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Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013
AccentsPosted Thursday, June 25, 2009, at 3:32 PM
I hadn't really noticed until some of us started watching movies from over fifty years ago.
Actors portrayed characters from particular geographic regions in the United States. You would be able to identify that particular geographic region by the accent the actor was using.
I started reflecting on this. I'm in my fifth decade of life and I'm suddenly aware that there has been a change without my noticing until now.
I can remember as a child that I couldn't understand my cousins from southern Louisiana, Alabama, and Georgia because of their heavy accents. When someone from Boston spoke over the radio I would have to ask my parents what was being said.
Yes, English was being spoken, but each region had its own peculiar way of speaking the language. My grandmother in Tennessee could hear strangers speak fifteen words and tell you what part of Tennessee they came from.
As a child in Evansville I remember areas where only German was spoken and other areas where one's English was so strongly accented by German sounds that I could barely understand what was being said.
Nowadays, we all sound alike. Conan O'Brian has moved to Los Angeles where no one recognizes his Boston accent because it's barely a Boston accent anymore. It's difficult to hear the difference between someone from Maine and native Floridians. I can barely hear the difference between a person from Arkansas and a person from Missouri. Maybe television and radio have brought us together in ways unimagined.
Or maybe native English speaking Americans have somehow become homogenized!
It excites me that we have immigrants still coming to the United States. They come with different traditions, different customs, different expectations about life, and indeed different languages besides English. They integrate into the traditional English speaking American culture and, while doing so, help us change and expand and grow.
It's hard for me to remember that before World War II less than seventy percent of Americans spoke English! As immigrants have come from all over the world they have brought opportunities for us to keep from being stale, stuck in our ways, and ... boring. Don't get me wrong. Tradition is a good thing as long as its mine!
But in reality, tradition has a shelf life of around twenty years before even tradition changes and moves forward into the bright future.
Those Founding Fathers (and mothers...) were amazing people. They already understood what many of us still struggle with. America is only strong as we welcome new immigrants, new influences on our language, and new customs.
If we ever try to box ourselves into the ways of the past we will loose that triumphant American spirit.
I told my nearly ninety year old parents about my new insight from fifty year old movies. They surprised me with their response. Those accents I struggled with in my childhood were simply the results of immigrants from a hundred years earlier: Irish immigrants, Haitian immigrants, Welsh people that settled in the hills of Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri.
"My great-grandfather heard Abraham Lincoln speak and could barely understand him!" Who would have thought!
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P.T. Wilson is the senior pastor at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, Greencastle, and is also the University Chaplain at DePauw University.