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Intone 'Utah English' with pride

Dialect a 'prestige feature' originated with the pioneers

Published: Friday, July 25 2003 7:16 a.m. MDT

PROVO — Pioneers began to settle Utah 156 years ago Thursday, bringing to the wide streets of Salt Lake City much more than what some managed to fit in covered wagons and others pushed or pulled in handcarts.

Among the items that survived the wrenching trek and subsequent problems with impatient U.S. presidents and ravenous crickets were wide-ranging variations of English.

The odd melting pot of accents and dialects from the British Isles, Canada and virtually every American state and territory created a new version of the language — Utah English — that is still spoken throughout the state.

It's how people here can be "barn in Spanish Fark," instead of born in Spanish Fork. And eat "carn" instead of corn; heck, they even manage to alter hymns so that "We'll Sing All Hail to Jesus' Name" becomes "We'll Sing All Hell to Jesus' Name."

Some presumably even "fell" an English test or two.

Proof that pronunciations like "Spanish Fark" originated with the pioneers was found by Brigham Young University linguistics professor David Bowie on audio tapes of LDS General Conferences dating back to the 1930s. The earliest born speaker recorded on those tapes was the legendary J. Golden Kimball, a feisty, often foul-mouthed church elder born in 1853. With some disappointment, Bowie said Kimball's taped speech lasts but six very sedate minutes.

The next oldest leader captured on tape is church President Heber J. Grant, who was "barn" in 1854. What Bowie found on these and other recordings came as a shock — the dialect now ridiculed by some in this pretty, great state was considered cultured by Utahns of the 1930s, and it was apparently born of a deep Southern influence on the Saints.

"It was like a prestige feature, not something people made fun of," Bowie said. "It seems like they were doing it on purpose. You can hear it in quotations of Scripture, when that's where you're going to have formal English during religious talks."

So, how did the something once considered prestigious come to be the subject of mockery?

"There is a lot of linguistic insecurity among Utahns, that people are going to look down at them for the way they talk, when people outside the state don't really have that reaction to Utah English," Bowie said. "There are some exceptions, like Californians at BYU, who take it as a point of honor to make fun of Utah English."

There's little reason to be alarmed that Utah English, or what Utah Valley State College theater professor James Arrington lampoons as "Utahnics" in his "Farley Family Reunion" skits and books, is endangered.

"Things people are conscious of are disappearing," Bowie said. "There are other things that people only notice if you point it out to them, and those are still there and even growing stronger."

For example, many Utahns who decide to move put their homes up for "sell."

"It's things people still aren't quite aware of," Bowie said. "Things that don't carry the stigma."

Those Utah stigmas are tainted by inaccuracy, too. For example, Utahns who seem to drop the first "n" in mountain and the "t" in Layton aren't doing anything unique.

"Nearly everywhere in the English-speaking world people are going to say mountain with a catch in the their throats," Bowie said. "In Utah, the catch in theirs is a little more pronounced than other places, but people in Utah tend to be very insecure about that sound and those words, but it's something found everywhere."

When it comes to language, Utah's "Dixie" extends north, south and east of St. George. Bowie didn't expect that, though others have pointed to a Southern influence on prevalent Utah sound patterns.

It's hard to shake the view that the pioneers were adults who came from northern Ohio, upstate New York, Massachusetts and Canada, but Bowie said it is important to remember they were also teenagers and children were born and raised in western Missouri, west central Illinois and Iowa, areas with a lot of Southern influence.

"Children learn language from their peers, not their parents," he said. "They were influenced by their peers, who were at least linguistically southern."

Bowie goes so far as to term Salt Lake City a "Southern" settlement, in terms of language.

"I can't prove it, because I don't have a time machine, but I have a lot of evidence," he said.

Bowie also thinks Utahns should think twice before turning a cold shoulder on their linguistic heritage.

"Utahns are a very friendly people," the Maryland native said. "The way you talk is part of you being friendly and helping others. If you are really trying to eliminate bits of the way you speak you can eliminate some other things that under no circumstances do you want to lose."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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