Lately I have spent a fair amount of time fretting about actress Jennifer Lawrence's Kentucky accent.
Much has been made of how her commonwealth lilt has served her as she strode the screen field-stripping a squirrel in Winter's Bone and growing into a warrior in The Hunger Games. But for grown-up roles, it's time to develop a more metro tone, like you might hear out of the golden gullet of a Kate Winslet or Tilda Swinton.
Lawrence left the state young, as did fellow Kentuckians Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and George Clooney. You won't catch them a-hollerin' about Mamaw and Papaw unless it's Oscar season or a Coen brothers vehicle.
What is a Kentucky accent, anyway? And how does being from here affect one's vocabulary?
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I spent a chunk of a day listening to the "accent tag" channel on YouTube, which is addictive. It compels participants to pronounce a list of words, including pecan, oil and pajamas, then poses a list of questions to answer:
■ What do you call gym shoes?
■ What do you call a carbonated beverage?
■ How do you address a group of people? What do you call your grandparents?
■ What's the name of the bug that curls into a ball when you touch it?
■ What's the name of the wheeled contraption that you put groceries in at the supermarket?
■ What do you call it when the sun is shining when it's raining?
■ What's the thing you use to change the TV channel?
I had no idea that some New Yorkers called their shopping carts "wagons." Who knew that Texans called their remote control a "clicker"? New Yorkers and Texans would collapse in merriment at hearing that I called my grandparents "Mamaw" and "Papaw," because that would signal my Southern tobacco road backwardness, and not in a psychologically complicated Faulkner way.
YouTube might be more about group sourcing, but there's also more solid academic work on accents and regionalism. The International Dialects of English Archive attempts to gather a sampling of residents of each state reading similar words.
Listen to the variety of Kentucky accents, and you'll swear some of us are really from Texas, Long Island, New Jersey or Maine. We don't sound a thing alike.
Mass culture has standardized much of the language, first in the 1930s with radio networks adopting a standard pronunciation called "General English," "Standard American" or "Broadcast English" — essentially an educated Midwest or Chicago dialect.
As television took hold in the '60s, children were constantly exposed to more homogenized language and to accents as markers of social class. The Clampetts of The Beverly Hillbillies were considered trash with cash, while the hyper-educated Miss Jane was an object of snark. Bewitched's Samantha Stevens and That Girl's Ann Marie had the right touch of urban perk.
Still, regional pronunciations sometimes peek out, ironically courtesy of cable television's glut of reality shows: On the Pittsburgh-based Dance Moms, they rattle on about their daughters' "cosh-tumes," and hapless Hoosier Teen Mom Amber's legal troubles land her in "gel."
For those of us in Kentucky, the key accent question might be: What do you call those little round soft sausages that come in a can? If you've ever popped out a sleeve of saltines with a can of "Vi-EEN-ies," call yourself a Kentuckian and eat proud.