If you want to talk like a Mainer, there’s a lot more to it than ‘ayuh’ and ‘Bah Hahbah.’ And if you’re from away, t’ain’t likely you’ll even get those two right.
“A bad Beatles accent” is one way to describe maine-speak. Like all New England accents, it came with the English colonists who first arrived in North America. They brought with them speech patterns from Elizabethan London, Yorkshire and Lancashire.
Mainers speak with a variation of Northeastern New England English, one of four New England dialects, It stretches from Boston north to New Hampshire and along the Maine coast.
The other New England English dialects are Northwestern, centered in Vermont; Southeastern centered in Rhode Island; and Southwestern dialect is spoken in western Massachusetts and the Hartford-Springfield area.
How To Talk Like a Mainer
To get a taste of a Maine dialect, listen to comedians Tim Sample, Bob Marley or Marshall Dodge of ‘Bert and I’ fame. They’ve made whole careers making fun of the way Mainers talk.
You could also listen to Birdie Googins, a quintessential Mainer who did television pitches for the 14-store Marden’s Surplus and Salvage chain. Mainers say they’re ‘going to the store‘ when they shop at Marden’s or Renys or Bean’s or any other shopping emporia.
Only it sounds more like ‘goin’ to the shto-eh.’ That’s because Mainers drop the ‘g’ at the end of ‘-ing’ and pronounce s’s and z’s like ‘sh.’
What most differentiates the Maine way of speaking from the rest of Northeastern New England is probably the lilting, elongated syllables. So, ‘you cahn’t get they-yah from hea-yah’ takes a little longer to say than plain old ‘you can’t get there from here.’
The ‘r’ isn’t dropped, by the way it’s just elongated and softened. So ‘Bar Harbor’ is ‘Baahr Haarbahr.’ Pronounce ‘a’ as in ‘bat’ and just whisper the ‘r.’
Another feature of Maine-speak is the long o’s that sound like a rock dropped into a well. It goes with those elongated syllables.
There’s also what phonologists call the ‘cot-caught merger,’ which in plain English means “cod” is pronounced ‘caughd.’ Only Mainers generally prefer halibut.
John Gould, who for 60 years wrote a column from his farm in Lisbon Falls, Maine, published a book on how to talk Maine called, Maine Lingo: Boiled Owls, Billdads & Wazzats.
As Gould explained, he began his dictionary with the letter ‘B’ because deep-water sailors believed naming a vessel with a word that began with ‘A’ brought bad luck. So ‘blowdown’ – a forest tree uprooted by the wind – precedes the Air Line.
The Air Line is what Mainers call State Route 9 from Bangor (Bang-or) to Calais (Cal-us).
Culch is rubbish, a coon cat is a dumb but pretty pet and a carrying place is where people portage canoes over land.
Car, or ‘caahr,’ refers to both a vehicle and a pen submerged in seawater to contain lobstahs. And if someone tells you to ‘chout,’ you should watch out because a caahr might be heading your way.
‘The County’ always refers to Aroostook County, which is filled with Frenchmen who eat poutine and pertetters. You can get a big plate of poutine, by the way, at your local Governors.
‘Dite,’ used mostly by older folks, means ‘tiny bit,’ but everyone still uses ‘double-ender,’ any boat with bow or stern shaped alike. ‘Dooryard’ is the place right outside the door you actually use.
Mainers, especially old-timers, say ‘dee-yah’ to everyone, unless they refer to the animal they may or may not have jacked (hunted illegally). ‘Downeast’ generally means Hancock and Washington counties, and comes from sailing downwind from Massachusetts.
‘Gorm’ describes stupid and awkward behavior, not to be confused with ‘spleeny,’ which means wimpy. To get ‘ugly’ means to get angry or upset.
“I know it,” equals Maine-speak for “I know, right?”
‘Horses’ refers to white-capped waves, while ‘dragon’s breath’ rises when the air is colder than the water. Mainers rarely refer to the sea or the ocean, preferring specific descriptions such as reach, thorofare or ‘haahr-bahr.
To ‘hosey’ is to claim something up for grabs, as in, “I hosey the last piece of pie.”
‘Limb out’ or ‘limb up’ is what summah people do to the trees that block their water view, since they’re not allowed to clear cut trees within 75 or 100 feet of the shoreline, depending on the town.
You can tell the rain will soon come when you see ‘mares’ tails’ or a ‘mackerel sky’ – wispy, patchy clouds.
Mainers love to play cribbage, and most will tell you that ‘nineteen’ means a hand that has nothing in it. That’s because a score of ‘nineteen’ is mathematically impossible in cribbage.
How To Say ‘Ayuh’
‘Plague,’ pronounced ‘pleg,’ refers to merciless teasing; also used in N’Hampshuh.
‘Rugged’ has many uses including the usual – hardy and robust – as well as chubby, exhausting and tired and worn out.
‘Some’ provides a popular and oft-used synonym for ‘very,’ as in ‘Joe had some haul today,’ meaning he caught a lot of lobstah.
‘Straphanger,’ a term of contempt for people from away or summah people, used when they’ve shown condescension or ignorance to the locals.
Mainers do leave home from time to time. Along the coast, they may go off-island, or upta ccamp. That refers to any cottage, tent or shack in a rural setting, also known as the willi-wags.
If there’s one word that differentiates a Mainer from everyone else in New England, it’s the affirmative ‘Ayuh.’ Audiobook narrator Matt Haynes gives a tutorial on the proper pronunciation of ‘Ayuh’ here. The short version: Not ‘eye-yuh,’ but ‘eh-yeah.’
And if you wondered, ‘boiled owl’ refers to a meal eaten in desperation, as “I’m hungry enough to eat a boiled owl.” According to John Gould, a ‘billdad’ is a mythical creature that gets its food by slapping trout with its tail. The sound it makes is called the ‘wazzat,’ as in “what’s that sound?”
To learn how to speak Rhode Island, click here. For New Hampshire, click here. For Boston, click here. And for Connecticut, click here.
Images: Map by By Wolfdog – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43187040. This story was updated in 2022.