Family life in the digital age has added a dimension of complexity to battles over how much television and other distractions parents allow their children. In our household, we do without regular TV in favor of using online alternatives to give us a measure of control over what the kids watch and to avoid the intrusive commercials.
This is a far cry from my own childhood, when we first got a TV set in the 1970s. It was a black-and-white unit, a Sony if I remember correctly, and could only get one or two channels reliably. These came from Connecticut and Rhode Island, places where the accents of the people who appeared in local advertising seemed odd and unfamiliar to us.
My cousin Cleo was fascinated by a pitchman for a car dealership or furniture place far across Long Island Sound, Brewster’s, though the on-air talent with a considerable lisp mangled the name. Cleo thought the way he said the business’s name was so amusing that she began calling her mother, my Aunt Mary Rattray on my father’s side, Brewster. It stuck, and these decades later, when someone in the extended family refers to Bru, it is still understood who is being talked about.
These days, the subtle regional differences seem less obvious. Unless they went looking for it or we took them on a trip, it seems unlikely to me that my kids would encounter a Rhode Island accent. What streams in over Netflix or Hulu, two online sources of videos, is scrubbed clean of much in the way of interesting verbal qualities in favor of broad, obvious categories, Southern, New Yawker, generic American.
I haven’t seen Rhode Island TV in years, but I doubt it sounds the way it once did. If the workers in call centers in Delhi can put on convincing United States heartland accents, so too, I’d bet, can the talking heads in Pawtucket.
Of course, if you visited Rhode Island, you would still be able to pick out the distinctive sound in people’s speech, much as you would if you visited Baltimore or got into a conversation with an honest-to-goodness Bonacker. These speech patterns, long vowels, hard Rs, remain. They just aren’t on TV that much anymore. Certainly not on Netflix, and I wonder if my kids are missing something. Perhaps it’s time we took a trip across the waters.