ONCE THE soot had settled from the freight train fire in the old B&O tunnel and the water had stopped gushing from the broken main in downtown Baltimore, I began to brush up on my Baltimorese, the distinctive pronunciations some area residents apply to the English language.
Or as a local might put it, "Now that the far in the old Beeno tunnel has been attackted by the far fighters, it is time to ax a few hard questions."
In particular I wanted to verify the correct local pronunciation of the street spelled L-O-M-B-A-R-D. It runs beside, or "neck store" to, Pratt Street. During the commotion over the past few weeks, I heard several broadcast reporters call it "Lom-BARD street." That didn't sound right to me. Or as a native speaker might say, "Where's 'at street at?"
I checked with Gordon Beard, a reigning Baltimoron in matters of local language. Beard, who grew up in South Baltimore eating "lemon moran pie," has written three successive booklets on Baltimore dialect, the latest being Basic Baltimorese III, a 32-page, $4 work with cartoons by Mike Ricigliano. It sells in some local bookstores and in shops, such as Hometown Girl in Hampden, that traffic in local lore.
I also pulled a pamphlet, A Fairly Compleat Lexicon of Baltimorese, from the Baltimore Sun library, a place known to some as "the Sunpapers lieberry." This work, written in 1960 by John Goodspeed, was compiled from the "Mr. Peep's Diary" he wrote in The Evening Sun.
Goodspeed, in a telephone conversation from his home in Easton, said the authentic pronunciation of Lombard Street would be "Lum-berd." Beard, in a telephone conversation from his home in Baltimore, referred to it as "Lum-bird" street, a pronunciation that is very close to "Lumberd," but a long way from "Lom-BARD."
Beard also mentioned that another piece of urban geography (or as he said, "jograffee") that has been in the news lately has been mispronounced, at least according to his ear. That would be Howard Street, the road that runs above the fiery tunnel and intersects with Lombard, or did until a 40-inch water main ruptured, turning that intersection into a muddy imitation of the Grand Canyon.
There was a time, Beard said, when that stretch of road was known as "Harrid Street." The second edition of Goodspeed's Lexicon, published in 1966, also calls it "Harrid Street."
That pronunciation was in vogue, Beard explained, when several big department stores, including Hutzler's and Hecht's, were located on the street. Or as another book, Bawlamer, An Informal Guide to a Livelier Baltimore, published in 1981 by Citizens Planning and Housing Association, put it: "Harrid Street [is] where Hutsler's and Hex are."
Nowadays some people may question why anyone would want to learn how to speak Baltimorese. To them, saying "keerful" for careful, "flares" for "flowers" and "varse" for virus is an assault on the English language, a practice that should be avoided, not encouraged.
As a non-native, a "come-here" who has mistakenly written "Blair Road" for Bel Air Road, and who once had to explain to my tearful, lost wife that the avenue she was hunting for was "Maryland," not "Merlin," I understand that reaction. But I also think that Baltimorese is a genuine mark of a distinction, a reminder that living here is different from living anywhere else.
Moreover, even if you don't approve of Baltimorese, knowing how to speak it can be useful.
The aftermath of the tunnel fire proved that to me. You might remember that in the early stages of the tunnel turmoil: authorities tried to scare motorists away from traveling in sections of downtown Baltimore. Initially they didn't have much success. That is because they didn't sound convincing. They didn't sound like they live here. When somebody tells you to avoid "Lom-BARD Street," you think "Why believe that guy? He sounds like he's from Cincinnati."
But if you hear an announcer saying "Lumberd and Harrid has so much wooder runnin' through it, it looks like a warsh tub, and the far in the tunnel is makin' so much plooshin you can't hardly breathe," then you know that he lives here. You trust him and you unnerdrstand zackly what he is saying.