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When lawmakers get together, dialects collide

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Whether legislators attend a "FI-nance" committee meeting or a "fin-ANCE" committee meeting might depend on the chairman.

When lawmakers from throughout West Virginia gather at the Capitol to represent each pocket of the Mountain State for the regular legislative session, a wide-ranging symphony of vowels -- some bent, some omitted and some drawn out -- come together for the party as well.

It can make for interesting communications among members.

"It was probably something that took a little bit of getting used to when I first started in 2001, and now you don't even give it a second thought," said Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, the area of the state linguistics experts say marks the dialect divide.

"But there is a difference in dialect among the state, and I think that's what makes our state so neat."

According to West Virginia University English Professor and Director of the West Virginia Dialect Project, Kirk Hazen, different dialect maps have the north-south divide running at different angles through the horizontal middle of the state, near Parkersburg.

But not even the biggest city is safe from specific linguistic markers.

"Even a place like Charleston -- more town areas are going to have differences from the rural areas around them," Kirk said. "Rural areas outside Fairmont are going to be different from town areas inside Fairmont, and the same thing goes for Charleston."

Senator-elect Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, who has served in the House of Delegates since 2000, has a distinctive drawl, something he said he learned a long time ago that he should accept.

"When I was at Marshall (University), I had a speech teacher," Carmichael said. "The instructor told me he was very impressed with all the content, the delivery and all that, but that I had this incredible regional dialect, so they were trying to say, ‘do you really want to change that?' to try to work with me to change that, but the instructor came around and said, ‘no, this is who you are, you need to work with it.'

"I think that's been great advice I would give any member of the Legislature: to be who you are."

Hazen said American English, overall, from coast to coast, is very "homogenous," but dialect diversity is continuously increasing.

"As long as English has native speakers, it's going to go through a language change," he said.

But, Hazen said, the differences in West Virginia's dialects shouldn't make such a wide divide that members of the Legislature can't get together and communicate.

"It depends on what kind of social baggage they come packing as to what judgments they actually make for the dialect variation around them," Hazen said.

The differences arise most often in the vowels, Hazen said.

A word like "mine" might be pronounced with an "I" sound that has two parts – an "I" and an "ehh," sound if the speaker is from the northern half of the state.

The southern half of the state says a word that sounds more like "mahn," Hazen said.

And words like "pen" and "pin" often also create confusion.

But what makes a lawmaker describes financial effects of legislation as a "fiscal" or a "physical" note is anybody's guess.

 "It's not so much regions sometimes as it is occupations," Carmichael said. "There's some who come from a more working-class background that have a different way of expressing themselves, and I love it all," he said. "That's the beauty of bringing people together for legislation."

Carmichael said there are several members of the Legislature with distinct voices that could easily be identified without actually seeing them, and he says that's a good thing.

"It's not a barrier in any regard at all, but it is sort of a celebration of the different areas of the state," he said.

And Hazen provided a reminder about the two-way street for communication.

"You can't put all the responsibility on the speaker," he said. "That happens a lot with international teaching assistants at universities; students blame the teacher, when students themselves are not being good listeners."