On Languages, Accents and Being Home

I am from a small town just southwest of Cape Cod; On our end, the Cape Cod Canal begins in the waters of Buzzards Bay, just outside of Onset Bay. My husband says that people here “talk funny” but that is because I don’t have an accent, not a discernable one anyway. My mother wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t let us ‘Pahk our cahs.” For that matter, she insisted on being called “mother” not “mom or mommy.” She did not like nick names. She was from Baltimore, where people generally call everyone “hon” (pronounced ‘hun’ and short for honey) and they go “downey ocean” which means they are going to the ocean, literally ‘down to the ocean’ short cutting the articles and infinitives. Somehow those local shortcuts offended her sense of the English language. But please, don’t stop reading.

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center
Made in Portugal

My grandmother was from Lisbon, Portugal and she spoke wonderful broken English, with a thick Portuguese accent. I loved to hear her talk. I loved my grandmother, I loved the sound of her voice and because of all those things, I learned to love the sound of all languages. She loved the soap operas which she called “her shtories” (that’s not a typo, but an attempt at her dialect) and she would point to a character who was especially bad and say, “Him no good! Him bashta!” Now, I am not sure if that is Portuguese or if it was her mangled English, but it meant that his mother was not married.  My husband though, has a different translation. When I tell him that he is a “bashta” after what I think is some genuine provocation, he turns to me and says, “That is Portuguese for ‘you sweet loveable man.”

I had a lot of opportunities to do overnights with my grandmother and I was enthralled with the slow, definite, way she would do things.  At night she would take the hairpins out of her long, grayish white hair and brush it, probably 100 strokes like many of us were taught. Her furniture was very modest. The couch was a bed with a couch cover and bolster cushions. She had at least one large wicker chair if not both. When I was very little and spent the night, after she tucked me into bed, she would push the wicker chair over to the side of the bed to keep me from falling out.

Picture of my an old woman, a young child holding a baby doll. My grandmother, Mary Perry Marcellino and me.
Grandma Marcellino (Mary Perry Marcellino) and me, circa 1955

I never learned Portuguese and my father who most likely spoke it, never spoke it at home. That worked out in my Aunt Myra’s favor because when I was at Grandma’s and Aunt Myra came over from her house next door and she began to rattle off in Portuguese and they would talk. I never knew what they were saying, although now I am pretty sure that the conversation started with Aunt Myra saying, “Is she here again? Why don’t her parents stay home?”  

I am not sure I can spell my mother’s name the way my grandmother pronounced it, but it was something like “Mahhhhhh ga retttttttttta, you got ‘em cup shugah? ” One of the best accent stories about my grandmother could get me in trouble here; It is the day my grandmother got in trouble with the bus driver. She was taking the bus uptown and wanted to be dropped off at the USO.  But what she said, from the back of the bus was, “Bus drivah, you let ‘me off UASSO?”   She really wasn’t calling him names; it was just how she spoke. And if you are reading this and thinking, that sounds like….you would be correct.

Grandma wasn’t the only one in the family to get in trouble or embarrassment over accents and languages. I recently checked into a unit for vacation and two men were discussing the best location to set the new thermostat. They were rattling away in a language I didn’t recognize, and so I asked them what language they were speaking and where they were from?  Imagine my embarrassment when one of them said, “we were speaking English!” He was polite, I was red faced. He said he was Turkish, and his friend was Albanian. As embarrassed as I was over this little international incident, it also made me wonder why we could come from 3 different backgrounds, have a conversation in which one of us had committed a social guffaw (that of course was me) and walk away peacefully without retaliation?

I can’t say that I have a studied ear for accents but when I hear any accent that is not native to the particular locale we are in, I generally ask “Where are you from?” and it can be a good conversation starter. When my husband and I made our first short trip to Massachusetts, after he ordered breakfast and the waitress walked away, he looked at me and said, “These people talk funny.” I really don’t remember what I said in response, but what I wanted to say was “Shut up and let me listen!” Because that accent sounds like home to me. 

Picture of the Cape Cod Canal, clouds reflected in the water.
The Cape Cod Canal on a Sunny Day in October, 2019

I recently made a phone call from home in Pennsylvania to a local businessman in Wareham to request his services. We talked for a bit about when he could do it, etc. and I wanted to say, “just keep talking.” I just wanted to listen, not so much for the sound of his voice, but to the sound of his accent. But I didn’t want him to think I was flirting, so I concluded the conversation and hung up. 

 Even though my husband says that I do not have that accent and therefore do not ‘talk funny’ he has said for years that when I get tired my “A’s” get a little broad. He says that when I am referring to the Lord, it would be spelled “G-a-w-h-d” and then there is the little matter of the liquid one uses to make tea, coffee and the like. It is probably not strictly a Massachusetts accent but something I picked up from the Philadelphia nuns who taught school at Sacred Heart, near Plymouth. “Wart-er” has crept into my conversation. In one of the churches I served, every time I would say “Wart-er” the youth in one of the families would nudge their parents, as if to say, “she is at it again.”  Indeed, I am. One night last October, I had dinner with 11 of my high school classmates, and to hear them talk! Really, you should hear them talk! It was wonderful, it was music to my ears and heart.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Photo Courtesy of Onset Bay Association

Published by msomerville2014

About: Michele Somerville is a wife, mother, stepmother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. She lives with her husband and their dog Sheba. Sheba is their fourth rescue dog in 30 years. She is a retired ordained United Methodist Elder and serves two churches part-time in North Central Pennsylvania. She obtained her Bachelors’ Degree in 1999 from Mansfield University and her Master of Divinity in 2004 and Doctor of Ministry in 2016, both from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. My Doctor of Ministry Thesis was:” Prophetic Words of Grace: Biblical Storytelling in the Local Church.” Michele began writing and performing character monologues for worship in 2008. She began by asking the question about nameless characters in the Bible, “What would they say if they could speak for themselves?” and then using her theological education and experience of the human condition to attempt an answer that is both academic and creative. Much of what you will read here are memories from growing up in a tourist town, in a bar, in the 1960’s, shaggy dog stories about our rescue dogs, life in a small town, and stories of faith and hope. Throughout her life she has lived in many states, including small towns, large towns and cities. She lived in Rota, Spain, for nine challenging months. Despite all the places she have lived since moving away from home in 1970,Michele is at the heart of all things Jack and Maggie’s daughter, and a beach girl from Onset, Massachusetts.

8 thoughts on “On Languages, Accents and Being Home

  1. What a wonderful story about your grandmother and accents. As it turns out, I am from just outside Philadelphia and my sister lives on Buzzards’ Bay on the Cape. I run on the canal path every summer. I learned a little bit of Portuguese this year because we were supposed to go to Portugal. In fact, today was the day we were supposed to come home!

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    1. Oh, Laurie, that is so funny. I live in Tioga County Pennsylvania. In Blossburg. You must be disappointed about your trip. I hope you will be able to make it next year, or later this year. I got some really lucky pictures of the canal when I was home visiting in October. Cannot wait to get back. Thank you for connecting. I am glad that you liked the post.

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  2. HI Michele….Love this story. It’s very similar to mine except my grandparents were straight from Finland….came here in their twenties. I loved listening to them and, because they would throw in an English word every now and then, I could understand a lot of the conversation. The Finn relatives are all gone now but I still like to listen to recordings/songs now and then. Same with the NEw England accents here too, although none of US hear it. So funny!

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    1. Thanks Carol, for sharing that. I have a cousin who is 11 years older than I am and he says my father definitely spoke Portuguese. The little bit of an accent I have I do not normally hear either! Stay well friend and thank you for commenting!. Blessings, Michele

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  3. Hi Michele, after years living in Russia, and married to a Frenchman, my Australian accent became something very unusual. Some people said I sounded South African, some said I had a French accent, and some people just said I had a ‘strange’ accent. And apparently, when I speak Russian, I do so with a French accent! Crazy! 🙂

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  4. Thanks Cheryl Still catching up. I have lived in other states, and when I lived in Florida, the panhandle is rather like “South East Alabama” I could y’all quite a bit. But moving home back north brought me back to my ‘mother tongue’ or speaking the way my mother preferred.! Thanks for sharing

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    1. I guess we’re easily influenced by what we hear around us! I know other people who absolutely kept their own regional/national accent even after spending years in Russia. My accent is extremely flexible, and I guess I’ll just accept that and try not to look for my ‘mother tongue’ anymore! Have a lovely week. 🙂

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