By Farooq A. Kperogi
I knew I was in a different part of the United States when we passed the state of Maryland and got into the “New England” states. The phrase “New England,” in case you didn’t know, is shorthand for the northeastern states of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.
Traditionally, the term excludes the neighboring northeastern states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, although in everyday speech it is usual to conflate “northeastern states,” which include all the states in northeastern United States, with “New England” states. My colleague here who is originally from Boston (the largest city in the state of Massachusetts and in New England) told me that New York (which was originally Dutch) and New Jersey are often called “Greater New England,” that is, extensions of New England.
The states are called New England perhaps because their origins are directly traceable to English migrants who consciously nourished their English ways upon arriving in the “new world.” Most of the cities, towns, and villages here are named after older cities, towns, and villages in England. Bristol, for instance, where I attended the conference, is named after a city by the same name in England. Where names of towns are not directly transplanted from England, “new” is often prefixed to them, as in “New” York, “New” Hampshire, etc. And it is often said that should the United States disintegrate, the New England states are likely to remain as a country because of their immense historical and cultural affinities.
This is clearly a distinct part of the United States by every standard. The people here are still very European or, to be sure, English in their ways—at least in more ways than is the case for the other parts of the United States. They are ruggedly individualistic, distant, brisk, even brusque. They are the people Americans call Yankees, although non-Americans apply this name to all Americans.
New England is said to be the most urban, most liberal, and most WASPish part of America. (WASP stands for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”). And it is in many ways the cultural and educational pacesetter of America.
It is home to four of the Ivy League universities, America’s first universities. If we consider New York and New Jersey as part of New England, it means New England is home to all but one of the Ivy League universities.
Brown University, which one of the conference organizers was kind enough to take me to, is in the state of Rhode Island; Yale University is in the state of Connecticut; Harvard University is in the state of Massachusetts; and Dartmouth College is in the state of New Hampshire. Princeton University is in the state of New Jersey, while Columbia and Cornell universities are in New York. The University of Pennsylvania, in the state of Pennsylvania, is the only Ivy League university outside of New England. I passed through and stopped over in all these states, except Pennsylvania.
The architecture of New England homes is also different from the rest of America. I used to think that the American architectural landscape was boringly homogenous. All American big cities, to me, looked alike. Same for the towns and villages. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen all—or so I thought. Until I had a chance to visit here. The architectural designs of houses in New England states strike me as closer to European patterns than they are to other parts of America I have been to.
Similarly, the demotic accent here is closer to British accent than it is to mainstream American accent. New Englanders are largely non-rhotic speakers. In English pronunciation, it is customary to distinguish between rhotic accent and non-rhotic accent. In rhotic accents, such as mainstream American accent, the “r” is often articulated in words; in non-rhotic accents, such as standard British pronunciation, the “r” is silent, except where it appears at the beginning of words.
While the rest of America is rhotic, New Englanders tend to be non-rhotic. People here don’t roll their “r” in the same way that other Americans do. For instance, they don’t articulate the “r” in “learn,” or “water” as forcefully as other Americans do. (The standard American accent used in broadcasting and in schools is derived from the accent of Midwestern Americans, perhaps because their accent reconciles the phonological extremes of southern and northern accents).
And unlike in the South, it is hard to differentiate between the accents of black and white Americans here. At least, that was the impression I came away with. They all sounded the same to me. In the South, black American accent is markedly different from white American accent. Of course, for historical reasons, they are fewer blacks in the North than there are in the South.
One man from the University of Wales, United Kingdom, who presented a paper at the conference I attended, told me that Rhode Island—and the whole of New England— felt like old England in many ways. And he was visiting here for the first time, too. “The weather is very English. The people are very English, even their buildings—except for all the dunkin’ donuts I see around,” he said.
No one smiles to strangers here. And if you are lost for directions, don’t count on anybody to be of any help. The people are as cold as their weather. And this is as true of white people as it is of black people. The bus driver who drove me from New York to Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, was the coldest, meanest creature I ever encountered. And he was black. I didn’t encounter a lot of warmth from the people here. Perhaps, the coldness of the weather has made people emotionally frigid too.
While these notions were registering in me, I was self-conscious that I was probably being impressionistic—and therefore probably wrong. You can’t judge the character of a people based on a few days’ episodic encounters with a few of them. However, a professor whom I got friendly with at the conference said to me that my impressions were largely accurate. He added, though, that when I am able to penetrate the cold surfaces of New Englanders, I will find warm, friendly and truly complaisant human beings.
Southerners, he said, smile even when they are at war. “So don’t be deceived by the smiling faces,” he said half joking and half serious. That’s not difficult to believe. The South, in spite of its legendary hospitality and mild manners, is a less racially tolerant society than the North.
One other thing: the people here are not nearly as beautiful as people in the South. New Englanders themselves don’t contest this fact. The American South has way more beautiful people than any part of the United States—well, except perhaps California, which is in the west.
New Englanders are also very formal and inflexible with time, unlike in the South. For instance, on my way back to Boston from Providence, I missed my bus by only a minute because of heavy traffic between Bristol and Providence. By the time I arrived at the station, the bus had lef. In the South, there would have been a delay of two or there, maybe even five, minutes.
Our Greyhound coaches from Atlanta to New York never left the bus station at exactly the times indicated on our tickets. There were always a few minutes’ delay. All that changed from New York. Drivers kept to the time schedule with what seemed like mechanical exactitude.
In spite of the rather cold reception I got from New Englanders generally, Rhode Island, which other Americans like to call the smallest state with the longest name, seemed a little friendlier. The people at Roger Williams University in Bristol where the conference was held were especially such a comforting contrast to the cold souls I encountered earlier.
In Bristol, I lodged at a quaintly idyllic and historic farm house called Mount Hope Farm, very close to the Roger Williams University. It was expensive, but well worth it. The landscape is rich with wildlife, handcrafted stone walls, terraces, flowers, mature shrubs and indigenous trees, with cows grazing in the background and exotic birds chirping beautifully day and night. The environment is serene with breathtakingly expansive water views and the people I met there were incredibly nice.
The place is also replete with history, having been first built in1745. The buildings are still retained from that period. That’s why it’s designated as a National Register Historic landmark. And knowing that I was passing the night in such a historic place redounded to my excitement.
Although the journey was long and hectic, I am glad I undertook it.
1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (I)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (II)