Grandpa, We Don’t Pahk the Cah Anymore
Grandpa, We Don’t Pahk the Cah Anymore
Linguistics major Melanie Platt (left) and assistant professor of linguistics Maya Ravindranath (right). Photo by Perry Smith Photography.
When Maya Ravidranath came to UNH in 2009 from Pennsylvania, she was surprised by the New Hampshire dialect she encountered. As a sociolinguist, she was familiar with the linguistic atlases that describe a single New England dialect region running from Rhode Island to Maine and as far west as the New Hampshire/Vermont border. People from New Hampshire, should, according to the atlases, pahk their cahs in Hahvahd yahd, just as people from Boston do. But she recognized immediately that there were many ways in which New Hampshire speakers did not sound like traditional New England speakers, including that they were much less likely to drop their rs.
Ravindranath had an idea. She teaches a sociolinguistics course annually that includes many New Hampshire students. Why not ask those students to interview friends and families, documenting which traditional New England speech features are present and to what extent. The New Hampshire Language and Life Project was born.
“This has been a fun way to involve students in research, and the project has grown,” says Ravindranath, who, in addition to working with undergraduates in her courses, has involved a master’s student and several undergraduates in independent research. Most recently, Ravindranath mentored senior linguistics major Melanie Platt who received a 2014 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from UNH’s Hamel Center to participate in the project.
Platt’s task was to calculate the percent of “r-fullness” in her subjects’ speech—the number of times an r at the end of a word could be dropped compared to the number of times an r was actually dropped by the subject. She also looked at how the words “bother” and “father” are pronounced; traditional to the region, the first vowel in those two words are pronounced differently. Less common now, even in Boston, is pronouncing the vowels in “bath” and “trap” differently (think the British pronunciation of “bath”).
From Exeter, N.H., Platt interviewed 28 people from her hometown and surrounding areas, representing three age groups: 18-22, 22-59, and over 60 years old. The subjects had to have lived in the region at least since the age of 7, to control for outside linguistic influence. What did she find? All 12 of the speakers in her 60+ age group exhibited traditional New England speech features. All of the younger speakers did not. Platt confirmed what Ravindranath’s other students had found: a linguistic change is occurring right now in New Hampshire.
“I think it’s very interesting, especially because I’m from New Hampshire,” says Platt. “I can hear the change by listening to different people I’ve interacted with since I was little. It is exciting to document a change that is happening right now.”
Sociolinguists also explore why linguistic changes occur. It’s too early in the project for conclusions, but Ravindranath has some theories.
“What are younger speakers not wanting?” asks Ravindranath. “Do they not want to sound like hicks, or do they not want to sound like Bostonians? Conversely, what is it that they want? Do they want to sound, perhaps, pan-American?”
To get at the whys, Platt and other student researchers conduct interviews to assess attitudes towards speech. One instrument they use is a map of New England. They ask subjects to circle the area on the map where they think people sound like them and where people have other distinct speech features. Researchers then ask how pleasant the speech is in each circled region and how correct. They’ve found that New Hampshire speakers in the southeast, where most of the data has been collected, tend to distance themselves from the speech of both Boston and Maine and ally themselves with Vermont.
“Subjects will circle Maine and say something that indicates rural, such as ‘lobsta,’” says Ravindranath, by way of example. There seems to be a “we’re not them” attitude that plays out linguistically, she suggests. “There’s also a belief that we speak correctly here, as do people from Vermont, which makes me think there may be a convergence to the supra local, moving away from things that seem regional towards some of kind of general American speech.”
Ravindranath has presented two conference papers on this research, one a collaboration with Professor James Stanford of Dartmouth College, who is doing similar work with his students in the Hanover region. But some holes exist in the research that Ravindranath is eager to address. She doesn’t have enough data from northern and central New Hampshire to draw a complete picture of New Hampshire, and she'd like to collect more stories from residents about life in the state and how it has changed in their lifetimes. The stories will help her better understand the relationship between social and linguistic change in New Hampshire.
Over time and with the involvement of student researchers such as Platt, Ravindranath is confident she’ll get the data she needs. “We’re starting to build a nice picture of what people are doing and how this fits into the dialect picture of the United States.” Once that picture is filled in, the New Hampshire language that emerges will likely look very different than it has in the annals of linguistic atlases.