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Coffee Talk

Sheila Flynn | Thursday, February 12, 2004

I didn’t know I had an accent until I came to Indiana.

The reality hit me hard and fast, though, at Freshman Orientation. I made the unfortunate mistake of inquiring about study abroad options during one of the mass information sessions – and, as soon as the words left my mouth, several hundred heads turned in my direction. Astounded, I ignored the administrator’s answer and spent the rest of the meeting mulling over my question to determine what I possibly could have said to draw such attention.

I found out as soon as the meeting ended, when several people asked where I grew up in New York.

“How did you know I’m from New York?” I asked, stunned.

They explained that “abroad,” to most people, is not pronounced “abrawd.” “Long Island” is not “Lawng Island.” This shocked me. I have no idea how I had never before noticed that people on television and from other parts of the country spoke differently from myself and everyone I knew. But I hadn’t.

Very soon, people were showing up outside my door and insisting that I speak. Hallway. Water. Coffee talk – the universal favorite. These were all phrases I spoke on demand, to the wonder and delight of my eager audiences.

My cultural education continued as I was introduced to other regional dialects. I learned to differentiate Minnesotans from Wisconsinites, Chicagoans from Pittsburgh natives. I’ve roomed with a Texan and a Southern Belle from the Alabama/Georgia border. Granted, my accent was often more noticeable than their linguistic idiosyncracies (it doesn’t help that I am inclined to shout, talk quickly and screech in a high-pitched, hyper sort of stereotypical New York way), but their distinctive speech patterns were there, all the same. And I was fascinated.

That is one reason why, amidst all the grief Notre Dame gets for its reputed homogeneity, I maintain that the geographic diversity, at least, is unrivaled. Almost everyone from my high school went to college on the East Coast, and 90 percent of the people they know are from Long Island or New York. Half of them think the world ends at the Hudson. No one can ever remember if I attend college in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois or Idaho, because – to them – “all those states” are the same.

Yet while they drive five minutes to visit college friends, I fly five hours. My best friends and I cover the major U.S. geographical regions, hailing from L.A., Chicago, Georgia and N.Y. Since starting at ND, I’ve seen more of the country than anyone else at home. I love New York and know I’ll end up there, but if I hadn’t left to come here I would never have learned so much about the rest of the country – states, people, accents, etc. And that experience, to me, is invaluable.