In the inaugural episode of Brave Little State, VPR's new, people-powered journalism podcast, we tackle a question about the history of the Vermont accent, and a question about a strange "thing" at the Waterbury rest area.
Brave Little State is a new monthly show where you ask the questions, you decide what VPR investigates and then you work with us to find the answers.
Our first-ever brave question-asker was Erin Creley, of St. Albans.
Erin moved to Vermont a few years ago, from her native New Hampshire. And when she started to hear how some Vermonters talk, it “flipped my mind,” she said. How could there be a way of speaking unique to the state next door that she’d never even heard before?
As a self-described linguaphile, her experience prompted her to ask Brave Little State:
Erin got even more curious about the history and the variations of the accent when she watched this public service announcement from the Vermont Agency of Transportation, or VTrans. It’s about winter driving safety, but Erin heard something more.
“It had a great range of the spectrum of Vermont accents,” she said.
So we reached out to VTrans and connected with one of the guys in the video, Jerold Kinney, of Randolph, to ask him about his accent and his background.
“I’m not sure what a Vermont accent is. I think everybody else talks funny,” he joked. “I’m not really sure where it comes from.”
Some recent genealogical research revealed that Jerold, like a lot of Vermonters, had ancestors who emigrated from the British Isles, he said. Kinney hypothesized that might influence the present-day accent.
Today’s Vermont accent
Before digging into the history of the accent, we wanted to know exactly what the heck we’re hearing when we hear the contemporary Vermont accent. So we reached out to Dr. Julie Roberts at the University of Vermont. She’s been studying the Vermont accent for decades, making her arguably the expert on the subject.
Together, we developed a prompt that includes certain key words and phrases designed to bring out the Vermont accent in someone who has one. We asked you to record yourself reading it and send it along to be part of the episode — and you did! We got responses from all over the world:
Brave Little State used some of the recordings you sent us to catalog some of the features of today’s Vermont accent.
Glottal stop: This action is responsible for the characteristic “t-dropping” that makes words like Vermont sound like Vermon.’ The glottis is the hole between your vocal chords. Roberts says you get a glottal stop when you stop the “t” sound in your throat, instead of enunciating the “t” by touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
Long “i”: Roberts says this is what makes words like light or time sound like loy-t or foy-t.
Long “ow”: this is what turns those Vermont cows into ke-ows.
Low back merger: This is a feature of many American accents, Roberts said. It occurs when the so-called low-back vowel sounds — ah and aw, as in the names Don and Dawn — are pronounced the same way.
Roberts says, like most accents, Vermont’s tends to be stronger among working class speakers. She said it’s also a predominantly white rural accent that stays alive through isolation.
The Vermont accent(s) of yesteryear
But the Vermont accent didn’t always sound the way it did today.
Older speakers tend to have a more pronounced long vowels, in words like loy-t or ke-ow, Roberts said. One living example of this comes courtesy of Fred Fletcher, a farmer from Fletcher, in Franklin County.
(Fred was unavailable for an interview, but gave Roberts his permission to share excerpts of the audio from an interview with him from the early 2000s.)
We know this, in part, because in the early 1930s, a small team of linguists traveled all around the northeast, interviewing more than 400 people to record the way they talked. What they came up with was the Linguistic Atlas of New England, which mapped out how people talked in different parts of the region.
This recording of Mrs. Emma Ball, age 83, was made in August of 1934:
Julie Roberts, the linguist, notes that Ball drops some of her Rs, like someone with a Boston accent — a trait more common to the Vermont accent of old.
Part of the reason for that is the very geography of Vermont, Roberts said. The Green Mountains used to be a bigger barrier to travel from east to west, and that formed a kind of linguistic rampart. The drafters of the Linguistic Atlas of New England — or LANE — split Vermont into two dialect areas, with eastern Vermont going with eastern New England, Boston and New Hampshire, and western Vermont going with upstate New York.
As the trip over those Greens became less daunting, and people made it more often, the differences in the accent within Vermont faded, Roberts said.
Interestingly, Roberts said it’s still unclear where the most popular feature of the modern Vermont accent — the glottal stop — comes from. Other speakers in the LANE tapes pronounced their Ts, she said. She hypothesizes the glottal stop may have started in 1930s Vermont, though she’s still trying to figure out why. Stay tuned.
‘Twist of the tongue’
Erin Creley, our question-asker, said when she first heard a Vermonter pronounce the word time like toyme — with a long “i” — she thought it sounded rather like an Irish accent. In the LANE audio, Mrs. Ball even told the linguist she suspected her own Irish heritage due to the way she said certain words.
“They tell me there’s Irish about us, and I know there is from the twist of my tongue,” she said in the 1934 recording.
Since Vermont was mostly a secondary settlement — meaning immigrants might have lived elsewhere for a generation before coming here — Roberts said the linguistic waters get a little muddy when trying to trace the lineage of certain dialect traits. But she said it’s “very likely” that the Scots and Irish accents of many Vermonters’ ancestors may well have some influence on the present-day accent.
“It really makes a difference who settled into an area, and whether or not, for example, they said R, or whether they didn’t, or how their vowels were made,” Roberts said. “But certainly there were some influences from settlement that persist, through the years.”
The future of the accent? Not so clear.
Unlike urban accents, rural accents thrive on isolation. So with technological and societal changes, the accent differences within Vermont have softened. For example, Roberts said women now tend to have less pronounced Vermont accents than men, because many would move off their farms to find work in the service industry, where interactions with other people would change their speech patterns.
So what’s the future of the Vermont accent? All of the linguists we interviewed for this story said it’s almost impossible to predict the future of an accent. That’s because, unlike dying languages, you can’t really preserve them; people usually don’t intend to have an accent, but unconsciously acquire one after interacting with other humans.
But if you want some idea of how it might sound, Julie Roberts said to listen to the way younger Vermonters sound today.
As you can hear, the long “ow” and the long “i” tends to go away but, as Roberts said, “the glottal stop is here to stay.”
So is the Vermont accent disappearing? Roberts doesn’t think of it that way.
“Yes, the Vermont accent will change. Some people may think that it’s gone, but I prefer to think that it’s just different.”
To close out this month's episode, we answer a second question from Will Taylor, of Colchester:
Will said “the thing” is fenced off now, but you used to be able to walk this path right up to it.
“There’s this little hill – you walk up the hill, and there’s this weird cement thing,” Will said. “It’s like on a big pedestal, and it’s basically like a giant cement bowl ... There’s no sign, and I don’t know what it is, and I want to know what it is.”
Challenge accepted. Obviously, we had to go on a quest for the thing.
But – much to this reporter’s dismay – the thing proved impossible to locate.
It was not at the southbound rest area. It was not at the northbound rest area. Repeated inspections of said rest areas – a serious hunt for any clue that would indicate the location or the nature of the thing – yielded nothing. Inquiries at two Waterbury gas stations, as well as the town’s park and ride, were in vain.
Nobody had even heard of the thing.
It turns out that the difficulty of finding the object of Will Taylor’s curiosity – the thing – was a big part of the story of the thing. And there are other things. All over the state. And they’re pieces of art.
According to Jack Zeilenga, the assistant state curator of the State of Vermont, the object of Will Taylor’s curiosity is one of 14 massive sculptures at highway rest areas running the entire length of the state.
“They’re strewn about our rest stops all up and down Interstate 89 and Interstate 91, between the Canadian border and the Massachusetts border,” Zeilenga says.
These sculptures were the brainchild of a University of Vermont art professor and sculptor named Paul Aschenbach.
In 1969, Aschenbach convened Vermont’s first International Sculpture Symposium, and artists came from all over the world – Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Japan – to create monumental works of art, from marble that had been donated by the Vermont Marble Company.
Aschenback convened a second symposium in 1971 – this time, artists worked with concrete courtesy of S.G. Griswold.
“There was a big push in the 1960s, certainly in Europe, to try to have this idea of fostering peace through art and public art,” Zeilenga says.
Aschenbach was a big subscriber to this philosophy — and Vermont’s interstates were a prime location for public art.
“At that time in the early history of our highway system, you know, people out on the road, [on] all these family road trips, would really be able to see and appreciate these at all the different rest areas,” says Zeilenga.
The piece at the Waterbury rest area is a sculpture by Aschenbach himself. It used to be visible from the road, and you could walk right up to it – this was when it caught the eye of Will Taylor.
According to Zeilenga, the concrete sculpture weighs about five tons. But today, it’s completely fenced off and hidden by trees.
Low visibility isn’t uncommon for the pieces in this collection, Zeilenga says. Sometimes you have to hunt around for them.
“They’re kind of a hidden gem around the state, in many ways, in this day and age,” he says.
But some of them are hiding in plain sight, including at Waterbury’s southbound rest area:
This collection of art occasionally draws attention from bloggers, photographers and members of the press. Chad Abramovich, the creator of the blog Obscure Vermont, describes the sculptures perfectly: “Monuments to enigmatic decrepitude.”
Some of these sculptures are in disrepair. There are no plaques or signs describing their history. And even if there were, twenty-first century drivers don’t exactly linger at rest stops.
But ... maybe we should. Next time you’re at a rest stop, get out of the car, walk around, and see if you can catch a glimpse of a giant thing.
Brave Little State is made possible in part by Darn Tough Vermont and the VPR Journalism Fund. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons.
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Correction 10:20 a.m. 8/17/16 This post originally included an archival photograph of a man misidentified by the state's archive as Paul Aschenbach. To avoid confusion, the photograph has been removed.