How to talk North Country

Grant Barrett’s visit to the region brought home to me the importance of the connection between how we talk and who we are. You will know us by our accent. It’s the way we determine who is us, and who is them.

But just what makes up the North Country accent? Or is it accents? Is there a formulary of rhythms, grammatical constructions, pronunciation shifts and so forth that define the sound? How far does it reach? Can it be defined? Can it be taught?

That’s a boatload of questions. But let’s make a start with a catalog of signature North Countryisms, things we do with language that, taken together, might help us zero-in on the local lilt.

I’m interested in everything from the anecdotal to the academic, and look forward to a broad-ranging chin-wag on the topic we all keep on the tip of the tongue.

We’ve visited this topic in the past. To help start the conversation, here are some features from the Way-Back Machine discussing North Countryisms and place names.

Heard up North: Pronouncing Theresa (The Town)

Heard up North: Chateaugay, Eh?

Heard Up North: 3 Words (The Particular Language of the North Country, Cont.)

Heard up North: “Went Up!”

Heard up North: Yupper! (& Beaver Meadows)

Heard up North: Slab City, Sodom, and Swastika

Heard up North: Place Names “Negro Creek”

Heard up North: Haws, We Gotch Ye

Heard up North: How the North Country got its name

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15 Responses to “How to talk North Country”

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  1. oa says:

    Dropping the final T, often ending in a glottal stop, as in, “My car’s ou’(H) in the parking lo’(H).
    Is that vestigial from the French?

  2. Carl says:

    I was born and raised in the Adirondacks. I don’t know whether this is a Northcontryism or just a pet Peeve of mine and many others I have shared this with. The mis-pronunciation of the word Adirondack by the local population. You hear it all the time, Adi-ROUND-ack, there is no “U” in the word Adirondack. I find it especially irritating listening to Jim Lavalley on the local radio station in the ARISE ads. He portends to be speaking for the majority of the locals yet he cant even pronounce the word Adirondack correctly.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    Why oh why is the Boquet River spelled and pronounced that way when it should be Bouquet? Is this an example of French Canadians not knowing how to spell or speak French?

  4. Dale Hobson says:

    Carl and Pete–

    Not interested in dissing or correcting how people talk; interested in identifying the elements of the way people talk that might constitute the ingredients of the local dialect. My father was an English teacher who spent way too much effort trying to fix up my linguistic peculiarities.

    I do hear AdiROUNdack a lot. I wonder if the vowel shift is related to the one I hear in the pronunciation of words like cow, which sounds more like caow.

    Regarding French in the North Country, we find lots of ways to fry our French. Pronouncing it as if it were English is one way, another is pronouncing it as French, but spelling it as English. For example, in my neck of the woods, you can’t flip a rock without finding a Taillon. Half pronounce their name TIE-o, half pronounce it TAY-lon. Then there are the ones who spell it and pronounce it Tyo. One thing that does seem to be consistent, is that we always drop the “n” nasal at the end of adopted French words/names.

    oa–

    We do seem to be in a bit of a hurry. Dropping final the final “t” or “n” or “g.” Also dropping whole words. For example “When you goin’ t’ the store?” I suspect there used to be a contraction “when’re” in there, but it came to be surplus to requirements. And the ing ending is not just robbed of the “g,” as is common in many places, but we do away with the “i” (particularly following a consonant), and lose about half of the “n,” reducing it to something like the final French nasal.–I’m goin’ hunt’n.

  5. Paul says:

    Personally I don’t think there really is a defined NC accent. It is very similar to what you hear from people who have grown up out in the most rural parts around here in the Finger Lakes. There are many many people that were born and raised in the Adirondacks (that have been there for generations) that have no discernible accent at all. It is interesting. You see a similar thing in some cities like Baltimore for example. There are the Balmer ones and the rest don’t have any thing despite having grown up right next door to that person for their whole lives.

  6. Dave Lenney says:

    Most of my friends go “Huntin” in “Co-Ton”

  7. Dale Hobson says:

    Paul–

    Grant Barrett talked about New York State accents last night at SUNY Potsdam. He said there were four general dialect regions. One corresponding roughly to the NYC, one following the old Dutch colony area up the Hudson to Albany, one covering the western part of the state, and one in the north. The northern dialect had strong elements from both the western NY dialect and the Hudson, with some incursion from Canada. So you are correct to hear similarities with rural areas like the Finger Lakes.

    I think the borders of these regions are kind of sloppy, and there are always individuals who will consciously avoid localism in speech, but that doesn’t mean the dialect doesn’t exist. It’s not a universal pattern, just the prevailing pattern.

  8. Paul says:

    Dale, I agree. It is interesting how it changes as you move east. It is almost like the closer you get to the coast the stronger this seems to get. Look ay NH and MA.

    Maybe it is a proximity to ocean thing! Look at the south same thing.

  9. Michael Greer says:

    When I was new here in the North Country, I had a neighbor, just down the road in Russell. She was very old, and very, very old fashioned…still wearing a bonnet and long apron when she went out of doors. She had a good son, John, who’d stayed home to help out ’til he was fifty or so, …with the milking and such. They had an old cow who got milked every other day whether she needed it or not, and you would often pass by and see her (the cow) standing by the barnyard gate with milk streaming out.
    One day my wife and I were out for an evening walk, and passed by their place. The barn door was open, and the lantern lighted the scene. John on his stool, milking the faithful old cow, while his mom sat nearby (to make sure he did it correctly). We walked in to say hello, and there was a bit of new neighbor conversation. “Where’d you say you’d come from?” she asked. We answered (for the fourth or fifth time) that we’d moved from Ohio. “O-hi-yo” she replied…”John, who’s them other folks come up from Ohio?” “Who’s ‘at mom?” says John, perplexed. “You know!” she says,”them folks up on th’ other road” gesturing up hill. “Christ mom! says John, “That was a hunerd years ago…” “Twarn’t either” she says “I rememberd it.” After a moment of silence, John says, under his voice “T’was fifty…”
    We stood silently for a while, watching the milking, enjoying our thoughts…The conversation starts up again when the old lady asks, “How far is O-hi-yo?” “Ah. says I, “about 500 miles…ten hours away. Took a whole day to get here.” She chews on this a minute and finally says “You never Know where you’ll end up in this wirld” ” Look’it me, born way over t’ Degrasse, and here I am almost up t’ Hermon…”
    In her 80 years she had travelled perhaps 10 miles. Her son John, a much more “modren” man told me that he’d once been to Watertown, and had “ridden in one of them Volkswagens.”
    We had intentionally come to the North Country to move back to an earlier, more pastoral lifestyle, visions of agrarian utopia in our heads. We never imagined that we’d land in the 19th century.

  10. Walker says:

    Nice story, Michael!

  11. Nathan Brown says:

    Oa: The glottal stop with the final “t” is common elsewhere in America and the rest of the English-speaking world, too. I think it’s just a change over time because it’s easier than articulating a “t,” not necessarily due to any particular cultural or dialect influence.

    I’ve noticed some people in the North Country have “Canadian Raising” with the vowel in words like “about” and “house” — i.e., it sounds more like “aboat” and “hoa-ss,” like many Canadians say it. This might be more of a rural/older people/more traditional thing. Most people in the Adirondacks, though, seem to raise the “I” vowel in words like “like” and “price” — the vowel sounds very clipped to someone who doesn’t have it in their speech, very different from the “I” of “lie” and “pride.” I know I’m not explaining it well; here’s the wikipedia article:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_raising

    Another one I used to hear a lot is a very drawn-out “ah” sound, almost, in “yup;” it sounded more like “yaahhp,” with a slight glottal stop before the “y.”

  12. Jenna says:

    How about pronouncing “Ogdensburg” as if it were “Og’nsburg”, and losing the “o” in “Canton”? (Cant’n)

  13. Scott says:

    I find it particularly interesting how NC natives like to make up their own words as well as substitute others in as adjectives. For example, I have heard on numerous occassions very large objects being called “Gi-normiss” A combination of Gigantic and enormiss. I have also heard of really tough or overly engineered items being called “V-8′s” For instance someone builds a garage and uses over dimension lumber which by and far exceeds any building code this garage would be considered a “V-8″ garage. Not to be confused with a much less impressive 4 cylinder. I find these word combinations and substitutions are much more local. I have even had people they could tell which town somkeone lives in by some of the dialect they spoke.

  14. Mark says:

    I’m currently attending college in NYC, and I’ve been made aware of several unusual speech habits that I think can be traced to my North Country raising. The one that gets the most comments is my pronunciation of the final A in “elementary,” where my school friends rhyme it with “tree.” when home to Norfolk for vacation, I’ve conducted research and discovered that everyone I’ve asked pronounces it like I do.

    I also have realized that when I apologize, I say sore-ee instead of sahry. This I only was able to see replicated in about half of the people I asked, generally older people. My grandparents say it like I do, my younger sister says it the standard American way. I’ve been told this particular quirk sounds Canadian, so maybe that’s the origin.

  15. Eliza says:

    Mark — Re: “elementary” –
    Yes!! Also the “ary” in “documentary,” etc.
    I am from southern Jefferson County, and my pronunciation of these words was a source of amusement for my college friends in the mid-90s. I’d never heard it any other way. A couple of years ago, one of my college friends was in a bar in Los Angeles when he heard a fellow patron refer to “elementary school,” pronounced as I do with a long “a.” “Excuse me,” my friend said. “By any chance, are you from Upstate or Northern New York?” The other guy looked baffled. “Yeah, I’m from Syracuse,” he said. “How did you know?”

    Also, at least in the part of the North Country that I’m from, there is a distinct difference in the short vowel “a,” which I also didn’t notice until I went to college, and others identified it. Basically, that sound becomes a dipthong with two sounds in it — ee-ah. So “snack” sort of sounds like snee-ack. Recently, a linguist friend of mine identified the sound as “the northern cities vowel shift,” generally found in Rochester, Buffalo, and parts of Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. (There’s a wikipedia page about it.) He was surprised to hear it from me because he thought I was from too far north, and too rural of an area to speak that way. I hear it in all my long-dwelling Jeff/Lewis County relatives, though, particularly the women, and I’m curious just how far north it goes.