Thursday, February 26, 2015

“Baby hungry,” and other Utahspeak

 I wrote parts of this is in 2009.  I am re-posting it with some editing and updating.

This cartoon was posted on Facebook recently with a question, “Is the term ‘baby hungry’ specific to Utah?” According to people from other areas of the country who had never heard it, apparently so.  I remember when I first heard “baby hungry” several years ago. Even then I knew it means that a woman is longing to have another baby, but I found the phrase as ghoulish as this drawing.

Some linguists can trace a regional dialect to within 50 miles, and I assume that means they can also track down words and phrases peculiar to a particular area or local population. Utah definitely has some peculiarities specific to local speech.

At age five I was singing, “Hell, hell, the gang's all here,” when my mother corrected me. She told me that I had turned a long “a” sound into a short “e”. She corrected me often in my speech and set me off on the correct path, but she couldn't ever change my dad. Both Dad and Mom came from a rural area in the center of Utah and Mom did not want to talk like the “hicks,” as she called them.

Utahns often pronounce a word like “hail” as “hell”; they also pronounce “meal” as “mill”. My brother and I did jokes about going to a restaurant and having a “rill mill.” It was a lot to do with our father. Dad had a pronounced Utah dialect, where he turned long vowels into short. He also had a strange Utah way of turning an “or” sound into an “ar,” examples being harse, sharts, and the one that tickled me, fartunate. I’ve heard some people with that speech habit do a reverse, and also turn the “ar” into “or” as in “I drove my cor.” And speaking of cors, my dad also called a Chevrolet a Shiverlay.

Watching some local television commercials recently I heard a furniture store manager use the short e sound in referring to his “knowledgable sellspeople,” and a car dealer loudly exhorting us to “test drive a Shiverlay.”

Many of my fellow Utahns communicate through Utahspeak, with expressions understood by locals but puzzling to outsiders. We in Utah know the exclamations, “Oh, my heck!” and “good hell.” “Good hell” comes from the Mormons. They use it rather than “good heavens” because decades ago some church leader apparently said it’s disrespectful to use heaven — a holy place — in an oath. Local folks who use these terms often don't realize they are indigenous to Utah.

Jeff Foxworthy made a living out of Southern dialects that sound funny to non-Southerners, but only in Utah can you hear someone who mangles the word “ignorant” to sound like “ignernt” and means rude rather than “without knowledge.” Other examples of Utahspeak are “sluffing” to mean playing hookey, or “baby tending” when babysitting. It’s too regionalized, unfartunately.

I realized at some point that Dad couldn't be corrected because he couldn't hear what he said. It sounded correct to his ear. He asked me once, “How do you pronounce s-h-o-r-t-s?”

I said, “shorts,” pronouncing it with the short “o” sound.

He said, “I was talking to this guy from New York and he was making fun of the way I say that word! But I say it just like you, sharts!

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