by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – On a quiet, cool, gray Memorial Day, with occasional showers refreshing the thirsty earth and enlivening my view across the back porch, Kiki and I, also very quiet, pass the morning together in the office. I’ve been reading; she’s been lying in my lap. I doubt much of anything articulate is going through her terrier brain. My own brain has been reflecting on the blood sacrifices that have made it possible for us to be so at peace here in what I consider to be the center of the civilized world.
I’ve visited the military cemeteries in Arlington, Normandy, and Gettysburg. Once, in the Italian coastal town of Nettuno, the locals, once they found we were American, and not German (I wonder how they got that idea), lavished enthusiastic “abrazos” and glasses of red wine upon us. We wondered why, until the next day we discovered the military cemetery on the edge of town, where almost 8,000 American war dead, from the Salerno and Anzio landings, are buried. Nettuno had remembered.
The rain comes down; I have no graves nearby to visit; Kiki snoozes and occasionally sighs; I read. And as I read, I’m reminded of something that brings me delight: the hundreds of vernaculars of the English language. That may be a silly, inconsequential thing to be grateful for, but they bring joy to an otherwise quiet life.
What got me started on this is a slim volume, “In Highland Harbors with Para Handy.” Written by Neil Munro and published in 1911, it follows the slightly felonious crew of “Vital Spark,” a coal-burning “Clyde puffer” that delivers cargo along the coast of Scotland. The dialect is old-fashioned, the short “i” changed to a short “u.” (finally revealing why my Scottish mates years ago called me “Wully”).
Think of all the different accents that bring us information about the people we meet. How wonderful it must be, I often think, to speak – almost like singing – in an Irish accent! A local barista from the Ould Sod never fails to brighten my day. An Adirondack accent mixes Irish with Yankee, with the additional pleasure of a simile (“slicker’n a beaver sloid”) in almost every sentence. My mother’s folks’ accents, in western Pennsylvania coal country, remind me how little I know about our heartland.
A Black student of mine used to drive me nuts several times a day by arguing almost everything I said. After one contretemps, he remarked, “Got yer joles smokin’ there, hey, Mr. Lange?” He had access to a whole world of expressions I couldn’t even imagine. I once watched the poet James Dickey and a Dartmouth professor, also Southern-born, launch into a loud, raucous good-ole-boy routine (“You f’m Sath Cairlana!”) that literally made my jaw drop. At my morning kaffeeklatsch I can listen to pure accents from Boston, Vermont, and Brooklyn. It’s ear-candy.
Nobody does a twang, or projects such sentimental sadness, as the descendants of the Scots-Irish who settled the southern Appalachians. Think of all of the varieties of our language – coastal Maine, west Texas, Canadian, Minnesota’s hard “s”pluralss, and the inscrutable guy who calls to flog an extended warranty on your car. Truly, as Robert Louis Stevenson (a Scot) once observed, “The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” As far as I can tell, I am.