What does it mean to talk like a Mainer these days? As writer and linguist Michael Erard explains, the answer is wicked complicated.
Animations by Hanji Chang and Andy O’Brien
Nancy Hopkins-Davisson never really heard herself until she heard herself on television. The year was 1975, and Nancy — then just Hopkins, a high-school student born and raised on the island of North Haven — was one of three young people interviewed for a Maine Public Broadcasting documentary about island life. Later, when she watched the film on TV, she was struck by an interview with the father of her friend Kim. She’d never noticed the way he talked.
“Wow,” she thought, “he really has an accent.”
A couple of minutes later, her segment flitted by. “I don’t believe I’ll be coming back to North Haven,” she heard herself saying, “because there’s no job opportunities for women, unless it’s in the summertime.” Her hair was blonde and curly, her nose pert, her eyes down, and her r’s so soft that “North Haven” was “Nahwth Haven” and “summertime” was “summahtime.” Until that moment, she hadn’t realized how she sounded — not really, anyway — or how anyone else on the island sounded, for that matter. Then a thought occurred to her: We have a lot of summer people here. How do they think we sound?
The following year, Nancy fulfilled her promise to leave, heading to the University of Maine in Orono, where her speech-class professor took her aside and gave her an answer. He understood there were some regional differences in accents, the professor said, but he warned Nancy that if she said words ending in –ing — like “eating” and “swimming” — she shouldn’t pronounce them “eatin’” or “swimmin’.”
“He tried to do it nicely,” Nancy says, “but I realized, ‘Oh, you can’t do that because you sound like a hick.’”
Around the same time, Nancy’s friend Kim, who had also left the island, was living in San Diego and working at a Montgomery Ward, where she found she often had to repeat even simple utterances like, “Let me take that to your car.” Kim was speaking to a wider swath of American society than on North Haven, among them Spanish speakers, so she slowed her speech down, enunciated, and took on a harder r. And after 12 years away, she effectively changed the way she talks.
Now Kim’s been back on North Haven for 30 years, and though parts of the dialect have slowly crept back (especially when she’s tired), some find it hard to believe she’s from the island. “I’ve had summer friends on North Haven tell me they weren’t sure I was born here,” she says, “because I didn’t have much of an accent.”
Nancy, meanwhile, stayed away just two years, and despite the speech professor and mockery from her fellow students, she lost none of her accent — part of a conscious decision to be from the island and be known for it. When Kim first came back, Nancy was one of those who noticed the adaptations in her speech. “It was a practical thing,” Nancy says, “and she never really changed back. I don’t really think about it — I certainly don’t hold it against her. I’m glad to have her back, actually.”
This tale of two friends’ accents gets at much of what we talk about when we talk about dialects in Maine in 2015: People’s fierce attachment to the way they talk. The life experiences and other influences (like teachers and jobs) that hammer out the edges. And, above all, the importance of “sounding like a Mainer,” which, for some, goes hand-in-hand with a pragmatic view that there’s too much living to do to spend much time worrying about how one talks.
There’s no precise recipe for sounding like a Mainer, but gather a group of them in one room, and you’ll likely hear the soft r — at least in some words — and the occasional “wicked” to intensify an adjective (or just on its own). Of course, with only those two features, you might peg the speaker as being from Massachusetts — a Katahdin-size offense to many Mainers. This is solved by listening for the inhaled “yeah” — an attribute unique to Maine in the U.S. — along with a certain lilting jowliness that linguistic notational systems are powerless to describe. Then there are the bending, elongated vowels of words like “box” and “job,” the droopy vowels of “bath” and “ask” pronounced like “father,” and what linguists call the “intrusive r,” which gives us “yoger” classes and fresh “pah-ster.” Not to mention Maine’s treasure trove of regional vocabulary and colloquialisms — some in your room full of Mainers might mention going “upta camp” or cleaning the “culch” (rubbish) out of their car. “Yessah!” they will nod when agreeing. “Hard tellin’ not knowin’,” they will shrug when stumped.
Maine still retains a surprising amount of dialect diversity, although linguists have tended to oversimplify it. On most 20th-century dialect maps, the state is carved into just two chunks: something called “Eastern New England,” which extends as far south as Providence, Rhode Island, and up to about Dover-Foxcroft, and an unnamed dialect territory made up of everything farther north. In his landmark 1939 Handbook of the Linguistic Geography of New England, linguist Hans Kurath explained that this part of the state had more in common linguistically with Western New England, since it was originally settled by Loyalists from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
But old Maine hands know well that island accents are different from mainland ones (and that the islands themselves can differ from one another). They know that Portland may as well be Massachusetts, that central Mainers speak differently than folks on the midcoast (which is not the same as Down East), that English speakers in Houlton sound a lot like Canadians, and that Franco-Americans in Madawaska sound different from those in Lewiston and Biddeford. (Sadly, Franco forms of English are never considered in official dialect maps of New England.)
Of course, “sounding like a Mainer” can be a double-edged sword. At 47, Freeport farmer John Schwenk is among those who remember the colorful constructions and lilting intonations of the older generation in his area, now largely gone. For some, Schwenk remembers, that local dialect “was always frowned upon.”
“Our school teachers were always trying to beat it out of us,” he says. “It marks you out with people who don’t respect the accent. But it also marks you out for people who are native.”
That recognition can be a powerful currency. A dialect is an object of nostalgic fascination, deeply personal and highly emotional, all tangled up with notions of history and authenticity. It’s often used as an indicator of how closely the speaker belongs to her community. Sometimes it’s competitive — as in, I belong more than you do — other times, it’s matter-of-fact — as in, hey bub, this is simply who I am.
These days, at the edges of the conversation about American regional dialects, there is a creeping fear that, someday soon, we will all speak more or less the same way. “Is That New England Accent in Retreat?” asked a 2012 headline in The New York Times, reporting on research showing a decline in some of the region’s flagship features (the soft r, for example, or the distinction between vowels in “Mary,” “merry,” and “marry”). Soon after, Boston’s NPR affiliate fretted over “The Disappearing New England Accent.” Such concerns stem from what linguists call dialect nostalgia, a lament for the loss of “authentic” regional forms of English. As Canadian writer Russ Cobb has noted, it’s a nostalgia that pines for a golden age of American regionalism, back when a “cah” was a “cah” and a hoagie was a hoagie. Dialect nostalgia can lead to, among other things, the rebranding of accents and dialects as products, packaged and sold in the same way as ethnic foods or traditional music: think “bumpah stickahs” and other tourist knickknacks that say “AYUH.” The tourism ministry in Newfoundland and Labrador recently went so far as to make linguistic diversity a central part of its marketing campaign, with a flashy video promising visitors “hundreds of long-lost dialects, more dialects than any other place on the planet!”
For many, for better or for worse, the authentic Maine brand involves a stereotyped “Bert and I” version of Down East ayuh-ish-ness. Take the case of “Betty,” for example, an associate who mans the phones for the L.L.Bean customer service line. At least once or twice a week, Betty reports, a customer chides her that she must need to go back to “New England school” because she doesn’t sound “Yankee” enough to represent the brand. Or consider Down East itself, which (like most magazines of its size) employs a subscription management company to field a bulk of orders and inquiries that the magazine’s small staff can’t handle. Such companies happen to be out of state, and director of circulation Lorraine Hedger confirms that subscribers complain “more than occasionally” that service reps on the phone don’t sound enough like Mainers.
Watch: “You don’t sound like you’re from Maine!”
For some former Mainers who’ve moved away, it’s simply a comfort to hear a classic Maine dialect. “The accent triggers a sense of home,” says Brooksville-born, Dublin-based expat Kate Vaughan. “It’s a signal that I’m in a place that I truly understand.” Ellen Kashuda, born in Bath, swears that her cousins there exaggerate the dialect whenever she visits from her home in Iowa. One of her cousins, Craig Burgess, says, “When my cousins come back, they enjoy listening to people with Down East accents. If it didn’t exist, they would miss it.” Burgess, a bit ironically, is general manager of the Marden’s retail chain, which, in 2013, stopped running TV ads featuring the heavily accented and frankly somewhat obnoxious character of Birdie Googins — though Burgess says this simply reflected a marketing shift away from television.
Meg Maiden, marketing director for the Maine Windjammer Association, remembers boarding an airport shuttle bus in Washington, DC, for a flight bound for Bangor. It only took a minute of quiet chatter, she says, for all 30 people aboard to realize they could talk without fear of being misunderstood. “Even on a little bus on the tarmac in DC,” Maiden recalls, “you could tell we were headed back to Maine.”
Encounters with the Maine dialect matter to tourists too, many of whom use it to gauge the authenticity of their experience. Matt Mattingly, proprietor of the PineCrest Inn in Gorham, says he regularly has guests ask him where he’s from. He tells them he grew up in the mountains of Maine.
“But you don’t sound like you’re from Maine!” Mattingly’s customers protest. It’s an exchange, he says, that he’s had countless times.
Some Mainers in the tourism industry, like windjammer captain Dennis Gallant, are even willing to put on the accent to entertain the dudes. Gallant’s originally from Bethel and doesn’t “sound Yankee” (as his clients often point out). He won’t fully fake a salty brogue, of course, but he is known to spin a few of what he calls “stupid stories with a Maine accent” — reliable crowd-pleasers among his passengers.
That kind of play-acting actually follows from a long Maine tradition of not just storytelling but mimicry. Painter Eric Hopkins (a cousin of Nancy) grew up on North Haven and now lives in Rockland, and he recalls how some people on the island would imitate their neighbors’ idiosyncratic expressions and distinctive ways of talking — sometimes for laughs, sometimes on stage during a local production or variety show. Community mimicry is probably part of what makes people so critical of performances of Maine dialects: think actor Tom Bosley’s infamous version on Murder, She Wrote, or Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s truly cringe-worthy impressions as a gay couple from Maine on Saturday Night Live. People scoff at such attempts because they know two-dozen people who could do better.
An embrace of mimicry also lets people practice what Hopkins calls “playing around with the accent” — being a bit of a chameleon in how you sound, depending on whom you’re talking to. Linguists call this “style-shifting,” and it’s not necessarily inauthentic; it’s simply what speakers do when they have more than one self to present in different contexts. One midcoast farmer confesses that her husband adopts the speech patterns of his neighbors when talking to them on the phone. “It has the effect of making you more familiar, or making you feel like you have more in common with someone,” says the farmer — and since her husband grew up in a working-class Maine family, he can turn the accent on and off rather naturally.
It’s a common phenomenon — speakers exaggerating a feature of their speech because of outside pressure. Among linguists, one well-known example comes from Ocracoke Island, a fishing community located off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where locals use an archaic variety of English (in which “high tide” sounds like “hoi toid,” for example) and are so accustomed to tourists asking for demonstrations, they deliberately perform a cranked-up version of it. In another famous case study, the sociolinguist William Labov examined the speech of people on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1960s. While most of the island’s residents were unconsciously shifting their vowels in one direction, a small group of fishermen, mostly young men, were resurrecting an older pronunciation of the same vowels. These guys didn’t sound like their parents; they sounded like their grandparents. But why? Labov concluded that the young fishermen were staking their identities on island life, tweaking their speech automatically to define themselves in opposition to the tourists shifting the island’s economy away from farming and fishing.
A similar process may be playing out today in Maine’s island fishing communities. A teacher on one Penobscot Bay island reports hearing high-school and middle-school boys aping the accent of local fishermen — even when their parents don’t speak with it or use much island slang. Maybe it’s just joshing around. Maybe it’s an attempt to sound older. But when a troop of teens playing Grand Theft Auto on the Xbox shout, “Tack ’er up and dumpah!” or “Give ah the gears, bub!” what they’re really saying is, “I am from here. I am of this place.”
This kind of identification with a place can slow or sometimes even reverse changes to a dialect. And Maine’s dialects are changing. In 2012 and 2014, Dartmouth linguist James Stanford published papers concluding that r-lessness in New England is indeed on the decline. The soft r is taken up about 25 percent less per generation in New Hampshire, he found, and people born after 1979 are almost entirely hard-r’ed. In Maine specifically, Dartmouth undergraduate researcher Hannah Perry interviewed speakers in Waterville and Belfast and found a similar rate of decline in r-lessness — about 18 percent with each generation.
But dialect-nostalgists’ fears of the wholesale homogenization of speech are largely unfounded. Stanford himself points out that only very specific dialect features are on the decline in New England — those inherited from the original settlers in the 18th century. That doesn’t mean Mainers and others aren’t retaining ways of talking that are equally distinctive. Dialects are simply evolving, and new habits may not be so baked in yet that linguists and outsiders have taken note. (In New Hampshire, for example, Stanford suggests that folks are increasingly pronouncing words like” button” or “cotton” with the consonant t at the back of the throat and a full second syllable.)
Meanwhile, some of the stereotypical features of the New England dialect may actually be more stable in Maine. Perry found that, at least in central Maine and the midcoast, “horse” and “hoarse” are still pronounced differently (think the difference between “aw-er” and “oh-er”). Mainers still pronounce “cod” and “caught” with the same vowel sound, according to another researcher, Gail Davidson, both from the back of the throat (outside of eastern New England, the latter tends to be pronounced with an “aw” sound, or they’re both pronounced like the “ah” sound in “father”). If people in Maine retain these features more durably, it may be as a sort of pushback against the annual influx of visitors.
Of course, none of this is to say that a person needs to talk like Marshall Dodge or Tim Sample or Robert Skoglund, the Humble Farmer, in order to be from here, to be a Mainah, in whatever way you want that to matter. Dialects are nothing if not fluid, and while an accent may be a symbol of an identity, it doesn’t equal one. When it comes to belonging to a place, how we speak to one another is ultimately less important than how well we listen.
Back on North Haven, Nancy Hopkins-Davisson is now a champion for the island dialect. Her mother, she says, “always had a problem with people losing their accents. She would go on and on about it. For her, it was another part of the old ways going by the board.” What does Mom want me to do, Nancy sometimes wondered, lecture people about the way they talk? Now that idea doesn’t seem quite so crazy.
When her grandson was learning to talk, Nancy recalls, he picked up some of the North Haven accent, but he noticed that he heard a hard r from his parents and a soft r from his gran-gran. Gran-gran, he told her, say “car.” Carrrr.
“He just wanted to know that I could say it that way,” Nancy recalls with a laugh. But she wouldn’t give in to the tyranny of the hard r.
“No,” she told him. “It’s ‘cah.’ That’s how you talk.”
She was half-joking — but very much half not.
Explore the map below to hear some of the unique words, phrases, and accents from across the regions of Maine, brought to you in cooperation with our media partner, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.