More than half a century ago John Steinbeck lamented that regional American speech patterns were disappearing. In Travels With Charley he observed that the radio and television were destroying “localness” with a more standardized type of speech.
“Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident or human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech,” Steinbeck predicted.
While I expect people to use correct grammar in the workplace and to avoid expressions that might confuse others, I don’t want use to lose all the flavor of our speech. As Steinbeck noted, speech is not just words and sentences but also the accents and emphasis that we use. (I have been listening to an audio version of Travels With Charley read by actor Gary Sinise, by the way, and I think his voice adds texture to Steinbeck’s words.)
Our speech can make us stand out from a crowd and create an instant connection with others.
Listen to a group of diners ordering beverages in a restaurant, and you can start to guess where they grew up based on who orders “Soda,” who orders “Pop” and who says “Coke,” regardless of the brand of carbonated beverage desired. If I hear the expression “Bless her heart,” I know the speaker has Southern roots somewhere.
I once worked in an office in West Virginia were most of the employees were from other states. One of my co-workers who was a native of another region of West Virginia had a slight accent—until he started talking on the phone with someone in town. His accent became thicker as he spoke, and it seemed to make the caller more comfortable.
If you want to learn and savor regional expressions, you’re in luck. The final volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English has just been published. The project to collect and explain regional expressions started 50 years ago, although it doesn’t appear that Steinbeck’s commentary inspired the effort.
What’s makes your speech memorable?