Thursday, September 6, 2007

Language Lessons

My friend Edan Lepucki isn’t from here, but she has invested several key developmental years in two “heartland” states, Ohio and Iowa. Out of all the people I know, Edan is the best fiction writer. Out of the whole world, she’s like number five. She teaches Creative Writing in her living room and is working on her first novel. She lives with her husband, Patrick, and Omar Little, a dog.

In this installment, Edan examines the disparities in dialect that keep people from recognizing the “me” in “you.”

Once, after poking fun at my friend Molly’s Kalamazoo, Michigan accent, she said, “At least I don’t sound like a speech therapist.” Perhaps she had a point—maybe growing up in Los Angeles leaves one sounding like a bland newscaster. Maybe, just maybe, I have a non-accent, and I should shut my mouth.

But, how can I not share with you the strange speech patterns and word choices of the residents of Iowa City? This Angeleno spent two years in that fair city, and, boy, did I hear a lot of nutty stuff.

For one, at the Hy-vee on Dodge (that’s the local supermarket, people), the check-out girl in braces will ask if you want your milk in a sack. “A sack?” you might ask. She means bag.

Once when I asked, “Why do you always ask specifically about the milk?” my cashier gave me a shy smile, straightened her yellow and black Hawkeye tie (ties being part of the unfortunate uniform) and said, “Because the container already has a handle.” Oh. Of course.

Also: If you’re a native Iowan, you probably giggled at my use of the word supermarket. My students fell into a roar when I dropped that bomb. I remember one kid saying, “Supermarket? What’s so super about it?” Apparently, the word is grocery store, or just plain “market”.

Once, during office hours, one of my favorite students came to see me about her nonfiction piece she was working on. We discussed various revision possibilities, her nodding all the way through, and at the end, she said, “Can of corn, cool, can of corn!” What? Apparently, that means something along the lines of, “Easy as pie.” My husband Patrick tells me this is a somewhat common phrase in sports, but it was news to me.

On my last day of teaching at the University of Iowa, my students and I threw a class party. It was a potluck, and I brought bagels and cream cheese, always a crowd pleaser. One student brought Puppy Chow…that is, Puppy Chow, Iowa style, a party snack made with Crispix cereal, chocolate chips, and other sweet and sugary ingredients. It’s not bad, actually. But get this: One of my students had never tried a bagel! (Also, he pronounced the first syllable as if it rhymed with “hag” but with a more nasally, flatter “a”). I couldn’t believe it; I mean, hasn’t everyone eaten a bagel, even a crappy Lenders one? When I expressed my surprise, another kid piped up, “You should talk, Edan, you’ve never had Puppy Chow!” True, so true.

Now that I’m back in California, I miss Iowa, and its Iowans, with their big smiles and their game of Bags (pronounced like “begs”, and rhyming with the second syllable in “nutmeg”), a spring and summer past time of tossing beanbags into a box with holes. A good people, for sure. I look forward to living and teaching in Ohio next spring, to see what new Midwestern speech patterns puzzle and awe me.


august said...


Oddly, as a missourian I seem to have no accent in my new neighborhood, compared to the polish/yiddish/italian hybrid that makes up the Brooklyn accent.

Unfortunately, at work this is paled by the Manhattan eloquence that come with being born and raised on a tiny island of billionaires.

Here's a the classic pop vs. soda vs. coke chart
note the use of "soda" in and around St. Louis. Very coastal.

Molly said...

Edan, thanks for your post.

I actually switched from saying "bags" to "sacks" so that I would no longer get made fun of for my Midwestern "-ag" inflection. But now I know I'm not fooling anyone.