Weekend Voice Exercise: Accents

1. Where did you grow up? What are the Old World or native languages that predominate in that area? Any special accent?

I admit it. I am only starting with this exercise because the of the one word that appeared on almost every report card: conscientious. I am a conscientious student. This particular prompt doesn’t seem as interesting as others further down the list, but if the teacher tells me to start at the top, I’m going to start at the top. I’m going to trust that the teacher knows what she’s doing, and there’s a reason for starting here.

I grew up in Toronto, Canada and Brisbane, Australia — both lands of long vowels.

The Old World accents I remember most are Dutch: my Oma (grandmother), our minister, older church members. Every kind of Old World accent and language can be heard in Toronto, and I remember noting how similar Dutch-, Italian- and (for lack of a better descriptor) old Jewish-accented English is. But for the purposes of this question, the voice I hear most in my head is my Oma, Wilhelmina Hart’s.

“Hhya. You haff to lawff.”

Perhaps someone more talented in phonetic spelling could capture the simultaneously breathy and guttural sound of that speech. The “Ya” at the beginning is soft to start, but builds into a more explosive exhalation with not much of a “y” sound, but not so much that she sounded like she was in karate class. The “h” in “have” is soft. In the middle of “laugh” she’d go way in her throat; when I imitate it, I duck my chin a bit. Her laugh, itself, was very low in her throat. She loved to lawff.

My name, always spelled, “Nataly”; those “a’s” were soft, like a combo of “aw” and “ah,” with the last vowel a chin tuck, again.

“It comes handy-in.”

“It’s an unicum [oonickum].”

“I simple cannot.”

“Sort of so.” or “Sort of dat.”

When she wanted a little “Maria Tia,” she might ask whether there would be “spirituals” after dinner.

Charlottesville was four syllables: a hard “Ch” as if you were saying “cheese,” and the “es” is a syllable all on its own (said as if you were saying the name of the letter S).

All kinds of switched sounds: j’s are y’s, th’s a t/d combo, wh’s a v/f combo (i.e. to say “What nice, hey,” say a combo of “vat” and “fawt”), slight tongue roll at r’s.

She was a frugal Dutch woman who loved, and I mean loved a bargain — “bargain” said with a bit of a chin tuck in the first syllable. In later years, she’d poke things with her cane, wrinkle her nose as if it was distasteful that she was even considering this, and talk store managers even further down in price. I still have the urge to tell her when I get a great deal (like the winter coat I bought for my daughter last night, originally $120 for $35).

The ends of her sentences were so definite, with character. She didn’t trail off, although, in conversation, you might not be sure where one sentence started and another ended because she talked so much. Seriously. It was nonstop. It was wonderfully easy to visit her, because you were just folded into her ongoing conversation with herself.

And now I see the wisdom of the teacher: I started out reluctant, but wound up in tears, writing a love letter to my Oma.

Speaking of which, I found this letter from her, written when I was in college. Most of my letters from her were brief notes so she could send me the church bulletin, but this one is very personal. I had just spent Interim (a January term of study) in Toronto, and returned to Grand Rapids to, soon after, break up with my boyfriend at the time. He’s the son of one of my mother’s favorite professors when she was at Calvin, and he’d come up to Toronto over Christmas and met a lot of family. I’m going to transcribe it here, mostly for my own pleasure, but if you read on, imagine lovely old-lady cursive, slanted at a consistent and perfect angle to the right. All quotation marks are done with the first one at the lower left corner of the word, and the second in the upper right. And most periods look like low dashes.

March 7, 1987

Darling Nataly,

Is it not exciting to get such a lovely vase of flowers from Claude Monet (more than 100 years old) a wonderful painter!

Thank you so much for your visit by letter and giving me a glimpse of your life in Grand Rapids.

Naturally it is a big adjustment after your exciting interim to be back in the normal running. On top of it you broke your “budding” relationship.

No wonder my granddaughter is a bit in “mixed feelings.”

Was it the right thing? Hard to tell. I found him a charming [slath? can’t figure this word out] young man and enjoyed the evening in his company.

Listening to each other is certainly not to get to know each other and it has to come from both sides. Also it takes time to show the “utmost” for each other — are you ready for that? [Note: I wasn’t talking about sex here, but she sure makes it sound like I was!] It might change your whole outlook and how your coming years will develop. Even the knowledge that God is always listening to us brings sometimes no clarity in our thinking.

I am looking forward to your “meditation.” Usual this kind of writing is also a blessing for yourself.

Wonderful that you have such a bond with Amy again.

I received a letter from Steve who is looking forward to his Toronto adventure. He is satisfied with his courses and I think you too on the whole. [By this she means that I also seem satisfied with my courses, not that my cousin seems satisfied with me — how could he be, he was in Arizona.]

It would be so great to have you home at Easter. Springbreak here starts next week and will be short.

Uncle Bill and Carroll just returned from Cuba (2 weeks).

Maaike’s tonsils were removed last week. She was very brave. She had to stay home from school for 10 days.

Uncle Dirk gave me a call this week from Philadelphia. We will hope Rodney’s operation is a succes [sic] – he was 3 hours in surgery – most likely they will return this weekend.

I was very proud to read in “Calvin Today” that 4 Taunton Rd students earned substantial grants. “Congratulations!!!” Well done.

Letter writing is still an effort for me. So is church going, reading and … walking. But I am coming along. I am thankful for all the support and love. Wonderful blessings from the Lord.

A bug hug from


Her faith was deep and real, so she could admit this truth, “Even the knowledge that God is always listening to us brings sometimes no clarity in our thinking.”

I would love to read any responses with stories of your grandparents. Let’s have a big old cryfest here on won·der.