Teaching Rhode Islanders to ‘Tawk’ Right
John de Nugent is standing in front of his class with one thing on his mind, the letter “r.”
He’ll eventually tackle the other letters and sounds that elude his students, but for now, he tucks his chin, grits his teeth, shakes his head back and forth, and growls like a dog.
“Grrrr,” repeat his students, completing their first lesson in how to reduce the Rhode Island accent. The three-hour course, “The Great Rhode Island Accent Reduction Program,” is designed to help Rhode Islanders put the “r” back in the “cah” they drive and take the “aw” out of their morning cup of “kawfee.”
With any luck, they’ll also soften the “aa” in “god” and restore the “th” to “that.”
“It’s not veel smott to tawk with a Rho Dyelinn accent around othaa people,” de Nugent chided.
The accent is similar to the one heard around New England, where dropping the letter “r” after vowels is a trademark. Adding an “r” in other places is also common.
Allan Metcalf, executive secretary for the American Dialect Society, pointed to a famous New Englander for an example.
“President Kennedy said something like, ‘Cuber is a concern’ instead of ‘Cuba,’ ” he said.
The New England accent is a product of Old England. During the 18th century, it became fashionable in England to omit the “r” after vowels, Metcalf said. Brits settling in America continued the trend, where it spread up and down the Atlantic coast.
“The rest of the country stopped looking to New England as an example of how to do things. New Englanders didn’t realize that until later,” he said.
With notable writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in their back yards, New Englanders believed they were setting the nation’s language trends, not falling behind them, Metcalf said.
The goal of the course, offered by an adult education network called the Learning Connection, is to get people thinking about the way they speak and why. He says once a person is aware of what he or she is doing, the pronunciation can be refined.
But dialects -- and certain words, including how they are pronounced -- can reflect an attitude associated with a region. De Nugent says the purpose of the course is to “lighten the accent up” but not get rid of it.
The New England accent is aggressive and assertive. New Englanders speak quickly too -- twice as fast as Texans, in fact -- which makes other people suspicious of them. “You don’t want to dampen that spirit,” he said.
Indeed, de Nugent begins the course by explaining why he’s proud to be a Rhode Islander, but “the accent is not something that will get you forward.”
On the contrary, said Rhode Island cartoonist and author Don Bousquet, who illustrated “The Rhode Island Dictionary.”
“They should be taking courses to increase their accent,” he said, adding many Rhode Islanders have an inferiority complex because of the state’s size and because of how they speak. “They’re not proud of their accent? Do they want to sound homogenized? Do they want to sound like Californians?”
During the course, students listen to radio excerpts and voice-over recordings, and repeat de Nugent’s pronunciation, which he perfected after being ridiculed for his accent while in the Marine Corps. “People hear it and start snickering,” he said.
That’s one reason Jim Caracciolo, 25, of Warwick, wants to soften his accent.
“People let out a little chuckle and then move on, but I just don’t want the way I talk to be a part of the conversation,” he said. This is a daily effort, he said, especially when he’s around people who are not from Rhode Island.
“It’s not that I’m embarrassed. It’s just I don’t like explaining myself,” he said.
De Nugent, who is fluent in German and French, uses political leaders as examples of speakers with good accents. Former President Reagan, a noted orator, is at the top of his list for his ability to deliver a speech.
The current president is at the bottom. “Texans emphasize the ‘r’ too much. How does President Bush refer to the axis of evil? They’re evildoers,” de Nugent said, exaggerating the “ers.”
Metcalf said accents tend to fade as generations pass and the entertainment industry influences what people hear.
“Look at the Kennedys. Patrick and the others have less of an accent than John did. Even Teddy has lost it some,” he said.
Yet even de Nugent concedes that some words just sound better when they are spoken by a true Rhode Islander. “Dog. I think it’s perfectly perfect as ‘dawg.’ And of course, quahog, the hard-shell clam, say it as you like,” he said. That’s “qwahaag” to some and “ko-hog” to others.
“Languages have a soul and a spirit to them. Ask yourself, is this a sound I want to be making loudly or do I want to soft-pedal it?” de Nugent said. “Then you’re ready for prime-time.”