Philadelphia Metropolis


The Mother Tongue

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By Robert Corry

There's this game we have played, my three year old and I. It goes like this: he asks for something to drink, and pretending not to understand what he's saying, I don't give it to him. He repeats his request, gesturing towards the sink with a red plastic cup, and I again feign confusion, because while I know he wants water, he's saying wooder, which, as you may have noticed, is how it's pronounced around here.

After a few rounds, he'll try whining. This goes nowhere, but instead of dissolving into a puddle of frustration, he changes tactics and asks again, only this time he opens with Please may I have some (pause), Daddy?

Warning lights labeled Maybe It's Not that Funny To Mess With Your Kids This Way begin to flash inside my head. Then he hugs my leg, which is a preschooler emotional-judo finishing move that cannot be blocked or resisted. He gets his water.

It occurs to me that I'm treading the often fuzzy line between "teachable moment" and "call child protective services." Why? Because my son's accent is slightly different than mine, and this bothers me. That's crazy, right?

Let me explain:

Alphabet R.jpgI'm from Massachusetts. I've lived in Philadelphia for almost a decade. This city has been good to me, and I'm grateful. I met my beautiful wife here. Our children were born here; this is the only home they've known. They are natives, so it's completely normal that they would speak like natives.

Regional accents are wonderful, a charming mishmash of our collective immigrant ancestors mispronunciation of the Queen's English. They're a reminder that we haven't completely homogenized into some bland common denominator, and I think that's just great. For other people.

My dad grew up just north of Boston, though my mother claims that English couldn't be his first language, due to his bizarre enunciation and frequent use of words that do not, as far as we can determine, actually exist in any language.  Though he hasn't lived there in over four decades, his accent hasn't softened a bit. His is a massive black hole of Boston-speak. Denser accents could theoretically exist, but we haven't discovered any yet.

"Bwawby," he'd say, "ask ya mutha if she wants a cuppa cwoffee."

No, fatheR, I'd whisper, like a vengeful phantom from the Island of the Dropped Consonants, Bobby will ask his motheR if she wants a CUP of COFFEE.

I was 13, and I hated everything, so in an act of nerdy, passive-aggressive rebellion, I carefully dissected my own accent and sliced out anything region-specific.

Years from now, I was sure, my friends would make a party game out of guessing where I was from. They would line up for a turn, and they would guess, and they would fail. And I would smile, but only Dream Girl, standing by herself across the room, would notice the sadness around my eyes.

I bet he's really from France, or Tunisia, somewhere awesome, she would think. Or another planet. That would make sense. He's clearly too deep to be from Earth.

"Car. Carrrr," I practiced, studying my lips in the mirror. "As a matter of fact,  I did paRk the caR in HaRvaRd yaRd. Why do you ask?" Yeah, I thought. Nice.

Years passed. I moved away, got a job, and filled my time up. I visited when I could, which wasn't very often. Somewhere along the line, that accent that I rejected started sounding a lot better. I had thought it harsh, like a stubby finger jammed in your ear.  Now it sounds direct, honest, and kind of awesome, like a high-five from an old friend.

Stay away long enough, and almost any connection to home seems like a gift.

"Look!" I'll say to my wife, pointing at a parked car. "A Massachusetts license plate!" She'll nod and smile for the hundredth time, kindly concealing whatever doubts she must be having about this creature she married.

I'll overhear a tourist at Reading Terminal Market, their unmistakable Boston brogue cutting through the noise like a bugle, and feel an overpowering kinship, like a traveler encountering a fellow countryman in a strange land.

So now I understand, a decade and a dozen addresses later, why it's so important to have a place you identify as home, even if you can't live there right now. Why it's so precious when you're small. Why your hometown seems drab and suffocating throughout adolescence. Why some of us need to get out, at least for awhile.

Why, years later, you find yourself awake at 3 a.m., watching Good Will Hunting again, just for that glorious closing scene: A lone car on a familiar stretch of the Mass Pike as the credits roll.

And, I suppose, why it should be okay for a 40-pound moppet to carry a bit of his own hometown around in his voice.  So tonight, when everyone's asleep, I'm going to kneel down next to his crib and tell him that I love the way he speaks. I'll pat his sleeping head, blink away a tear and turn out the light.

Then, under cover of darkness, in one final act of nerdy, passive aggressive rebellion, I'll find his set of wooden alphabet blocks and remove all the R's, because where I come from, they're optional. 












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