(Host) The Vermont accent has been imitated and satirized, but it’s never been studied.
Now Julie Roberts, a University of Vermont researcher, is looking at what makes Vermont dialect unique and how it’s changing.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports.
(Roberts) Do you think that there’s such a thing as Vermont speech or Vermont accent?
(Roberts) How so?
(Student) We don’t pronounce our ‘t’. It’s not ‘Vermont’, it’s ‘Verm-on.’ ‘Swan-on.’ ‘Gonna go to Hi-ga-uh.’ (laughs) It’s the thing you most hear.
(Zind) The Vermont accent and how it’s changing is what Julie Roberts is interested in. The UVM professor is in the final year of a study of Vermont dialects funded by the National Science Foundation. Roberts says no one can be sure how the Vermont accent came about. Beyond the similarities to other New England dialects, there are some resemblances to dialects in English speaking Canada and parts of England.
(Roberts) There are some real stereotypical Vermont features. The changing of ‘ow’ like in cow, up more toward ayow. And that seems to be, although it’s definitely still a feature of rural men, it seems to be less so in younger people and in women, which would indicate that maybe that’s changing toward a more standard sounding ‘ow’. The other stereotypical Vermont feature that we’ve come across in terms of pronunciation is the long ‘I’ as in ‘fight’, it goes to kind of ‘foight’. And that’s somewhat changing too. And then the third thing that I’m really interested in is the glottal stop replacement of ‘t’. A lot of people, when you ask them what the Vermont accent is, will say, ‘oh, we don’t pronounce our ‘t’s.
(Zind) For the study, Roberts and her coworkers interview students from preschool to high school. They talk with the students’ parents. And they record conversations with residents of nursing homes. Roberts is concentrating on Northwestern Vermont. A strong farming tradition has kept communities like Sheldon, Franklin, Highgate and Swanton relatively unchanged. The people who live here have ties to the area that often go back several generations. Recently Roberts has been interviewing students at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton.
(Roberts) For the record, tell me again where you grew up.
(Student) Franklin, Vermont.
(Roberts) Franklin, okay. And your parents?
(Student) They grew up in Sheldon and Franklin.
(Roberts) And grandparents?
(Student) Everybody was from Franklin.
(Zind) Many of the students Roberts interviewed haven’t traveled much outside Vermont. Roberts says changes in dialect happen when people interact with others who don’t speak in the same way. Exposure to television or other media doesn’t have much effect on the way a person speaks.
Roberts is also studying the cultural significance of the Vermont accent. She says people form social groups based on the fact they share a dialect. She asks the students about the groups they belong to, about their interests and what their parents do for a living. She says even though it’s untrue, people with a Vermont accent are often stereotyped as less intelligent and backward. Sometimes a person changes the way they speak when they move between two worlds.
(Roberts) One person told me that when she went to UVM her Vermont accent was made fun of, so she did consciously change some of it, and then when she went back to Northern Vermont, people were not just teasing her but angry that she changed some of her dialect features and felt that she was trying to sound above them.
(Zind) In the same way that one person may change the way she speaks to fit into a group, entire dialects can change when they become stigmatized. The students at Missisquoi were aware of the elements of the Vermont dialect. Even when certain elements are part of their own speech, there’s a tendency to look down on those whose accent is more pronounced.
(Student) I remember when I was in sixth grade, we had a teacher who was teaching us some sort of a drama thing and we did for an exercise ‘we ought to eat at eight’¿the T’s, I think are the thing. My friends sometimes make fun of the extreme Vermont accent.
(Zind) When employers or teachers share this view, the results can be damaging. Walt Wolfram is a Professor of Linguistics at North Carolina State University. Wolfram led a Baltimore study that found a disproportionate number of children who spoke vernacular dialects ended up in special education, simply because of the way they spoke.
(Wolfram) We feel quite free to criticize people about the way they talk and in fact exclude them on that basis, whereas we would never do these things on the basis of gender or ethnicity.
(Zind) Wolfram disputes the common belief that regional dialects are disappearing into a single homogenous American tongue. He says dialects are always undergoing changes. Roberts says she’s finding the same is true in Vermont and that’s why her study is important.
(Roberts) I think in part it’s important just to document diversity, just as it is in the biological sciences. And so as languages die, as dialects die, as other dialects start, as they change, I think it’s important to document that kind of thing, just to document it as part of our cultural diversity.
(Zind) Roberts says young people generally don’t have the pronounced Vermont accents of their parents and grandparents. But she says that doesn’t mean the Vermont dialect is dying out. She says because of outside influences, the Vermont accent will continue to change in ways that can’t be anticipated. For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Swanton.