Isn’t there an ‘R’ in No-folk?

Published 9:08 pm Friday, November 30, 2012

For the record, there is no such thing as a silent “R.” That is, at least not outside of the Tidewater region. I’ve found that how people pronounce “Norfolk” is a pretty good litmus test for whether they are local to Hampton Roads or transplanted.

I have lived all over the country and never heard of a silent consonant. Well, except for when I lived in Illinois, where, of course, they don’t pronounce the “S” on the end of Illinois. Oh, and when I traveled through Iowa, where they pronounce Des Moines without saying either “S.”

OK, maybe there are some cases when consonants are silent, but you’d never know it unless you were from a place where folks intentionally mispronounce its name.

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Having lived all over this grand republic of ours, I have learned that culture can be so different from one part of the country to the next as to seem like a whole other country. We Americans are a broadly varied people.

In the frozen regions of northern Michigan, they go “mushroom hunting.” I didn’t know you needed a weapon and camouflage to gather mushrooms. Of course you don’t, but that’s what they call it there.

In southwestern Arizona, it is perfectly acceptable to put cactus and refried beans together in a breakfast burrito. In California, barbecue is a thing we do outside with food, not a kind of food.

Local customs, local history, and colloquial mispronunciations of the English language are windows into the soul of this nation. Local things usually tell of the original people who settled a certain area and the influences they had. And where Native American influence remains strong in a region, the culture is vastly different from somewhere that it isn’t. Local history and culture gives us insight into the bigger picture of who we are.

Understanding the various parts of a people help us make sense of the whole in the way that dissecting a frog helps a middle school student better understand biology in general.

Historian Thomas J. Noel said, “Local history brings history home; it touches your life, the life of your family, your neighborhood, your community.”

As a student of local history, people and culture across several communities, I have come to better appreciate the diversity and unity that makes us a wise and generous people. I have also come to better appreciate the intricacies of our shortcomings and failings.

Whether you pronounce Norfolk with or without the “r” right in the middle of it, celebrate your local history and culture and celebrate that as a nation we are a people comprising a vast number of local cultures and histories that, when combined, make up this wondrous mosaic that we call America.