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June 28, 2012 8:48 am

The Amend Corner: Language lesson

Written by Don Amend

It’s always fun to get a glimpse inside the mind of a 5-year-old.

Well, almost 5, anyway; the actual birthday is about a month away, but 4 11/12 years old is a bit tricky to type.

The 5-year-old in question is my granddaughter, Mattea, who lives in Minnesota, a state that, despite the reputation it has gained from Garrison Keillor of public radio’s “Prairie Home Companion,” is not one gigantic Lutheran congregation made up of small-town folks. In fact, it’s a pretty cosmopolitan place.

One of the reasons for that is that Minnesotans have sponsored the immigration of  refugees from around the world, something I’m rather grateful for, since one of those refugees is Mattea’s father. In addition, her Japanese-born aunt and an adopted cousin, also born in Japan, live in Minnesota, along with a lot of Somalis, Hmongs from Indochina and others.

It was in that context that Mattea, a born talker — she is, after all, my granddaughter — who is fond of showing off her verbal abilities, held forth on the subject of language after listening to some kids’ songs sung in Spanish. The multi-lingual moment led Mattea to inform her mother, “Kana (the cousin) speaks Japanese, Daddy speaks Cambodian, Arun (her brother) and I speak American, and Mommy, you speak Wyomin’.”

Now, I hasten to point out that Mattea hasn’t quite gotten the hang of geography as yet. She’s apparently under the impression that, once you leave Rochester, Minn., you’ve left America, so Wyomin’ — she always pronounces it that way — is a different country.

Five-year-old perceptions aside, my granddaughter’s observation contains a kernel of truth. There is a difference between Wyomin’ and what they speak in Minnesota or any other state, for that matter. Most differences are minor, and you can talk to Minnesotans all day without noticing them, but sometimes regional variations can lead to funny situations.

I remember once answering the phone and, before I got the receiver adjusted to my ear, heard someone say “Hello, Dan,” to which I responded that he must have the wrong number.

“Isn’t this Dan Amend?” the voice asked, at which point I recognized the voice of Marvin, a recent immigrant from Chicago, and realized he was asking for me.

On another occasion, I remember the confused look on the face of a colleague who was wearing some rather colorful footwear when Marvin asked him where he got those “sacks.”

I suppose I should have been tuned into my friend’s Midwestern dialect, since I lived with a mother who was from Chicago, but I don’t remember her talking that way — possibly because she actually learned to talk further east, in Pennsylvania. I do remember my Wyoming-raised dad ribbing her about some of her pronunciation, though. She, for example, always put a letter into an “on-velope” for mailing, rather than an “en-velope.”

If Wyomin’ is a different language, though, like other languages, it has some regional variations. When I went to UW, I noticed differences in the slang expressions or the way particular words and expressions were received by students from different parts of the state. The differences were most pronounced by those from the southwestern part of the state, where, coincidently, I found myself teaching a few years later. I can’t remember any specific examples, but I remember occasions when I used what I thought was a common expression, was greeted by blank faces and had to take several minutes to clarify what I meant. I also had to learn to avoid a few expressions—“fiddling around” was one of them — that apparently had a somewhat different meaning to the kids than they did to me.

Well, in reality, Wyoming would have to wall itself off from the world for at least three or four hundred years of linguistic evolution for Wyomin’ to qualify as a different language. Still, there are real differences, and even someone as young as Mattea might notice them. Personally, I noticed one obvious difference between Wyomin’ and Minnesotan in her original comment.

Have you ever heard anyone in Wyoming actually say “Wyomin’ in everyday speech? Unless a guy is singing “Cowboy Joe” or pretending to be a cowboy for the tourists, nobody in Wyoming habitually drops the g when they say Wyoming.

Wyomin’ must be from a different language — maybe Minnesotan.

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