View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Can you become a New Englander?

       In 1964 when I was living in Germany with my wife Bobbi and our two-year-old Chris, I was informed, after casually asking, that I could never become a German. I pointed out to our friends Rudi and Ingrid Meier, native Bavarians who lived across the street from us in a Munich suburb, that they could, if they chose, become Americans by a process called naturalization. “But I couldn’t become a German even if I speak the language like a native, know the history and culture thoroughly, and live here for twenty-five years?” I asked.  
Nothing personal was meant, but being German was a matter of “blood,” an inheritance from a German parent. Citizenship in Germany was a jus sanguinis (right of blood) and in the United States it is a jus solis (literally, right of the soil), which means anyone born in the country automatically becomes a citizen. And those born elsewhere can become “naturalized” citizens. 
       “You mean,” Ingrid said, “if we visited you in Brooklyn for a few days and I gave birth while there, the child would be an American citizen?”
       “Yes!” I said. She shook her head as if to say, “That’s weird!” 
       Even though the laws in Europe concerning citizenship have changed over the years, European countries in this age of massive immigration, especially from Muslim countries, are once again asking themselves how a person can really become French, or Dutch, or German. The question, of course, has more to do with cultural assimilation than with law, and it a question that also arises in our nation of immigrants as well. 
       Citizens of the United States are also by law citizens of the state in which they reside. Though born and brought up in New York City, Bobbi and I are citizens of the State of Connecticut, where we have lived for many years. But are we New Englanders? I’m afraid not. Though anyone can become a New Yorker, being a New Englander is akin to the jus sanguinis that was in place in Germany half a century ago. Traditionally, I have been told, it takes three generations to become a New Englander. I would guess it takes about three months living in the city to become a New Yorker and perhaps even less to become a Californian. Can you become a Texan, a Floridian, an Alaskan, and if so how long does it take? Can you become a Southerner? Probably not. Even if you live in, say, New York, are you still a New Englander or a Southerner if that’s where you grew up? Probably.

       There are also subjective and relative elements in geographic identity. When asked where I am from, in Connecticut I’ll answer I’m from New York, but at, say, a professional conference elsewhere in the U. S., I’ll say I’m from Connecticut. I think I stuck with my New York identity for about three years after relocating to the Land of Steady Habits, and when in Europe I still say I’m from New York because “Connecticut” is met with bewilderment by many Europeans. Pronouns can also reveal a relationship or lack of it with a place. My son Chris has lived in both New Hampshire and California. I recall him saying, “In New Hampshire they don’t pay state taxes,” and, more recently, “In California we don’t do suits!”
       Another aspect of language indicating regional identity is dialect. From Virginia to Georgia and west to Texas you will hear varieties of down-home southern speech, which I find pleasantly easy on the ear but some find comic. Even though the generation who spoke like Archie Bunker has largely passed from the scene, a pronounced New York City accent, often thought of as Brooklynese, sounds comic outside the metropolitan area, as does a pronounced Boston accent. There are distinctive midwestern  pronunciations, but American English apparently is becoming relatively homogenized, so that some dialects, such as the one you hear in Maine, for instance, are now turned on or exaggerated to humor tourists. 
        Most Americans clearly recognize the Boston a as in Haavid yaad and the Canadian variation in which about becomes aboot. But it takes someone with an interest in dialects to notice the difference between Flahrida (New York: my wife and I) and Floorida (New England and elsewhere: our children). I have tried, with limited success, to maintain my New York accent, but I find a number of my phonemes slipping. I’m just as likely to say lobstah as lobster. The result is that anyone with a good ear in Connecticut hears a trace of New York in my speech, while New Yorkers hear a trace of New England! 
Most New Yorkers are more talkative than the typically laconic New Englander. If you ask for directions to a restaurant in Hartford, you will be told in a sentence or two how to get there. In New York you are likely to get not only directions but a lecture on restaurants in the neighborhood and a number of recommendations. In this respect I am still a New Yorker, always inclined to chat volubly with people casually met. That’s another reason why I’ll never be a New Englander.

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