When I was first a reporter, one of my daily tasks was to call around to every major metro police department, each sheriff’s office, and a smattering of State Police barracks in the state. “Hello, Ma’am” — sometimes it was “Sir,” but mostly the office manager or receptionist picked up — “anything new?” I’d ask. “Has anything been going on?”
After only a month or two on the beat, my vowels started elongating and concluding consonants dropping. “Maaa’m,” I’d say. “Unythin’ new? Unythin’ bin goin’ on?”
Rendering it here looks ridiculous, as writing in the vernacular always does. And I promise you I sounded stupid, too. After all, I’m from a part of the world where, if anything, we are guilty of overpronounciation. One day, I was chatting with a police sergeant who answered the phone most days at one department. “Honey,” he asked, “where are your people from? Down around Welch?”
I, of course, had never been anywhere near Welch, which is in southernmost West Virginia. His remark snapped me out of it, made me realise how I’d been speaking. There was, in fact, a good reason for my adopting the local verbal tics. I was calling up reticent law enforcement agencies — the sort who’d answer “Nothing much” when a double homicide had occurred the night before — to try to get them to describe the latest crime or accident in gory detail, to be published in the newspaper. The fact that I was a reporter was one strike against me, but sounding like a local might’ve innoculated me somewhat.
It’s a natural thing to want to speak like those around you. Language signifies belonging, membership in a group. That can be true, as The Economist points out, even when a local dialect is grammatically incorrect. Every “innit” and “yinz” is like a secret passcode. These days, mine is back to being “a-boot.”