My grandma passed away at around 2:30 a.m. on September 1, 2011. She was 99, which means she was born in 1912, i.e. before World War I. She was an incredible woman. Here is a link to her obituary, if you’re interested. Here is a touching story that just appeared about all her good work, again in the Mankato Free Press. And here is probably the only tribute to a 99-year-old woman on Thrasher, the skateboarding website. So sweet to see how many lives she touched — thanks to everyone for all the kind words.
Of the many memories I have of her, some of the most endearing — and revealing — were her speech patterns. She was fully cognizant until the end, reading the paper(s) daily up until a month before she died. Still, talking to her was often a window into another time, and I often took advantage in doing so, not just because she was nice and because she was my grandma, but also because she was so interesting. Unfortunately, I only thought of recording her talk after her voice had aged significantly. That wasn’t the way she spoke, and I didn’t want to remember her that way.
First, her laugh. She had the most beautiful and subtly distinctive laugh I’ve ever heard. It was three “ha ha ha”s, evenly spaced and not hurried, like quarter notes in three-four time. The timbre was smooth as water: “eh hahaha”, it would flow, followed by a smile, a little glance, and a twinkle in her eye. This laugh personified her: measured, polite, elegant.
In sociolinguistics, one often hears discussions of apparent time: this is the use of data from speakers at different age “strata”, taken at the same real time, to examine potential changes in linguistic patterns. The idea behind apparent time is that at least some aspects of speech patterns are “fossilized”, so that, say, my grandma never would never sound like a Valley Girl, despite all her contact with my, er, uptalk. In the case of my grandma, language change was perhaps responsible for what I now see as her speech particularities, who knows. Large Ns when studying the speech patterns of 99-year-olds are difficult to come by.
Grandma would pronounce most of the “berry” fruits the “English” way, that is, without secondary stress on the second syllable. This was especially apparent in the case of strawberry, which she would pronounce [stɹɔːbəɹi], while most American speakers (now?) say: [stɹɔbɛɹi]. Having lived in Minnesota all but one of her years (the other, in northern Iowa), I never once picked up on a Minnesotan accent. Her “o”s were diphthongized; the stereotypical Minnesota “o” is a monophthong, a remnant of the Scandinavian heritage in the state. In fact, in the southern part of the state, where Grandma hailed from, the Minnesota dialect is much less pronounced. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Central_American_English, which basically confirms everything in this paragraph (except the stuff about my grandma).
Grandma also never dropped the object of with prepositional phrases in many verbs of motion, as many Minnesotans and Wisconsonites, perhaps myself included, will do: “Do you want to come with?” People from other parts of the country report waiting for the end of the sentence when they hear this construction. “Do I want to come with… what? who?”, although given the context, the implied object is always perfectly clear: “come with” the speaker, and perhaps others.
I suspect that the preferred analysis is that for my upper Midwestern compatriots, with has been reanalyzed as an adverb, akin to the along adverbial definition of “in or into company with others”. Grandma, for example, would most often say “come along“, where here along is a bare adverbial form that I would think be completely acceptable to people everywhere in the U.S. (although my own judgements on such constructions could also be horribly different than non-Minnesotans): “Do you want to come along?” Sounds fine to me, if a bit formal now. That Grandma rarely, if ever, said “come with”, makes me think the with-adverbial construction is relatively recent.
One time about six years ago, to see who of us would do a task, Grandma said “Eenie meenie minie moe”. She paused for a second, then said, sort of out of the blue, “When I was young, some people would say, ‘Eenie meenie minie moe, catch a nigger by the toe.’” Then she looked around the room sternly, as if to reproach the past.
My brother and I stared at each other bug-eyed. I had never heard of that version before, and it was impressive that a 93-year-old recognized that it was inappropriate. I thought for a second: sadly, that version made sense. My version of “Eenie meenie” replaces nigger with tiger, a substitute with obvious phonetic similarities:
Eenie meenie minie moe,
Catch a tiger by the toe.
If he hollers, make him pay,
Fifty dollars every day.
I had never thought about it before, but tigers can’t holler, and you can’t make them pay you money. When the word nigger, and all the connotations it carries, became unacceptable in our society, the counting rhyme was only changed, not expelled altogether from the language.
Knowing this version through my grandma, I thought differently about the collaboration between Sean Kingston and Justin Bieber on “Eenie Meenie”. Sean Kingston is Black, and in this song, Biebs is basically trying to sound as Black as possible, a trope he works with verses such as: “Shorty is a eenie meenie minie moe lover” and “If she holla let her go.” Use of shorty and lack of third-person singular -s, here on holla, are typical of African-American English. So here we have Black and White artist collaborating, White artist trying to sound Black, and both of them using a rhyme that until 40 years ago was pretty damn racist. Progress? Irony? I’m not sure if you could chalk it up to White privilege, which is what Greg Tate would say. I’m currently reading his edited volume in Everything But the Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. I mean, both artists are doing the same thing, and it is Sean Kingston’s song, after all.
But back to my grandma. Since I study the lexicon, Grandma’s vocabulary was particularly interesting to me, and she had a fairly big one. Not like constantly-busting-out-the-dollar-words big, but it did me smile to hear a 98-year-old use words like “subsequently”, “reprieve”, and “business model”. But in saying her vocabulary was large, I don’t mean to imply that people of her generation had larger vocabularies than today’s generations. That’s possible, I suppose, but I haven’t seen any empirical tests looking at this, and anyway, there’s a confound: older people have better verbal abilities in general, so by the time “kids these days” get to be their parents’ or grandparents’ age, they’ll have better verbal skills too. To adequately test the “kids these days” hypothesis, you’d have to test the two generations at the same age, waiting 50 or so years for the young’uns to grow up.
Verbal ability improves across the lifespan up to “young-old” adulthood; in this respect, it is unlike several other cognitive skills such as memory. People only start to show a decline in, say, understanding new words after the ages of 65-74, as this paper by McGinnis and Zelinski suggests. And check out this paper, “What and When of Cognitive Aging” by Timothy Salthouse, that shows a beautiful X-patterned figure in which vocabulary skills increase by age until 65, while scores for speed, reasoning, and recall all decline consistently after age 20. And across multiple studies, people just keep getting better at crossword puzzles, a skill requiring vocabulary recall (either cued or uncued, depending on how the board is filled out), until about age 65, at which point there is a leveling off. In any case, my grandma could have taken consolation in being, quite literally, off the charts in all of this research. The oldest participant tested was 87. I don’t remember her vocabulary at 87, but I do remember that she walked a mile pretty easily, and would still golf.
The last time I saw her was, luckily, just a week before she died. I was back in Minnesota for 36 hours (after Las Vegas) to pack up my stuff and drive up to Edmonton. My stepmom told me that Grandma had declined dramatically since I had last seen her a month ago, and that I might want to consider stopping by again. My stepmom does not say such things lightly, so I drove an hour and a half to have lunch with Grandma for an hour, then turned back and drove an hour and a half home.
By that point, she had pneumonia, and although she was coughing less than she had previously, every syllable was labored. She had stopped putting cornstarch in her water, a treatment she had for almost a year to help her swallow easier, because she hated the taste and texture. The last thing she said to me, after wishing me well in Canada, was, “I love you”. This may not seem surprising to most people, but my grandma was so reserved, she would never say it. I would often end our phone calls with “I love you Grandma”, and she would say, “Yep, goodbye now” with a smile in her voice. That she loved me was never in in question, but it was nice that when she knew it counted, she made her vocal folds churn out those last three syllables.