H. Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff
There are two things, generally, that we know about the Vermont accent. One is that it can sound vaguely, confusingly British. When you hear it in the wild (or from a dairy farmer on a chilly April day), it’s easy to imagine yourself in Northern England or even Scotland: “toight” for “tight,” the distinctive “key-ow” for “cow,” and no t’s at the ends of certain syllables, elided by a glottal stop.
The other thing we know about the Vermont accent is it's dying out. At least for those who speak it soup-to-nuts. Very few people, outside of rural pockets, still preserve the unique vowel sounds, according to University of Vermont linguist Julie Roberts, who has done the majority of research into the state's specific accents.
And yet it turns out that one vestige of Vermontese lingers, and, in fact, is spreading: the glottal-stopped t in words like "Vermon'" or "Mil'on," which is mysteriously increasing among young people. Roberts, in a study to be presented at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting this January, explored some of the reasons why this might be happening. She discovered that the feature is probably much younger than the rest of what we imagine to be the traditional Vermont accent. In other words, our notion of the "traditional" Vermont accent may be off by a century or two, at least in this one particular.
Vermont, originally inhabited mostly by the Abenaki tribe, was taken over by the French in the 16th century. Two hundred years later, the British pushed the French out, planted their feet in Vermont's stony dirt, and stayed put, often not venturing forth from their tiny farming villages for generations. So, Roberts said, aspects of British English stayed intact much longer than was true elsewhere in the country: People were saying "twas" for "it was" at least up until the 1930s, for instance. They've lost that habit, but rural Vermonters do still sound a little British, with fronted vowels and dipthongs that give the accent a swishy kind of musicality.
What linguists call t-glottalization — dropping your t's — is part of the traditional Vermont accent that sounds British (or, "Bri'ish"). Brits, especially those speaking working-class dialects, often drop their t's in the middle of words, like "bu'er" for butter (while many Americans "flap" that kind of t, saying "budder"). The Vermont glottalization occurs at the end of words as well as the middle if it comes before certain sounds: "moun'ain," "pu' on," "shu' up."
People in other parts of the country do drop their t's. I grew up outside of Boston saying "mi'en" for the things that warm your hands during the winter. David Eddington and Caitlin Channer, at Brigham Young University and University of New Mexico, respectively, published a 2010 study examining the spread of t-glottalization in the American West, particularly among young and female speakers. Still, dropped t's have been long associated with the Vermont accent, especially the rural accent. "When I ask Vermonters, what does Vermont speech sound like, they almost always say t-dropping," Roberts said.
Today it's far more common than the vowel sounds that also were once associated with Vermont: In a 2007 study, Roberts found that young people were the most likely to drop their t's. The vowel sounds, meanwhile, are mostly heard amongst elderly farmers at this point.
It's not clear yet why this is true. Of course, it could just be that it's easier to drop a consonant than to go a bit swively with a vowel. Many vernacular dialects drop consonants (r's, ng's). People in general tend to prefer any dialectic feature that makes it easier, rather than harder, to get a word out. But that still doesn't explain how this feature has gotten so popular, to the extent that, Roberts said, her own children, ages 4 and 7 when her family moved to Vermont 20 years ago, picked it up nearly immediately.
In the attempt to get to the bottom of why t-dropping has become so prevalent, Roberts looked back at its history. She listened to a batch of recordings of Vermonters with regional accents collected in the 1930s by Miles Hanley, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin who also recorded accents for the Linguistic Atlas of New England. The tapes aren't too personally revealing, Roberts said, because the interviews are structured around trying to get the subjects to say a number of vocabulary terms. But the Vermonters, mostly old farmers, still talked at length about different types of buggies, told stories about their hardscrabble childhoods, reminisced about relatives and friends who'd died, and gossiped about "people taking off with other people."
More to the point, although they used many recognizable aspects of what is now thought of as the Vermont accent — toight, key-ow, and so on — most of them didn't drop their ts. So the dropped t, which Roberts had always assumed came across the sea with the British, must have entered the Vermont accent much later, in the mid-20th century. Unlike the other aspects of the old-timey Vermont accent — parodied by the "Newhart" show and comedian Rusty DeWees — the dropped t turns out not to be so old-timey at all.
Still, that doesn't fully explain its newfound popularity. Even if the dropped t popped up just after the 1930s, that wouldn't really explain why teens are still using it now, Roberts said: "They don't want to sound like old farmers."
Instead, she guessed, young people are hearing people from other places say this sound they already know, making it cool to them by association, even if they continue to think of it overtly as a Vermont sound. In any case, what's clear is that, unlike the rest of the accent, the dropped t is not on the wane but on the rise. And that relatively recent phenomenon may soon define what it means to speak Vermontese.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.