The foreign languages of Illinois
January 26, 1984
As a boy, I was given very few lessons in how to compose American English. I was taught even less about how to pronounce it, apart from never saying "ain't." I grew with less of an accent than some of my older relatives nonetheless because I had the helpful example of television reporters and hosts.
I say "less of an accent," not "no accent. I was flattered when one of my New York editors wanted to show me off to his friends until I realized that I was regarded as a curiosity because I was able to converse intelligently in a hick accent. (Brooklyn boy Norman Mailer was similarly fascinated by James Jones, who grew up in Robinson, Illinois, maybe 90 miles south of Springfield.)
Looking back on the outcome of the game itself, it seems now to have been a small enough complaint. But at the time I shared the irritation expressed by Chuck Flynn, the editor of the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette in his pre-Rose Bowl editorial. “We hope . . . fervently that the announcers will have learned how to say ill-in-noy' and ill-lye'-nye, not ill-in-noise' and ill'-in-nee.”
To Flynn, “Illinoise” may seem simply an error born of some failure of exposure or instruction of the sort which explain Mr. Reagan’s fanciful excursions on such topics as polluting trees. But how can we explain the fact that more than a few native Illinoisans say “illinoise”? it is tempting to answer that the “noise”-makers are wrong and the rest of us correct; the English are not the only people who use spoken speech to rank people according to class.
But might not “Illinoise” be thought an acceptable variant of Illinois? Or even preferred? Precedent rather favors the noise-makers. The first white explorers hereabouts were French, and the name of the state is a Frenchification of the Miami Indian word “ininiwek.” The place is littered with French place names, though you’d never know it to hear Illinoisans speak. Our rendering of Des Plaines, as in “Chicago, suburb of,” is typical. We Anglicize it in the crudest possible way so that it comes out as “dez planes.” The names of towns such as Vincennes come in for similar rough treatment. (One of the very few exceptions is found in eastern Illinois, where locals refer to the Embarras River as the “ahm-barrah.”)
It is sobering to reflect that we are outdone in sophistication by Iowans, who manage to get their tongues around Des Moines without accident. I’m certain that it is commonplace of conversation in Perry County to berate whatever damn fool who stuck in so many useless letters when he spelled the name of “Buckup” (that is, Beaucoup) Creek.
Clearly, any people whose general cultural resistance to foreign languages is so inveterate that the manufacturers of Chic jeans feel compelled to call their product “Chick” are not likely to balk at “Mar-sales.” However, were our pronunciation of French place names merely incorrect it wouldn’t be interesting. It’s inconsistent as well. Look at “Illinois” again. Most of us make a concession to the original French by not sounding the final “s” but shrink from giving it its full French pronunciation, which would cause it to blossom on our lips as “eel-ee-nwah.” This is much more musical, as well as evocative of the state’s past. But it is likely to remain beyond the ambitions of a generation of news readers who pronounce even a straightforward English word such as "nuclear" as “nuke-you-ler.”
Actually, we tend to speak English as if it were a foreign language too. When L. summered in London a few years ago, she was often mistaken by locals for an Australian. Midwesterners have much in common with Aussies—Australia was settled by crooks, Illinois is run by them—including a nasal tone of speech and wayward vowels.
I’ve always guessed that our peculiar speech can be traced to the circumstances of settlement, leaving us with an unlucky blend of Kentucky drawl and Yankee twang. Tone and tempo are ingredients in spoken speech as well as pronunciation. In April last year, the Chicago Tribune's Bob Greene opined that Chicagoans have the worst sounding speech in the country, makirig noises (as he put it) like an El train derailing after taking a curve too fast. Mayor Daley certainly was not John Gielgud. But the Chicagoans I’ve known speak quite acceptable English; indeed, the most Chicago-sounding person I’ve known came from Decatur. Chicagoans do talk faster, however. The speed of speech slows as one moves south from the Loop, possibly because there is less and less to talk about. I carry on conversations with friends from Carbondale the way chess fans on different continents play matches by mail—one word at a time, once every week or two.
However we got our speech, hearing it does not put one in mind of violins. Virtually the only eccentricity to which Downstaters can justly lay claim is their pronunciation of vowels. Almost to a person we pronounce “Illinois” as “ell-uh-noy.” A word such as “anything” is made to travel under false papers, as it were, as “inny-thang.”
Consonants fare little better. One central Illinois TV anchorman refuses (perhaps as a result of some childhood trauma) to pronounce the letter “t” when it appears in certain wording combinations, with the result that “verdict” stumbles into our living rooms at six as “verdick.” In fact, “t” seems to try our patience generally, usually being pronounced as a “d.” (Language teachers of my acquaintance tell me that one of the hardest things about teaching central Illinoisans other languages is getting them to move their lips.) The effect of these habits is reflected in our spelling. Young people, working in the dim light provided by their public educations, spell words the way they sound. Thus “cooties,” the World War I slang for body lice survives on campuses like the U of I’s as “coodies.” Similarly, a graffito at a downtown Springfield bus stop memorializes the visit there of one “Dirdy Jack.”
At the same time, I, like many commentators, bemoan the loss of regional accents in U.S. speech. I agree with critic Louis Kronenberger, who thirty years ago noted that a distinctive way of speech (what he called a “regional twang”) is one of the things that make people interesting. I can offer no better example than that of Mr. Roberts, WCIA’s estimable TV weatherman in whose person resides whatever dignity the medium still possesses around here; Mr. Roberts’ broad “a”'s suggest that he hails from somewhere farther east than Paxton.
It is at the well-deserved risk of being called a hypocrite, therefore, that I also confess that for the last twenty years I’ve been trying hard to get rid of my own regionalisms. I was brought up speaking the rural Illinois of west central Illinois. As a boy I quit calling the nation’s capital “Warshington,” for example, although I still forget that “for” has an “o” in the middle and not an “e.” Were Prof. Higgins to hear me speak, he would peg me instantly as a Beardstonian who spent many of his formative years listening to Don Feldman.
The question occurs, Why? Canadian Stephen Leacock once observed that spoken English was a matter of taste. While he preferred the sound of the cultivated Scot, he spoke Ontario English. “I don’t admire it,” he wrote forty years ago, “but it’s all I can do; anything is better than affectation.” I wonder. Hearing a small town cafe waitress ask, “Kin I git chew innythang?” would spoil your appetite even if the food didn’t.
I can’t deny the charge of affectation, although I should add that the most affected accents of all are those exaggerated regionalisms adopted by people whose education and experience should have taught them otherwise. I think that much of my impulse to be my own Eliza Doolittle came from the same youthful idealism which led me to expect that cops should be kindly and Presidents honest. An “a” should sound like an “a” and a “t” a “t,” I reasoned, because if they didn’t, well, think what a mess the world would get into.
And an “s” like an “s”? As in Ill-i-noise”? □