December 23, 2013

Maine humorist Tim Sample says state’s distinctive way of talking is deep-seated and evolving

The accent and phraseology is alive and well in many Maine communities.

Not everyone agrees that Maine’s accent is fading away.

“If you think the Maine dialect is dying out, you’re not going to the right places,” said Tim Sample, a humorist who has become famous for performances that showcase Maine’s unique culture and way of speaking.

Sample said the accent is alive and well in many Maine communities. He pointed to the peninsular fishing town Jonesport as an example. Go to Tall Barney’s, a restaurant in the small town, at four in the afternoon, he said, and “I defy you to catch more than every third word.”

Instead of fading, Sample said, Maine’s accent is morphing, picking up new terms and discarding old ones.

Take the word “flatlander,” he said, which many people consider to be a quintessential Maine term.

“When I was a child no one, absolutely no one, used the term ‘flatlander’ to refer to people from away,” Sample said.

He said “flatlander” was originally in the Appalachian Mountain region, where it and the word hillbilly were mildly derogatory terms used to distinguish between those who lived in the mountains or the outlying regions.

Some researchers agree with Sample.

One team concluded that the distinctive Philadelphia accent was changing, but not merging with the homogenized Broadcast English often heard on national television programs.

Other studies suggest regional language differences might express themselves in new ways. In 2010, researchers from Carnegie Mellon who analyzed 380,000 tweets found that regional speech patterns are present even on Twitter, as in the case of New Yorkers who tweet “suttin’” for “something,” “youu” for “you,” and “ii” for added emphasis on “I,” all tendencies that are rare in other parts of the country.

Sample said that, with every unique Maine phrase, there is a story.

For example, until fairly recently, the term “wicked good” was used in only two places in the world — New England and the Caribbean.

He suspects the term passed along from one culture to the other via sailors who took shiploads of ice south and shiploads of rum north.

The point, said Sample, is that language always is evolving, and as long as Maine is distinct from other areas of the country, it will have its own way of speaking, a type of tribal distinction that goes back into prehistoric times.

“It’s us and them,” he said. “They talk like that; we talk like this.”

What Sample expects to stay constant in Maine’s speaking patterns is an underlying culture, which he described as contrarian.

“Mainers are full of euphemisms and all sorts of indirect sayings that drive people crazy,” he said.

The underlying message of the understated, laconic Yankee way of speaking, he said, is a rejection of a fast-paced modern lifestyle.

“It says, ‘You know what? There’s no rush.’ It’s going along,” Sample said. “They wouldn’t necessarily know what they’re saying, but that’s what they’re saying.”

Sample said a related quintessential Maine sentiment is the rejection of symbols of wealth, such as luxury automobiles. He said it’s a form of reverse snobbery in which Mainers take pride in getting the last bit of value out of an item rather than rushing out to purchase more.

“The old timers used to say, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,’” Sample said.

— Matt Hongoltz-Hetling

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