Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Imitation Game

I have this thing for accents. I love listening to them and imitating them, sometimes in my own head, sometimes out loud. I have to be careful when I use them in the latter context, so as not to offend anyone, because that is never my intention. I simply find speech patterns a fascinating subset of sociolinguistics. I've done this for so long now that our daughters call it "doing The Voices."

I've tried to remember when this habit started. I don't recall imitating accents as something that I did in my high school or college days; rather, I believe it began when I was traveling for business in the early 1980's. In those days, I was the information technology manager for a Chicago company with five regional offices across the country: two in Chicago and one each in Boston, Los Angeles and Atlanta. I spent significant time on the road, typically visiting each location several times a year for the better part of a week at a time.

My job was very interactive. Unlike today's IT jobs, which are largely defined by remote access to servers, cloud-based applications and toolsets, much of the work in those days was done on site or over the phone. I was in charge of the company's systems development and operations, so I spent tons of time talking to people, and aside from the knowledge I gained by sharing in the day-to-day experiences of my fellow employees, I also began to appreciate the stories they would tell at lunch or after work. The essence of some of their stories simply could not be communicated without occasionally using their own words, with their own inflections.

I learned that every region has an accent and cadence that is particular to its manner of speaking. It's actually quite humorous to witness those situations when the speaker denies that he or she has a regional accent, because we all do. There's nothing wrong with it, because truly, there is no right or wrong in speech patterns. But I still marvel at the fact that people in some parts of the country believe themselves to be accent-less, while many others, although fully appreciating their own lingual specificity, believe that there is one bonafide Southern accent. I mean, we must have over a hundred Southern accents, dag-nabbit.

Back when our daughters were younger and we were taking extended car trips to places like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Vermont, I would occasionally lapse into an accent typical of the region to which we were traveling. I saw it as my bounden paternal duty to give our children a taste of what to expect so that they wouldn't arrive at their destinations as strangers in strange lands. This technique alternately delighted and horrified the girls.

On one particular trip, as we drove through central Mississippi on our way to New Orleans, I began speaking with a Justin Wilson accent. Wilson, as you may recall, had a long, successful career on public television as the host of "Louisiana Cookin'," a show that we watched almost every Saturday. His favorite expression was, "I gar-on-tee." I spent the larger part of our drive to "Nawlins" that afternoon sprinkling my language with faux-Cajun talk, which came to me somewhat easily, since a) it was something my dad used to do, and b) I had watched so much Justin Wilson. Anyway, Sarah, who was 16 at the time, finally had enough of it and said, "Dad, stop it. They don't talk like that down there." I knew better, but I acquiesced.

Several hours later, we pulled into New Orleans and checked into the Pontchartrain Hotel, road-weary but with still enough energy to do some exploring. Our younger daughter Hannah and I went one direction, while Sarah and my wife Karen headed the other, and after about an hour and a half, we reconvened at Jackson Square. Sarah pulled me aside and said, "Dad, I apologize for what I said earlier...they do talk exactly like that down here." I laughed and for a moment felt that rush of endorphins that accompanies every successful parenting effort.

Hannah also has a regular line about my habit, and it never fails to make me laugh. We'll be walking somewhere, or maybe sitting down to dinner in a remote location, and I'll break into an accent. She'll say, "Stop it, Dad! People actually talk like that here!" This causes me to either immediately cease or continue at an accelerated pace, depending on the situation and/or local population density. I do try to exercise discretion in these situations, however, because Hannah has a very good sense of timing and has probably kept me out of many a sticky and potentially life-threatening linguistic confrontation.

Probably at no time did this habit of mine provide more delight to my family than one Christmas season about ten years ago, when the girls, Karen and I visited the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina. After a grand tour of the beautifully decorated mansion, we opted for dinner at a local Carrabba's Italian restaurant. Although we were in an artsy town in the middle of the mountains, something made me use (unconsciously, I might add) my Old Jewish Man accent, which I learned from my friends in college at Northwestern, many of whom were Jewish and would lovingly imitate their older relatives all the time. Every time the waitress would stop by our table to ask how the food was, I would answer with phrases like "Such a lovely meal" or "It's unbelievable...I can't get enough of it," always intoned in the style of Jackie Mason or Henny Youngman.

We finished our dinner shortly before the restaurant closed, and our waitress made one last loop around the dining room to pick up everyone's check. As she stopped at each table, she said, "Merry Christmas!" Finally, it was our turn, and as she approached the table, she paused for a moment and, obviously thinking twice, said, "Happy Holidays!" The girls looked at me with this "Oh, my God" stare, but all I could do was laugh. The story has since become a classic in the annals of our family history, and I have to admit to being somewhat proud of myself for sounding so convincing.

At any rate, I have this habit, and I don't know if it will ever stop. When Sarah brought her new boyfriend Tom to our house for dinner one night in 2008, she asked me to do The Voices. I was a bit hesitant, because I didn't want to do anything inappropriate, but she assured me that Tom would like them, and he did. They've now been married almost five years, so I guess I'll keep doing them. Besides, my own accent is somewhat distilled and needs a little spicing up now and then.