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Down East and Other Maine-isms

If you know me from my other blog, you know I'm a lover of language. Words, grammar, structure, usage, changes, connotation, denotation, all of it. And not just English. I've been fluent in several foreign languages over the last two decades and enjoy comparing languages and exploring how knowing one helps you learn others. I always learn at least bits and pieces of languages spoken in places I travel to, and while domestic travel is far easier in that respect, you can still pick up new linguistic tidbits just by traveling across the United States. 

Well, if you can understand the accent that is. I have relatives in Maine, so I vacationed up here quite a bit as a child. About 30 years ago, on a trip for my cousin Albert's wedding, my siblings and I got quite the laugh out of the emcee's pronunciation of his and his bride's name. Albert and Linda became Albeht and Linder. My sister, Amander, was the flower girl. In my young mind, many other words were said in equally strange ways. 

This time around, the accent doesn't seem so strong to me. Even sitting in a local hangout in a small fishing town on the border of Canada, only one of the four old men at the bar having a pint with Monday lunch had a discernable accent. I heard the telltale "aw" instead of "o" as in "jawb" (job) and "stawp" for "stop," but not much else different from my own speech.

red and white plants on a hillside
What I am far more conscious of this time that my twelve-year-old brain would not have considered is that I don't have any frame of reference for where the stress is on place names up here or where words originate. In Colorado, there are heavy Spanish influences, including the state name itself. When I visited a friend outside Philadelphia a few summers ago, I immediately saw heavy Welsh influences. In Western New York where I grew up, many place and street names have Native American origins. 

It turns out that many places here, despite sounding Irish or Scottish to me, have names with Native America origins too (Penobscot, Orono, Passadumkeag, Quoddy). Pronunciation aside, it drives me a bit nuts when I don't know where to put the stress. Is it o-RO-no or O-ro-no? With the actual Irish names too, like Bangor which made me question BANG-er or Bang-OR. I once knew a girl from Oregon who reminded people, to an annoying degree, that Oregon hasn't GONE anywhere, so be sure to say Or-igh-in. I want to get the Maine places right. 


There's also the Sunkhaze Wildlife Refuge near my temporary home and the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge. The latter I thought had a sub-Saharan African sound to it while my friend said Japanese for sure. It was created by the Larouche family, which is a very obviously French name. At least if you aren't sure how to pronounce any of the names of the counties of Maine, there's a song to help you. 

reeds and pond

And of course, the vocabulary: 

  • Downeast or Down East. The eastern coastal region. This one bothers me because it's not down. It goes up the coast of Maine, which I suppose means it also goes down the coast of Maine, but for some reason, it still feels wrong to me. But the "down" in "down east" actually refers to the direction of the wind.
    seagulls on a beach
  • Fiddleheads. These are the "coiled tips of young ostrich ferns that grow near brooks, rivers and lakes in Maine." They are a delicacy and I am very disappointed to not be here in the season to taste them. 
  • Bumbleberry. A combination of berries, usually blackberry, raspberry, and blueberries, though others could be in the mix as well. In any case, a tasty jam.
  • Camp. The New England version of this word became part of my known vocabulary a month before I arrived when my coworker, who lives in New Hampshire, told me he and his wife went to their "camp" in Maine for the weekend. I, like everyone else I know, thought he meant they owned a camp. As in a summer camp - a place with many building for lots of kids to sleep in and a mess hall for eating and an arts and crafts building. Nope, in this part of the United States a "camp" is a cabin. A single cabin the woods. My coworker tried to explain it to me as something more, but I don't think so. You can listen for yourself here in this excellent documentary about the Maine hermit (who stole from "camps" to survive during his 27(!!!) years living in the woods) and get a listen to the Maine accent as a bonus. I recommend the whole documentary (and the book) but camps are mentioned a lot in the first five minutes.
  • Plantation. Nope, nothing to do with slaves in this part of the country. Just a term to describe a governmental region that is different from a town.
  • Grange. I knew this term had something to do with agriculture and community, but what exactly, I didn't know. I still don't have any experience with one, other than seeing lots of buildings in Maine labeled grange, but it seems pleasantly old-fashioned and sweet.
  • Returnables. These are basically equivalent to recyclables but not exactly. There are redemption centers all around Penobscot county, where I'm living, so there's some money in saving up your returnables, I guess. I don't know exactly what is returnable and what's not, and what you do with recyclables that are not returnables. I've been putting all my recyclables in a separate bag as I would in Boulder and letting my AirBnB hosts sort it out. They haven't said to do otherwise.

Also for fun, here are the (sometimes witty) slogans the good folks at the Maine DOT used on their highways signs for my entertainment and education on the drive to and from Bangor (which is pronounced Bang-OR). 

  • Peep the leaves, not your phone
  • Life has no spare, drive with care
  • Don't drive smashed, you're not a pumpkin
  • Mask your face, leave some space
dog on the rocks on the ocean shore