Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dead giveaway

I was brought up short yesterday at work during our weekly team meeting, in which we were all asked to introduce ourselves to the new interns. After I went, I was asked by the woman next to me, a tech writer I don't know well, "Where are you from?"

It always takes me a second to answer this question, because as an Asian-American I'm subject to the "perpetual foreigner" stereotype. And, at an institution where people are obsessively focused on academic pedigree, I thought for one wild instant that she was asking for my alma mater. Then I wondered if she, knowing I was fairly new to the group, wanted to know where I'd moved from. I couldn't decide what to say. MIT? Taiwan? California?

Finally, she clarified, "Are you from the Midwest?" I answered that I was; I grew up in Kansas, though I haven't lived there in almost twenty years. I asked her how she knew, and she replied, "It's how you say your name." I immediately knew what she meant. A Midwestern dialect is characterized by the Mary-marry-merry merger, which means that I pronounce the first syllable of my first name like "care", or the New England "Mary." In New England, the vowel is closer to a short a (IPA /æ/), just as it is with "marry." I know I'm still a Kansas girl.

Incidentally, I don't care that much about the pronunciation of my name. Just spell it right, please!

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