Modern communication offers many wonderful advantages. But it might be a mistake to forget that these come at a cost. This came to mind the other day when I happened onto a conversation with a fellow from Amesville, whose way of saying things — accent and usage — are what we might have found here a century ago.
The word “push” was pronounced “poosh,” and the president of the United States is named “Boosh.” The evening meal was “supper” and “dinner” was served at noontime. The more I listened, the more captivated I became.
The native Seohio accent, when it can be found in its pure form, is musical, and local usage is colorful. I have read that both originated in the earliest mining days, when immigrant miners came here from many countries but had to find some common language. The result was the invention of pronunciations and usages drawn from a variety of languages.
I fear that it may soon be lost, with the convenience and ubiquity of modern communications the culprit.
A few decades ago, a veterinarian who used the pen-name “James Herriot” wrote a series of wonderful books about his experiences in England’s Yorkshire dales in the years just before and just after World War II. Much of the charm of those books came from the unique and special language of the residents there. Now, I’m told, that language is all but gone. Television and radio have imposed their own accents and ways of saying things, and the people of England more and more sound the same. Colorful native sayings are being pushed out of circulation by urban cliches.
Soon after I arrived here, a young woman in a parking lot pointed to my little Honda Element, still a fairly unusual sight, and said, “I like them cars. Them is awesome!” It struck me as delightful use of language, but upon reflection the word “awesome” stuck in my craw. From what was probably a creative and descriptive initial usage — no doubt in California — that word has come to be overused and cliched, to the extent that it now means practically nothing. It is a placeholder for a superlative.
Likewise, “back in the day.” What a nice phrase that was, the first few times it was used. But now it is all over the place and has come to mean some indefinite time longer ago than week-before-last. No real harm done, but you have to wonder what it replaced. Surely in at least some instances, it was chosen over an original or traditional use of language that was probably just as good, maybe better.
In the middle of the 20th century, a “musical anthropologist” named Alan Lomax traveled the world, especially this part of the world, seeking to record and preserve the music found in little isolated settlements atop ridges and at the back of hollers. As with Herriot, he was fortunate in that radio had not yet permeated those places. A modern-day Lomax would still find some truly local music, but much of what he found would be tainted by outside influences, by the desire of the younger generations to be more like the rock-and-roll stars they hear on the radio and see on television. Where backwoods musicians might have listed their granddaddies as their “influences,” now one would be more likely to hear a listing of bands and performers from elsewhere who are being emulated. There’s no one to blame, but something important, I think, is being lost.
So it is, too, with language. Modern communications have imparted their own set of cliches and mannerisms, they have caused us to be embarrassed when we do not speak the way that everybody on television or the radio does. The broadcasting centers on the East and West coasts tend to look down on those of us in “flyover country.” Our natural tendency to speak as we are spoken to, which is like the tendency to emulate the music we hear, is exacerbated by the broadcast notion that we might as well not exist at all.
There is much talk of “diversity,” but sometimes it seems as if that is a smokescreen for homogenization — instead of celebrating our differences, we’re pushed toward all being the same. All speaking the same, looking the same, thinking the same. While we’d probably get along a little better if that were the case, I can’t help but think we’d lose something precious in the process.
Yet the very accent and way of speaking that I so hope will somehow be preserved is itself the result of … homogenization, of diverse people finding a common way of talking with each other. Maybe it’s all a part of mankind’s development.
Maybe there’s nothing of value to be said other than hoping that we notice and cherish the language our localities while we still have it.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.