Well Bless Her Poor Little Heart

by Belle Waring on April 10, 2012

I’ve already gone over my looking at words limit today, so this will be brief. I thought this odd problem was caused by watching a bad TV show in which some of the characters have Southern accents. Nope. In wending my way through the various neuroscience labs and so forth I have learned that they basically don’t know jack about migraines. But in any case migraines are exhausting. So I am strongly inclined to make curious mistakes, wrong words, spoonerisms, aphasia, whatever. (I couldn’t remember the word “tesseract” the other day. My doctor laughed at me when I brought this up as a complaint.) And to regress. But regress to what, when I was 6? I never have had a Southern accent as an adult. I speak overly quickly, but with a normal East Coast accent. Except under the strain of continual pain and electric storms in the brain I…have a Southern accent now? My daughter said “ain’t” the other day? What in the everlovin’ blue-eyed world is that, I ask you. My family is going to give me constant hell from the minute I see them till moment I leave. I’m afraid to go home to DC! I’ll go to S.C. sure, no one will notice.

My Chinese business partner loves it, she thinks Southern accents are the cutest things in the world, and it also means I talk at about…2/3 the speed of my previous rate. Maybe even 1/2. It’s just, really weird. I can feel it; I can actively fight it with concentration. It varies throughout the day, depending on pain and so forth. The funny thing is that I used to be unable to produce a Southern accent on demand. If she asked me to do it, I couldn’t, I would just freeze up somehow, it felt like I was pretending something. Oh well, ain’t is a perfectly fine word.



Meredith 04.10.12 at 4:45 am

Yep, ain’t as a first person singular (negativized), (not so) long ago a perfectly “proper” “Am I not?” (“And ain’t I a woman?”). Like skirts and shirts, it all gets mixed up. The first and third person forms get blurred. Meanwhile, that precious second person: are migraines (among other conditions, like being a woman) a physical manifestation of that painful, creative mix-up?


dr ngo 04.10.12 at 4:53 am

On temporary word loss (resulting from advancing age, rather than migraines, one supposes): the two words that escape my wife on her bad days are “congee” and “hemiola.” I’ll have to ask her if she’s ever lost “tesseract,” but that doesn’t come up as much in conversation. ;}


Not that bold 04.10.12 at 5:17 am

On a semi- (or maybe un-?) related note, I have for years wanted to see some real research on the topic of hormones and homonym/homophone errors. I have for over a decade noticed that I make those kinds of errors in a 48-hour window each month, tied to the menstural cycle. No doctor I have mentioned it to has known anything about it.


Sherri 04.10.12 at 5:23 am

Nobody knows anything about migraines, that’s for sure. I’ve had migraines since my early 20’s, but many things about my migraines have changed over time – like I used to get aura, and now I don’t. One thing doesn’t change, though; they are exhausting, even when I take triptans and interrupt the pain. I still feel drained. And while I generally don’t have a southern accent anymore, anytime I’m tired, it starts becoming more noticeable.

I can’t tell if temporary word loss is migraine-related or caused by the topamax I take to control the migraines, since one of the side effects of topamax can be difficulty finding the right word!


Nick Barnes 04.10.12 at 7:56 am

There are often nouns I can’t recall. Last week it was “cornucopia”. This has always happened to me. The earliest instance I can recall was at the age of about 10, helping with the washing up, failing to recall “jug” (!) and substituting “poury thing”. My ex also experienced it, and between us it would occur often enough that we had a term for it: “noun failure”. No history of migraines.
Is this abnormal? Am I sick? Brain cancer?!


e julius drivingstorm 04.10.12 at 8:45 am

I have no idea what migraines are. My own infrequent mild headaches are so rare that their causes (other than psyhcosomatic) can be discerned. I avoid staying up six hours past bedtime because first light can bring them on. Or, occasionally I’ll have too much wine or saki (instead of Scotch) and pay for it noticeably the next day. Maybe I’ve killed enough brain cells over the years to keep the pressure from building. Feel better.


Scott Martens 04.10.12 at 8:46 am

Belle, there is a sorta famous problem in English diachronic linguistics called the line-loin demerger problem. See, at the time of the American Revolution, the words “line” and “loin” sounded alike to practically all American English speakers, as did “point” and “pint” and many other words with those diphthongs. Poets produced rhymes based on them sounding alike. Some dialects of English – mostly in the UK and Australia – still have them sounding the same. But at some point, in America, they stopped sounding alike. This annoyed many linguists who thought once things started sounding the same, they didn’t go back. A lot of methods in diachronic linguistics are based on that assumption.

The guy who is most responsible for showing what was really going on is a famous American linguist named William Labov, a man whose name ought to come up every time someone gripes about Ebonics, but never does, since he was the guy who made a convincing case that black people talk the way they do because they speak a different, but totally coherent and functional, dialect of English, and not because they’re dumb or unable to learn languages properly. He showed that even though New Yorkers cannot tell, in isolation, the difference between the words “sauce” and “source” when spoken in their dialect, if you look closely at the sound signal in a sonogram there is a very definite, distinct difference in the way they pronounce those words. Even though the words have “merged” as far as conscious recognition goes, they haven’t actually completely merged and may someday demerge. Although the knowledge is unconscious and not directly accessible, New Yorkers still make that distinction. Labov hypothesizes, convincingly, that the line-loin merger and demerger were another such case where the distinction survived, unconsciously and eventually reemerged as an audible distinction.

What does this have to do with you, Belle? Well, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but: You have always had a southern accent, and given a sonogram I could probably prove it to you. The people you talk to may not hear it, or may not hear it consciously, and you may not be able to access it consciously, but I promise you, it has always been there. People listening carefully for it can probably hear it, the way I can hear Stephen Colbert’s southern accent, despite, like you, his conscious and generally successful effort to not talk that way.

And you have passed it on to your child, the same way that several generations of 18th century speakers of English passed on the line-loin distinction even when they could no longer hear it themselves. The stigma of being a daughter of the South does not wash away that easily, is inheritable, and can be passed on for generations to come.


Matt 04.10.12 at 9:33 am

Have you tried sumatriptan? Probably, I guess, but that stuff literally changed my life in regard to migraines. The injectable kind, which works in seconds, is especially good.


Peter Erwin 04.10.12 at 11:06 am

Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for “ain’t” suggests that it originated as a kind of attractor for several different contractions (not just “am not”), more or less simultaneously:
“am not” –> “am’t” –> “an’t” –> “ain’t”
“are not” –> “aren’t” –> “an’t” –> “ain’t”
“is not” –> “isn’t” –> “in’t” –> “an’t” –> “ain’t”
“have/has not” –> “han’t” –> “hain’t” –> “ain’t”

Of course, the “am not” –> “ain’t” connection is probably the most obvious, because (unlike the other cases) there simply isn’t an accepted Standard-English contraction for that form. So “ain’t” appears to slot logically beside “aren’t” and “isn’t”, even if it really is more of a “universal” contraction.


rm 04.10.12 at 11:20 am

Well, your name is Belle. If you named a Chinese girl Belle I reckon she would sound a bit country.

Seriously, I think Scott M. has it, except there is nothing wrong with having a Southern accent.

My other thought is maybe you’re not speaking Southern, just slower. Are you using colorful similes like “mean as a strip-ed snake” or “crazy as a bessybug”?

As for noun loss, shit, I lose words like “car.”


rm 04.10.12 at 11:26 am

Scott, yay for Labov, and, but, so I’ve always suspected French people are pronouncing every one of the vowels in their language at some subvocal level. I began to think this when my French professor could not get me to hear, or come within ten miles of pronouncing, the difference between two sounds that sounded like “euuuuuh.”


Scott Martens 04.10.12 at 12:11 pm

rm, I think there was a paper showing statistically significant vowel elongation on the last syllable of feminine past participles in French with respect to masculine ones, even though French speakers cannot detect the difference in isolation. That would fit.


Belle Waring 04.10.12 at 12:13 pm

I can’t remember “coaster” (“you know, thing, that you put glasses on, and then the condensation doesn’t get on things, round, you know.”) Also “needlenose pliers.”
Scott M.: huh, Southern accent all along, eh? Hmm. Strangely plausible. Colbert is from about 35 miles from my dad’s.


Scott Martens 04.10.12 at 12:31 pm

Belle, one of my coworkers not two weeks ago said I have a Canadian accent in English. (Not French – in French I have a very strong Canadian accent and I still swear in Joual as a first instinct, câlisse de tabarnac.) I have not lived in Canada at all since 1994, and not lived in an English-speaking part of Canada since I was 9 years old. I am married to an American, and have not spoken to any Canadian on a daily basis since the early 90s. I do not say “eh”. At all. Ever. But he made a good case that my vowels are still subtly Canadian.

So, it happens to lots of people.


Katherine 04.10.12 at 12:55 pm

A migraine induced version of Foreign Accent Syndrome perhaps?


Katherine 04.10.12 at 12:59 pm

See, for example:


Although it does seem unlikely, given that, according to that article, there are very few recorded cases of Foreign Accent Syndrome.


kent 04.10.12 at 1:20 pm

I was born & spent my first 7 years in Alabama and have lived most of the rest of my life in the upper midwest. My old accent is gone (who knows perhaps tiny traces linger). But when I return to the south it comes roaring back. Also when I read books by certain southern writers. If you were to listen to me reading Their Eyes Were Watching God you’d think I’d never left Dixie. I’m not trying; it just happens. Can’t do it on command at all.

You have my deepest sympathies on your migraines. The accent, though, if I were you I’d file it under ‘cool shit that actually happened to me’ and be delighted.

Quick question, though. This post reads like it comes at the end of a long day of writing. Where’s the beginning of the story? Did a post get deleted, or did this one get shortened, or …?


Tom T. 04.10.12 at 1:39 pm

Wikipedia says that there has been at least one case of Foreign Accent Syndrome attributed to migraine.


Niall McAuley 04.10.12 at 1:43 pm

“amn’t” is alive and well in Ireland.


Theophylact 04.10.12 at 3:09 pm

From Mark Harris’s Wake Up, Stupid:

Tom Katt’s obituary Tom Katt denied.
“I amn’t dead,”
Tom Katt said,
“And I won’t be dead till the day I’ve died.”


Katherine 04.10.12 at 3:12 pm

Tom T, that wikipedia article leads to the one I posted above, for reference.


Teri 04.10.12 at 3:45 pm

I used to have a Scottish accent whenever I drank Tequila. Never any other spirit. Come to find out that I have an allergy to succulents, such as cactus, which Tequila is made. Stopped the Tequila can’t do a Scots accent to save my life. YMMV…Teri


Philip 04.10.12 at 3:49 pm

I’m the same with being unable to do my own accent. I never had an especially strong North East English accent and it has lessened since I started to teach English. I’ll still slip into using a stronger accent subconsciously but if I consciously try and do a NE accent it’s not very good.


marcel 04.10.12 at 4:05 pm

Belle: I have this vision of you, as a migraine takes possession, suddenly channeling Southern, much as Sigourney Weaver channeled the spirits in Ghost Busters. In my imagination, you are much more charming.

And as for the difficulties with words – prepare yourself. It is only going to get worse with the passing of time. When my (now adult) daughter was a toddler, and often struggling for words, she was quite skillful in compound constructions: hospital truck for ambulance, potato sauce for sour cream. I find myself increasingly trying to do the same thing with much less success; typically, I not only cannot put my tongue on the word I am trying to say, but also cannot catch hold of any that would help me express it circuitously. Second childhood indeed. I’m in my 50s and already cruising rapidly backwards through toddlerhood.


dilbert dogbert 04.10.12 at 4:35 pm

Re: Southern Speech and Speed
Back in the day a century ago in a country that no longer exists, I as a young engineer needed some information from a company in Longview TX. I, stupid I know, got a secretary (remember secretaries?) on the line (remember land lines?) and rattled off my request. Long pause, then in very very slow TX talk she brought my talking speed way way down. Damn I miss secretaries! They were the glue that held things together.
On a later trip to give a paper in Dallas, I was looking forward to hearing TX talk and TX crude. No way! Downtown Dallas is not TX. Even the TV didn’t have TX talk.


Mr Pancks 04.10.12 at 7:14 pm

I speak coastal North Carolinian, being a native of the place, but I moved to Boston twenty years ago. I remember seeing a storefront that advertised lessons in changing one’s accent, and I wondered who the students would be. Working-class locals trying to stop saying “Bwoston”, maybe? It got me to wondering if I could learn to pass as a northerner. Not that I wanted to, but I was curious, so I listened to people and practiced. –No way, couldn’t fool my Yankee friends or myself for even a second. My wife on the other hand is a native middle-class Bostonian, and she can speak southern perfectly. She could probably pass back in my home town. Strange how some people can do this. It seems to require both a good ear and a good mouth, an unusual combination. Northern movie actors playing southern characters can almost never do it. –A notable exception is Toby McGuire in _Ride With The Devil_. That was my first time seeing him, and I was sure he was my homeboy.


veblen's dog 04.10.12 at 7:27 pm

Belle, what flavor of Southern accent are you channeling? Piedmont, Coastal or Applach?


richard 04.10.12 at 11:07 pm


I cannot speak to the science but I can speak to the experience. I am also a migrainer. I was long a migrainer who did not know he was a migrainer and therefore did not realise the need to get out of my trigger zone (glare, flicker, fluorescent light etc) and therefore found himself in chronic migraine. So I now have a lot of experience: I spent a fair amount of time being sub verbal, by which I mean that I did not even think in words; I had days or parts of days where I spoke nonsense words, much like a child who has not yet learned to speak; and days where I kept grabbing the wrong word. The nonsense and the wrong words often felt right to me, as if they rhymed with the right words or had the same rhythm or were parallel in some linguistic dimension. When I was just reaching for the wrong word it was usually related, but not always closely. Once when I had returned home from a city that has a mole harbour, I tried to talk about walking out a long the mole or breakwall. I couldn’t think of the word ‘breakwall,” the word “mole” was uppermost in my mind so I used it, and it was correct, but I did not know that and the people I was talking with did not understand it, and the only other words I could think of were “rill,” “earthwork” and, at length, “dyke.”

I tend to think of the odd experiences that come with my migraines as noise or false data. At low levels of migraine this false data seems to dull my senses: I get visual disturbance; lose much or all of my senses of touch, taste and smell; get tinnitus; become a bit clumsy and a bit vague. As the migraine gets worse I get hallucinations in these channels. Sometimes the noise drowns out the signal, such as when I cannot find the door in a wall because I cannot see the shadows that define the doorway and the door. At other times the problem seems to be a problem of interpretation: I walk into the kitchen and perceive the white floor-tiles to be at counter hight, the dark brown ones to be several feet beneath my feet, and he other colours to be somewhere in between. The problems with finding words seem to fall into this second category.

I don’t know what it all means, I would just suggest that you try to work out what your trigger is and avoid it.



Nora 04.11.12 at 1:53 am

I’ve had migraines since childhood, and am often amused when words start leaving my head. I try to grab one from nearby if possible, or else randomly if I have to. It always sounds wrong as it comes out of my mouth, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Every now and again I find one I like better, so that I keep using it even after the regular one comes back.

I have never reverted to my native accent (ever see that movie “Fargo?”) but I do sometimes sound more southern (I’m in North Carolina Piedmont now) when having a migraine or drinking. Or just way too tired or stressed.


Nora 04.11.12 at 1:58 am

Also: after my grandmother had a couple of small strokes, she would say things that didn’t make much sense, the realize it and try to explain. One day she said to me “Sister Jane is a Lutheran.” and then a minute or so later, puzzled and giggling: “I meant she was here just now. To give me communion.”


Melissa 04.11.12 at 2:32 am

I stammered noticeably and lost words when I stopped smoking. Luckily, this only lasted eight weeks of so.


Tom T. 04.11.12 at 2:34 am

Katherine — my apologies; I hadn’t read closely enough.


PJW 04.11.12 at 3:13 am

Suffered from migraines in my 20s in the 1980s and they blessedly disappeared for 20 years or so. Now they’re back for no reason that I can discern and come every couple of weeks, typically on Thursday evenings, which I attribute to being worn down at the end of the work week. I get the optical warnings (seeing “stars”) about half of the time generally about an hour before the migraine takes over. I read a lot, at least 30 hours a week and my occupation entails a lot of intense concentration combined with intense focus of my eyes, so I am asking a lot of my eyes every day and I wonder if this isn’t one of the maain reasons for the recurring migraine attacks. Belle noting that she is supposed to limit her time on the computer got my attention. I probably should do the same but reading is such a major part of my life that I can’t even imagine cutting back. I take aspirin for my headaches, as quickly as I can after the visuals warn that the pain is on the way.


Belle Waring 04.11.12 at 3:14 am

I mean I go back to the accent I had as a small child (up till 7) and then pretty much again from 9-12, Lowcountry South Carolina. Now, let’s get into an argument about BBQ everybody! No, wait, let’s don’t.


Belle Waring 04.11.12 at 3:33 am

Wait, before allowed-to-look-at-stupidly-backlit-words time ends, it’s not a perfect version of my childhood accent. Something’s slightly off about it. If I went to South Carolina it would be fine after 4 months. But it’s still weird/off. Return of the repressed?


zrichellez 04.11.12 at 3:56 am

Hmm. New accent?
Perhaps like Charles Wallace you find yourself under IT’s influence. Remember -love will set you free. A strong southern accent helps put a little extra edge on sarcasm. A worthwhile life skill. Don’t be so quick to wish it away.
What a great book. I can picture the string and the ant.


aretino 04.11.12 at 3:57 am

you know, thing, that you put glasses on

Wait, I thought that was called a nose.


Belle Waring 04.11.12 at 5:26 am

I’m back from swimming. Aretino, if the glasses have ice in them or are even just refrigerator-cold, and it is in the 90sF, then water will condense all on the outside of the glass, and roll down, and get the side table wet. (You may recall we live in Singapore, where it is currently…puts one finger aside of her nose 94F.) Then a white circle will form in the finish and your grandmother Nan mother, Belle, will be mad at you. So use the coaster. Luckily I can restore furniture so the problem is not irreparable or tragic.


bad Jim 04.11.12 at 7:27 am

Oliver Sacks wrote a book about migraines some while ago in which he treats it as a classically psychoanalytic neurotic manifestation: when your situation becomes intolerable, retreat into illness. For all I know, this may happen sometimes.

I’m not a sufferer, but I get scintillating scotomas every now and then; glare might be a trigger, but here where it’s usually sunny it’s hard to tell.

The last instance was amusing: I was walking along the beach, contemplating the lack of mindfulness of the people I was among, when it became obtrusively obvious that I was having trouble seeing things, but naggingly difficult to discern what, exactly, the problem was. With my glasses off, my vision was nearly equivalent in either eye, which is not otherwise the case. I was actually relieved, after I’d taken refuge in the darkness of a nearby hardware store, when the familiar corruscating castellations emerged at the edge of my field of view, promising that it would be over before very long.


bianca steele 04.11.12 at 1:13 pm

I get migraine aura a lot more than migraine–big sparkly areas that start out as little blind spots, exactly like the pictures drawn by patients in Sacks’s book (which were enough to make me nauseous after a couple of minutes). I did recently realize that they were much more frequent at work when I was using large-screen Windows displays. One of the very worst migraines I ever had, I had an aura/blind spot and was trying to pinpoint exactly where the blind spot was. Bad idea.


bianca steele 04.11.12 at 1:17 pm

Ironically, as soon as I finished typing that comment, my three year old took my coaster for her new game.


Sev 04.11.12 at 2:35 pm

I was going to mention Sacks, though I didn’t read his book, just the blog in the NYTimes: http://migraine.blogs.nytimes.com/author/oliver-sacks/
I don’t recall his approach being psychoanalytic at all, at least in the blog. Many of the reader comments were fascinating, though word loss does not ring a bell (pun inadvertent).
My wife suffered migraines for years when younger, though rarely now. Triptans didn’t help much. Stress, lack of sleep, pre-menstrual fluid buildup seemed to be factors. She is a workout fiend, and exercise does seem to be a powerful preventive.


veblen's dog 04.11.12 at 4:59 pm

Interesting that your accent is “off.” It could be other influences combining with it. My sister and I both had moderately strong accents when we left central Alabama. I tried to minimize mine, but she married a west Texan and now has this slow, strange mutated accent. About half her speech still has the non-rhotic R we grew up with, but she’s acquired a lot of harsh r sounds in some words. She hasn’t gotten to “worsh” for “wash” yet but it occasionally tends in that direction because, I am convinced, of her husband’s accent. So maybe you’re not fully reverting to your old accent because of strong intervening influences.


Saul 04.11.12 at 11:08 pm

As a neurologist, Oliver Sacks is an occasional embarrassment. Migraine as neurosis?
The man does like some drama and hang the science.

Migraine is really two phenomena, aura and headache. We have a pretty good idea about what aura constitutes but the headache, especially how it is triggered by aura, is more difficult to nail down.

The aura is a creeping (1cm/minute), fluctuating decline in brain function. The best animal model is ‘spreading depression’. Depending on where it is the symptoms vary. A creeping blindness is obvious but having your speech centers shut down is actually surprisingly common. The classic progression is that the aura precedes the headache but an inter-mixture is common with headache and fluctuating neurological problems such as tingling or difficulty speaking being pretty frequent in bad migraine.

Underlying aura mechanism is probably closer to seizure than anything else, certainly the genetic causes overlap.

Anyway, what they are is bloody miserable. If you haven’t seen a neurologist for a while, most of the Singaporean one’s I have met were pretty good so go have a chat.


ChrisTS 04.12.12 at 1:39 am

I was a nearly life-long migraine sufferer. Imatrex was a life saver (pretty much literally) in later life. The migraines began to fade when I started taking Prozac; they vanished in menopause (yay!). Of course, I also got better at identifying triggers.

When I could speak (only at the outset of an attack), I did so very, very slowly and carefully. If the word I needed did not pop up, I simply moved on, leaving it to my listeners to figure out the missing term. I was never told of an accent; however, many people said that -despite my careful enunciation – that my words were slurred.

I beleive that most women do expereince a significant decline in migraines, if not a ‘cure,’ through menopause. So, weirdly enough, it might be something to look forward to.


ChrisTS 04.12.12 at 1:40 am

@Mr Pranks:

Shouldn’t that be ‘Baahstun’? (Grew up nearby.)


Manuel 04.12.12 at 1:58 am

the best recent post on CT. Thanks.


Harold 04.12.12 at 4:31 am

I am very relieved to know my bouts of aphasia– which I’ve had all my life– could be due to migraine (including alarming visual disturbances) — which I’ve also had all my life — and not to Alzheimer’s (necessarily).


KeithEwards 04.12.12 at 5:48 am

I have a subtle Virginian accent tinged with a few stray tinges of Baltimorese (where both parents were born and raised), though it only becomes pronounced and audible (to me at least) when I’m extremely tired. 12 years living in GA didn’t help matters, and even though my wife and I now live in Oregon, we still find ourselves, in unguarded moments, dropping a ya’ll (and even the occasional sheeit) here and there.


Belle Waring 04.12.12 at 1:14 pm

Now I can read Pogo and do the voices properly! Bright side! I have seen a nice neurologist and am taking an impressive array of drugs. I was in the hospital but only briefly, over New Year’s. I kept it together long enough to help make Hopping John and greens and cornbread, ensuring everyone luck in the coming year, and then I went to the A&E.

Really I have had migraines on more than off since the start of December. Ha. I am definitely improving (she said, knocking wood.) I think the accent’s “imperfection” is a result of it being dragged back from the acrolect across some rough areas. My daughter came home sick today from school and she got up in the bed with me. I hugged her and told her she looked pale and ill, and did she know, that was the thing all the mama’s hate most in the world, to see their babies looking pale like that and feeling so hot. Then I thought I sounded just perfectly normal, for a person from South Carolina.


Mister Smearcase 04.12.12 at 5:13 pm

I began to think this when my French professor could not get me to hear, or come within ten miles of pronouncing, the difference between two sounds that sounded like “euuuuuh.”

Supposedly you can hear all four French nasal vowels in the sentence “un bon vin blanc” but, while I don’t think they all sound alike, I can’t make four of them. Either “un” sounds like “in” or “on” sounds like “an.” I recognize that this is about me, not French. There’s a funny Robert Benchley essay that I think lists the various vowels and then gives French pronunciations, all of which are “ong.”


Mister Smearcase 04.12.12 at 5:24 pm

Oliver Sacks wrote a book about migraines some while ago in which he treats it as a classically psychoanalytic neurotic manifestation: when your situation becomes intolerable, retreat into illness. For all I know, this may happen sometimes.

Well of course there’s a classic hysterical symptom where…um…Emmy von N? or someone? can only speak English. Ah, no, it’s Anna O. (Bertha Pappenheim.) Sort of like having an accent you don’t have.

I said “amn’t” when I was four or five. It’s a perfectly cromulent word if you ask me.


Gene O'Grady 04.12.12 at 7:41 pm

I have the dubious distinction of an accent, or a way of speech, that has passed for almost anything. In Ireland they thought I was English, but in Greece they thought I was German. In Oklahoma they didn’t know where I was from, but it wasn’t from there. But the best of all was on a trip to Atlanta with a colleague from Redwood City (about ten miles from where I grew up) where a waitress asked if we had Southern accents and was quite disappointed to hear that we didn’t because she had been in Georgia for almost a year and didn’t think she’d ever heard one.

My mother, for what it’s worth, derived a couple things from her midwestern farm upbringing that linguists claim almost no longer exist, such as “hwat,” like in Beowulf.


Scott Martens 04.12.12 at 7:48 pm

Gene, the whine-wine distinction (saying “hwat” for “what”) still exists, spottily, in the American south. So it’s not so linguistically impossible.


Mister Smearcase 04.12.12 at 9:58 pm

You’d hear “hwat” in Kentucky when I was growing up there (80s), I think primarily if someone was being emphatic.


NomadUK 04.13.12 at 11:20 am

I distinctly recall being taught how to properly pronounce ‘what’ and ‘whale’ and ‘which’ by one of my primary school teachers — I forget when — and it’s stuck with me ever since. I don’t make it totally obvious, but I do try to subtly aspirate (is that the right word?) that ‘w’. Nothing to do with the South. Or maybe I don’t understand what ‘hw’ is meant to sound like.


Scott Martens 04.13.12 at 12:11 pm

Nomad: A lot of people who make the distinction are doing what linguists call “hypercorrection”. Having been told or having assumed they know how they’re prescriptively supposed to say something, they do it despite not actually living in a community where people talk that way. Like the people who don’t use contractions, or use “I” for “me” in weird places, or pronounce “Target” as tarzhay. Hypercorrection can turn into community norms – like the some French-Canadians say “moi” and “toi” as moé and toé, something that started as a hypercorrection and became a norm. But that’s super rare.

It’s the linguistic equivalent of the infamous “Swiss dinar” in pre-invasion Iraq, or the goldbugs who say the “true” price of oil today is about the same as in 1968, if by “true price” you mean the nominal exchange value in gold.


veblen's dog 04.13.12 at 4:28 pm

To O’Grady, Smearcase, & Martens (I think I just invented a law firm):

The H sound preceding some vowels was actually quite common among some of my older Appalachian relatives — I often heard it as a kid in things like “h’it’s a good’un.” All of these relatives were born before about 1920, and also said “you’ns” instead of “y’all”). But I haven’t heard any of that among those born after the TV invaded southern Appalachia.

I have heard “tarzhay” used for Target here in Austin, but only sarcastically, as in “I buy most of my apparel from Chez Tarzhay.”


spyder 04.15.12 at 10:47 am

Oh good, all of this makes me feel so much better now. I was nearly apoplectic after losing my car keys somewhere between the van and my front door (approx 30 feet). I searched for more than an hour, including all the places i thought i could have taken them. Nada. They are gone for good.

But now i find out that i am just one of the many who suffer these sorts of lapses of memory in motion and more.


Katherine 04.16.12 at 3:31 pm

I’ve always associated, via bad sitcoms, the habit of saying “hwat” and suchlike, with upwardly mobile class pretensions – as in, ho ho ho look at those silly working class people trying to be all posh (ie middle class) when they don’t really know how to do it.

Is this a UK, or just a bad sitcom, thing?


Bill Benzon 04.16.12 at 11:29 pm

Brief (5+ minutes) NPR interview about migraines:


Interesting & scary (it seems that chronic migraines can cause brain damage).

Comments on this entry are closed.