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Talking 'bah-k' in Vermont

On secluded farm, researcher strikes linguistic gold

FLETCHER, Vt. -- Fred Fletcher's arthritic back is almost parallel to the snow-covered earth as he makes his labored way from a crooked, sagging barn on a farm that dates to the state's founding in 1791.

Once inside the house, Fletcher, 62, lays his gloves by the wood stove as an old black dog hobbles past. The dairy farmer then focuses on his feet.

"It takes me a while to get me boots off," Fletcher says with a grimace. Except he doesn't say "while" the way you'd expect.

Fletcher says "woy-il," and his guest from the University of Vermont readies a tape recorder and a small microphone that she attaches to the red suspenders that hold up Fletcher's patched overalls.

The guest, Julie Roberts, is a linguistics professor who has spent parts of the last eight years conducting the first extensive study of the Vermont dialect. And in Fletcher, a stay-at-home man who has taken only one vacation in his life, she's struck researcher's gold.

For here, in a remote farmhouse 20 miles from the Canadian border, Roberts has found a 21st-century link to a generations-old style of speech that might be extinct in 50 years.

It's not as famous as the Boston accent, and it certainly doesn't receive the same national attention as its American cousins from New York, Philadelphia, and the Deep South. But the health of the little-known Vermont dialect matters to "social linguists" such as Roberts and to the National Science Foundation, which awarded a $186,500 grant for the study.

Dialects are a form of cultural diversity, Roberts said, and as such are an important part of the American fabric. "How you speak really identifies whom you identify with," she said.

So far, Roberts has taped 250 subjects, ranging from elementary-school children to the elderly. But it is in the older folks in isolated areas, she said, that the remnants of the "extreme" Vermont dialect remain.

These people, like Fletcher, inhabit a world where cows are "kee-ows," side is "soy-d," hand is "hay-nd," and back is "bah-k." Decades ago, Roberts said, nearly every Vermonter spoke like Fletcher. Now, only a small, dwindling fraction retains that link to the past.

The origins of the accent are lost in time, but Roberts said its foundation probably came with the Scots-Irish settlers who journeyed north to Vermont from Connecticut and Western Massachusetts. French influence also might have played a role in the dialect's development among a people who frequently crisscrossed the Quebec border.

Add the geographical barriers of the White Mountains in New Hampshire to the east, and the Adirondacks in New York State to the west, and the dialect had a hard-to-reach home where it could develop relatively free of outside influences.

But those influences arrived and intensified in the 20th century, accelerated by easier transportation and Vermont's growing attraction for the city-weary. More than half of the state's current population was born elsewhere, said J. Kevin Graffagnino, director of the Vermont Historical Society.

"This is a very valuable thing to do," Graffagnino said of the study. "It's safe to say that some of the Vermont accents, the distinct linguistic styles, are less noticeable today."

Now, the most distinctive form of the accent is restricted to places like this village, where the roads are dirt, cellphone service does not exist, and a stoic man like Fletcher works a 60-acre farm by himself for 15 hours a day, seven days a week. "If people come to Vermont and stick to Burlington or the ski slopes, they're probably not going to hear much of this," Roberts said. "You really have to get off the beaten track."

Fletcher and his farm are just that. Snow-crowned Mount Mansfield can be spied from the road that winds through his cow-sustaining spread, but the sights of downstate Vermont are a rarity for Fletcher. Last winter, he traveled to student-filled Burlington for a doctor's appointment and was amazed at the sights.

"There were some weird-looking people," Fletcher recalled. "I knew they weren't Vermonters."

Roberts clearly enjoyed listening to Fletcher spin tales of generations past, about his love for the land, and about his ancestor who fought in the War of 1812. Vermont dairy farming is his passion, and Fletcher's stories about small-farm life help Roberts roll nearly two hours of tape.

"I never thought I talked weird until people started telling me that," Fletcher said.

To him, the Maine accent has a strange "drag," Bostonians have a "drawl," and he still shakes his head at the memory of the "Brooklyn boys" who teased him about his accent during National Guard training at Fort Dix, N.J., in 1960.

"They'd call me `Old Vermont' and `Farmer,' " Fletcher said. "I had a hard time understanding people."

Roberts said the steady influx of new residents is having a leveling effect on the dialect, and that social mingling of professionals in places like Burlington and among students at the University of Vermont is diluting its distinctiveness.

"Burlington sounds like a nonlocal accent," Roberts said.

And in southern Vermont, she added, a listener is more likely to hear the dropped "r's" characteristic of the classic Massachusetts accent.

Still, the migration of Bostonians and New Yorkers to Vermont has produced a surprise. Many of the children of these transplants are adopting some features of the dialect that their parents don't possess, Roberts said. One of the most noticeable of these traits is the "glottal stop," Roberts explained, by which many native Vermonters drop the "t" in words such as "mitten" and "Chittenden County," and "Green Mountains."

What's evolving is a new Vermont dialect, Roberts said, that will replace the old but will remain unique.

Roberts intends to donate some of her work to preservation-minded institutions, possibly the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury and the university, where tapes will be available for future generations who might never see a "20 kee-ow farm" in Vermont, let alone hear about one.

That's just fine with Fletcher, who seemed bemused by all the fuss about his speech.

"If anybody gets a kick out of it, if anybody enjoys the old Vermonters, let them use it," he said.

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