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Speaking Midwestern

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Mrs. Frances Trollope, the educated English gentlewoman who came to see what America was all about in 1828, had no idea what language the Americans she met on her trip up the Mississippi River were speaking, but she knew it was not English.

Why, Americans said "right good" when they meant "well," and "raised" when they should have said "brought up." They said "I'll learn you" when they meant "teach," "handsome" when they meant "comfortable," and "I expect" instead of the correct "I suppose." She discovered that in America, "aunt" and "uncle" referred to adult slaves, while "sisters" and "brothers" were Methodists.

She realized that if she were going to converse at all, she would have to become bilingual, and so she began taking down lists of phrases until she had the American language downright good. She practiced writing a small sketch in her journal, all in American: "What damnation noise are you after? I calculate I'll have to whip you all, son, you must fix me a drink, that's a fact."

A bit stiff, but not bad. Mrs. Trollope was a quick study, and I'm confident that by the time her steamboat reached Memphis, she must have been able to carry on in American for minutes at a time, referring now and then to the phrase book in her lap. I can just hear her:

“Just you wait, now, don't get in a lather. You needn't be looking fierce. I don't mind a spell of work. I reckon I'll go the whole hog and whip you up a right handsome mess of corn dodgers or Johnny cakes for breakfast. And I'll do it elegant, believe you me. Is that a notion I can sell you on? Or would you like me to fetch you a drink first?”

Such talk grows on you, don't it? I suspect that Mrs. Trollope made a slip or two going back to English once she had returned to London and tried to tell her proper son about the trip. Without even thinking, she might have said "up the creek without a paddle," instead of the more proper "up the proverbial estuary without proper means of propulsion."

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.