Blogs > Jim Collins' Editor's Notebook

Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Not always easy to detect that certain lilt in your voice

There are a lot of accents that I recognize immediately. Take someone from Canada. As soon as that person says “about,” I know where he or she is from.

Many other places on the globe are also dead giveaways. After spending two years in Texas with Uncle Sam’s Army, I could come close to guessing which county a guy lived in.

GIs from Louisiana? Easy. Their accents are different. Boston and New Jersey accents are not at all alike. Same with Philadelphia. All have their own individual sounds — a characteristic that allowed Professor Henry Higgins to pinpoint within a block or two from whence Eliza Doolittle came.

But a conversation I overheard a week ago last night had me stumped, because I could not identify the gentleman’s accent. Not that I was eavesdropping, mind you. Wouldn’t do that. However, sometimes words are tantalizing because the place of origin of the speaker is elusive.

So finally I asked.

Let me set the stage for you.

The lady of the house and I were dining with two of our closest friends, Kirtland Mayor Mark Tyler and the first lady of the city, Sandy.

When we made reservations for Giovanni’s, we made certain that the owner, longtime friend Carl Quagliata, would be there because without his presence it just isn’t the same.

We were assured he would be there. And sure enough, he greeted us at the door.

The place was packed, and our table was first-rate. It was in the back corner of the newly remodeled lounge area. Is that setting ever spectacular! It was the first time we had been there since the recent makeover, and the place was wondrous to behold.

The cocktails and the food, of course, were everything one would expect when dining at what we (and a great many other people) consider to be the finest dining experience in Northern Ohio.

Just for the record, Mark and I had short ribs and the two ladies ordered scallops. Not a one of us was disappointed.

At the table just at my left sat a handsome couple who, it turned out later, were celebrating a wedding anniversary. They looked as if they were enjoying themselves immensely.

They seemed to be having so much fun that I peeked a couple of times to see what kind of wine they had ordered.

Now, remember this — I was not eavesdropping. But I did pick up on a couple of phrases that were spoken with just a hint of an accent I did not recognize. Certainly not a heavy accent. Just a bit — a trace — that indicated he might not be a native Ohioan.

Native Ohioans are really hard to pinpoint, because the way in which we speak is so, well, Midwestern, that most everyone talks as we do.

We eventually introduced ourselves, and I said, in as diplomatic a manner as I could summon, “By the way, I notice a slight, a very slight, trace of an accent in your speech...”

I said no more. He finished my thought for me. “I’m from Switzerland,” he said.

Well. No wonder I failed to recognize his place of origin. Sometimes weeks can go by before we run into anyone from Switzerland.

We had a lengthy conversation, the six of us, and he turned out to be Christian, his wife is Kae, and he is an international banker — a vice president of international banking with The PNC Financial Services Group.

Kae was not from Switzerland. “I’m from Nebraska,” she said.

“I might have guessed,” I deadpanned. I proceeded to tell everything I know about Nebraska, which is that it has only one branch of its legislature, not a House and a Senate as the other states have, and that it is so flat that it takes two people to look as far as you can see. (The second one starts looking where the first one leaves off).

We exchanged business cards, and by Monday we had already traded emails. I am sure we will see them again — probably at NightTown, one of their favorite spots.


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