- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - John de Nugent is standing in front of his class with one thing on his mind: the letter “r.” He eventually will tackle the other letters and sounds that elude his students, but for now, he tucks his chin, grits his teeth, shakes his head back and forth and growls like a dog.

“Grrrr,” repeat his students, completing their first lesson in how to reduce the Rhode Island accent.

The three-hour course, “The Great Rhode Island Accent Reduction Program,” is designed to help Rhode Islanders put the “r” back in the “cah” they drive and take the “aw” out of their morning cup of “kawfee.”

With any luck, they also will soften the “aa” in “god” and restore the “th” to “that.”

“It’s not veel smott to tawk with a Rho Dyelinn accent around othaa people,” Mr. de Nugent chides.

The Rhode Island accent is similar to the accent heard around Boston and other parts of eastern New England, where dropping the letter “r” after vowels is a trademark. Adding an “r” in other places is also common.

Allan Metcalf, executive secretary for the American Dialect Society, pointed to a famous New Englander for an example.

“President Kennedy said something like, ‘Cuber is a concern’ instead of ‘Cuba,’” Mr. Metcalf said.

The New England accent is a product of Old England. During the 18th century, it became fashionable in England to omit the “r” after vowels, Mr. Metcalf said. Britons settling in America continued the trend, where it spread up and down the Atlantic coast.

“The rest of the country stopped looking to New England as an example of how to do things. New Englanders didn’t realize that until later,” Mr. Metcalf said.

With notable American writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in their back yards, New Englanders felt like they were setting the nation’s language trends, not falling behind them, Mr. Metcalf said.

The goal of Mr. de Nugent’s course, offered by an adult-education network called the Learning Connection, is to get people thinking about the way they speak and why. He says once a person is aware of what he or she is doing, pronunciation can be refined.

But dialects — and certain words, including how a person pronounces them — can reflect a certain attitude associated with a region. Mr. de Nugent says the purpose of the course is to “lighten the accent up” but not fully get rid of it.

The New England accent is aggressive and assertive. New Englanders speak quickly too — twice as fast as Texans, in fact — which makes other people suspicious of them, he said.

Mr. de Nugent begins the course by explaining why he is proud to be a Rhode Islander, but “the accent is not something that will get you forward.”

Rhode Island cartoonist and author Don Bousquet says people should take pride in their distinctive dialect.

“They should be taking courses to increase their accent,” he said. “They’re not proud of their accent? Do they want to sound homogenized? Do they want to sound like Californians?”

Mr. Bousquet said many Rhode Islanders have an inferiority complex because of the state’s size and because of the way they speak.

“They think the accent singles them out as being from a backwater state, as being uneducated. They should be proud they’re special,” he said.

Mr. de Nugent says he was ridiculed for his Rhode Island accent while in the Marine Corps. “People hear it and start snickering,” he said.

That is one reason why 25-year-old Jim Caracciolo, of Warwick, wants to soften his accent.

“It’s not that I’m embarrassed. It’s just I don’t like explaining myself,” he said.

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