Thursday, March 03, 2011

Giving Away My Roots

When I lived outside the tiny coastal town of Searsport, Maine, I had a nasty tooth problem and had to hightail it to a dentist. I knew of one in Belfast named — I'm not making this up — Dr. Blood, and his assistant was named Savage. Blood and Savage. Hmmm. I don't think so. I wanted to be cautious. After all, I was living in Stephen King country.

I decided to take my chances instead with a practice I'd seen on the edge of town in Searsport. The office was barely a mile from my house. I no longer remember that guy's name, but at least I'm fairly certain it wasn't Dr. Axemurderer.

This man's office was in his home. His wife worked as his assistant. Presumably she was qualified, but I didn't ask to see a diploma. The dentist recognized me from when I stopped at his door two months before to deliver a special invitation to come to our Kingdom Hall.

They were a chatty couple. But have you ever tried to carry on a meaningful conversation with a dentist while he's working on you?

The doctor took one look and decided to yank out the offending fang. My mouth already full of cotton, I began to tense up as he made preparations to rip a piece of my body off of me. Assuming I might be in a mood to talk about spiritual matters, he asked me: If Jesus Christ was really who he claimed to be, why did he let people do all those terrible things to him?

"Mmmmpfhm mmmph mphmmphph mmmmpfhm" was my reply. But he wouldn't buy that explanation.

Soon my mouth was thoroughly numbed and stuffed with cotton. As the dentist anchored his body weight, readying himself to perform the heinous deed, the dentist's wife-assistant asked me, "So tell me — what part of the Chicago North Shore are you from?"

"Mmmmpfhm?" was my nonplussed reply.

I've always though my speech is as free of any regional accent as can be. Someone told me once that I speak Walter Cronkitese. Besides, I hadn't said very much, but evidently some utterance gave away my roots. (I was obviously in a frame of mind to give away roots on that day.)

When I was finally able to speak clearly again, I admitted that I grew up in Wilmette, which is what I say when I tell people where I'm "from," but of course I wanted to know how Mrs. Wife-Assistant knew this.

The woman had two advantages I was unaware of. First, she had a master's degree in some category of linguistic practice, and considered herself an expert on American dialects. In addition, she got that degree from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, the city that lies between Wilmette and Chicago on the North Shore, so lived there herself for some period of time. In fact, I lived in south Wilmette, within walking distance of the Northwestern campus, where my father also taught for a number of years.

So I guess the lesson is that just about everyone picks up little regionally-based speech idiosyncrasies. But Mrs.  Wife-Assistant never told me what it was that I said that exposed me.
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1 comment:

Joe said...

It was "Mmmmpfhm mmmph mphmmphph mmmmpfhm"