecks, hillbillies, optimists and pessimists, fast learners and slow learners, cowboys and city slickers, whites, blacks, Hispanics, and even a handful of Asians.

Prior to enlisting I had only set foot in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. New Jersey, where I was sent for basic training, had existed only in books, movies, and geography classes. At seventeen I was provided with a whole new view of the population. In some cases differences in speech were much more striking than differences in appearance due to race.

For me the most difficult accents to understand were those of the Hispanics. The problem went away, but was fairly severe initially. (Here I might mention that my platoon sergeant in basic training was Puerto Rican, career infantry. He soon learned that I had enlisted for "Armor, Europe," and every morning greeted me with "Hendricks, djoo gonna *die* in a tank.")

I had a broad New England accent, which presented others with problems. The first time we were provided with an uncheduled period and were free to do whatever we desired (within the barracks), a number of guys broke out decks of cards and played poker, pinochle, spades, and other games. I asked several men whether they wanted to play hahts. Despite asking me about the game, none knew what I was talking about until I said "You know, the game where you try to avoid taking hahts or the queen of spades."

"Ohhhh, hearts."

In Vilseck, Germany, we had a Brooklynite, nicknamed Smitty. He was occasionally teased about his accent, which he accepted with good humor. One friend, Vernon, used to quote an imaginary conversation with Smitty:

"Listen to da boids."

"Those aren't boids, Smitty, those are birds."

"Chee, dey coitainly choip like boids."

Thrown in with a large group of strangers, most of us are chameleons to one extent or another. During ten years in the Army I lost most of my Boston accent. Most. When I got home my mother told me I sounded like a stranger, but every once in a while I say something with a hint of the old accent, and I can actually hear myself doing it.