Our move from the Pacific Northwest to West Virginia in the early 1980s provided some linguistic surprises.
My daughter, then a seventh-grader, recalls being kidded, or even ridiculed, for use the terms “you guys,” “grandma” and “grandpa,” rather than “y’all,” “grandmaw” and “grandpaw.”
But most puzzling to our family was the use of a “toboggan” for knit-type winter headgear. A toboggan? Really. In the West, as in my husband’s native Massachusetts, and Michigan where I grew up, winter snow called for sledding and tobogganing. We rode toboggans; we didn’t wear them.
After our move to West Virginia, we learned that to many Mountaineers, a toboggan referred what we had known as a stocking cap or beanie or any number of other terms for the knit hats that keep the ears warm.
Finally this month, I discovered the term isn’t limited to West Virginians, but it is primarily a southern term common in the Carolinas, Virginia and West Virginia.
Browsing the internet, I read that knit hats suitable for cold weather while tobogganing became known as “toboggan hats.” But since at least 1929, that second word has been dropped in some areas.
Toboggan itself is apparently was a word derived, or at least influenced by, words in Algonquian languages.
While linguistics have never particularly sparked my interest, a new book, “Because Internet” by Canadian linguist Gretchen McCulloch, caught my attention. Early in the volume she specifically refers to “y’all,” “pop” or “soda,” and other regional differences.
Which brings me to another of our early observances. There appeared to be a wide variety of word usages and accents by native West Virginians.
There was a state native and longtime Putnam County resident who had what to my ear was a pronounced southern accent. Few others in the county had such a pronounced accent. Granted, I don’t have a good ear for accents, rhythm or, at times, simple words.
Among my early assignments at the newspaper was taking information on community and club events for the then “Metro” editions. One caller with only a slight accent called regularly. For at least two months, if not three, I asked her to spell her name. I heard “Camel.” “C-a-m-p-b-e-l-l” she would patiently repeat.
Eventually it no longer puzzled me, but the embarrassment has remained.
But spelling difficulties also relate to our often confusing English language.
Author McCulloch blames the “Latin-worshiping tradition” that she says is responsible for adding superfluous silent letters to words like debt, salmon and island, to reflect the Latin spellings. Never mind that island doesn’t even come from Latin, she observed, and added, “Many languages can’t have spelling bees because their spelling system are so logical that no one would ever get knocked out.”
Now we have another learning curve, or at least some of us do. Electronic communications tend to baffle many of us who grew up under the tutelage of strict English teacher and simply haven’t adopted texting, online chats and the like.
That was clear to me in an email from a friend still in her 70s: “I have been trying to contact u but for one reason or the other ur e-mails get erased.” Not difficult to interpret, obviously, but it highlighted her texting habit.
My husband once printed out a list of chat acronyms and text message shorthand as an aid in understanding our grandchildren’s sometimes cryptic emails. It’s been residing in a file drawer, and truthfully, it appears already to be outdated.
As a couple, we have advanced no further than basic cellphone, internet service and a GPS for travel. Now there is Instagram, Snapchat, iMessage, Twitter, GChat ... the list goes on and on.
In our resistance, we are not alone. On the other hand, we have retirement community friends in their 90s who use their smartphones for texting, shooting and posting photos, even playing games. Ask a question, and one of them will whip out a smartphone to research it online.
Yes, I’m a bit in awe. At the same time, I can’t imagine returning to life before the electronic advances, when we used typewriters, carbon paper and messy mimeograph machines, and we searched for word definitions or spelling in printed dictionaries.
Instead, a computer corrects spellings, allows me to “cut and paste” to move paragraphs with no shears or glue, and then to send this from home to the newspaper electronically by clicking on a “mouse.”