I grew up in Portland. I have lived all but four years of my life in the Northwest.
I was taught that I had no accent. I went to school with people from across the country and compared to them I had no accent. I still believe that I have no accent, but I am wrong.
“Everybody has an accent,” the chief editor of the Dictionary of Regional English Joan Houston Hall told me. “It just depends on what you’re comparing it to. People in the Midwest like to think that they don’t have an dialect, they don’t have an accent, and the same is true of the Northwest.”
DARE is a publication that has spent decades compiling all the quirky ways Americans speak all corners of the country. Hall just finished editing the fifth edition that covers “S-Z.”
She said it’s true that people here in the Northwest don’t have an overbearing accent like you might see in the Northeast or the Southeast, but we have one.
Some scholars suggest people in the Northwest only use 14 of the 15 vowel sounds. Try this example. Say “cot.” Now say “caught.” They shouldn’t sound the same, but they do when spoken by people in the Northwest. We seem to want to leave off the “u” sound in “caught.”
“The more you went West,” Houston Hall said, “the more mingling there was.” So our region lost some of the heavy accents as people moved further away.
What we do have is an English that is influenced by Indian Tribes, and the type of work done in this region. Our Northwest language is dotted with words derived from fishing and logging and sailing. “Geoduck” ring a bell? How about a “muckety-muck?” You probably won’t hear those words outside the Northwest.
But this region has given back. “Skid Row,” that’s a phrase that started in Seattle. It didn’t always mean a rundown part of town. It started as Skid Road. The road where logs were pushed down the street.
Hall says it’s these regional quirks that give America character, and it helps people identify where you’re from.
“Look, for instance, at the way we talk about our grandparents,” Houston Hall said. “Is your grandmother your granny, your grammy, your nana, your moma or your big momma?”
Soda or pop? Hero, grinder or hoagie? Those are the easy ones. There are more than 300 ways Americans describe getting drunk.
“It’s interesting the number of words to describe drunk people that have to do with cooking,” she said, “from being stewed, to fried to boiled.”
There are nearly 200 words in American English to describe a dust bunny. Words like cussywop, woolies and woofinpoofs. There’s also a long list of ways to describe the parking strip in front of your home.
Some people worry that these distinctive and colorful words that differentiate American regions are fading because our society is very mobile, but Houston Hall isn’t worried.
“Because language changes at different rates in different places and in different ways in different places, we’re never going to be homogenized.”
So Boston, you can keep your “wicked,” and L.A., you can keep your “Hella.” I’ll keep my “Skid Road.”