December 21, 2013

Rome songwriter fights fading accent of Maine-ahs

Ayuh, Maine’s accent is disappearing, but songwriter Stan Keach, with help from Hallowell musician Larry Morissette, is bringing Maine-grown music to area schools.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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MAINE SINGS: Hall-Dale High School choral students rehearse songs by Stan Keach, of Rome, during a recent class. The two songs by Keach feature Maine icons Donn Fendler and Bean Boots by LL Bean.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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WICKED GOOD: Larry Morissette, right, directs choral students at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale as Stan Keach, center, of Rome, records the group singing his songs.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

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Maine’s accent seems to be fading more quickly than memories of the ice storm of ’98.

Morris’ classmate Eva Shepherd, who also sang in the recording session, said the only time she’s heard a really strong Maine accent has been when it’s been parodied.

“People are always impersonating it,” she said, “like the lady in the Marden’s commercial.”

A team of researchers from Dartmouth College and the University of Texas at Austin set out to determine whether the distinctive Yankee accent was disappearing from New England. In a study published last year, they found that islands of Yankee speech are getting smaller and are becoming concentrated in eastern areas, a change that began sometime after the 1960s.

Shepherd’s family is a good example of how Maine’s accent is losing its grip on the tongues of younger generations.

No one in her family has “an overwhelming accent,” she said, but she does hear it in the speech of her grandparents’ generation.

Shepherd said her mother’s accent is weaker than that of the earlier generation. It comes out only on certain words, when she is talking to older family members, or when she is angry.

“When she counts, she’s like, ‘one, two, three, fo-ah,’” Shepherd said. “That’s when I notice it the most.”

Shepherd herself, like the majority of her peers, speaks without any perceptible trace of a Maine accent.

Generational language gaps are nothing new. The Yankee accent that is now being lost is itself different from what came before it, according to Alan Perlman, who earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Chicago and is a linguistics consultant in New Hampshire.

“If you were to listen to a recording from the 1800s, you would hear definite differences,” he said.

But there is also something new happening to Maine’s accent. This time, it’s not just changing. It’s disappearing altogether, as are other regional accents across the globe.

The threat of a mass extinction of regional accents reverses a trend that is as old as human speech itself.

Until recently, global conditions favored the development of more languages.

“It’s all about being isolated,” Perlman said.

Like all regional dialects, Maine’s accent emerged because a relatively stable population lived here for centuries, without much interaction with the rest of the world.

Over time and generations, if the isolation continues, the difference between an accent and its parent language becomes more pronounced. Eventually, the speakers living in different areas can no longer understand each other. That’s how new languages are formed, and it explains how English, Russian and German, among others, came from the same root language.

In modern times, however, for the first time in history, the trend is toward fewer languages and fewer dialects, not more.

In a world of global broadcasts and easy international travel, people and the words they say are increasingly similar.

For English speakers, the end result is the flat, unaffected language that often can be heard on national television shows.

“It’s sometimes called Broadcast English,” Perlman said. “It does not drop the R’s and sounds like it’s from every place or no place.”

And until network broadcasters start saying “ayuh” to indicate agreement, Maine’s will remain one of many regional accents that are giving way to that more universal way of speaking.

Loss of relevance

Should people be concerned that Yankee turns of phrase are going out of style?

Not necessarily, Perlman said.

Old words die, but they are supplanted by new ones that are more relevant to daily life.

“A language is a vehicle of a people, a culture, a society,” Perlman said.

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Additional Photos

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SONG TRIBUTE: Musicians Julie Churchill, left, and Stan and Liz Keach before singing Stan’s song about Maine icon Donn Fendler, who was famously lost on Mount Katahdin as a child.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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CONNECTED TO CULTURE: Larry Morissette directs choral students at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale. The singers were rehearsing two songs that were composed by Stan Keach, of Rome, and feature two Maine icons, Donn Fendler and Bean Boots by LL Bean.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy


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