Student’s research pauses to listen to region

Paul Mayne // Western News

Linguistics graduate student Michael Iannozzi’s research project, SWORE (Southwestern Ontario Regional English), explores the linguistic habits of those living south and west of Toronto.

As a teenager, Michael Iannozzi was warned away from being a poet.

“That’s a hard route to take I was told. So I went around it a different way,” said the 27-year-old Sarnia native.

Today, Iannozzi is a Linguistics masters student whose research project, SWORE (Southwestern Ontario Regional English), explores the linguistic habits of those living south and west of Toronto. Coming to Western has allowed Iannozzi to share more about the language of the area he calls home.

“There’s a perception that its Toronto and then America as you head south. But no, that’s my home – I live there,” Iannozzi said. “There are perceptions we all speak like we’re in Toronto. But there is nowhere you can look where you won’t find differences.”

Through SWORE, Iannozzi is speaking with residents of five counties (Essex, Chatham-Kent, Elgin, Lambton and Middlesex) to learn how language shapes not only people’s lives, but also the perception of themselves they feel they need to present to others. With dozens of conversations completed, he expects to talk with more than 100 people once the project is complete.

As one might guess, ‘ain’t’ is a common word Iannozzi comes across in his work. Some assume its use can be chalked up to lack of education of the speaker. But that’s not true, Iannozzi stressed.

“A lot of people are against the idea they say ‘ain’t.’ But there are very educated people who say ain’t all the time,” he said. “Every time you’re talking to someone, you’re performing and, perhaps, not conscious of trying to sound a certain way you think is appropriate for that moment. For some people, ain’t is appropriate in some contexts.

“It’s not that those who use it are less educated. They are not hillbillies; they are people who come from a different town – that’s it.”

Iannozzi, who did his undergraduate work in French Linguistics at the University of Toronto, believes it is not where people are from as it is what they think of where they are from. For example, one interviewee, who holds a graduate degree, moved to Petrolia (Population: 5,000) after years living in “a big city” for years.

“Now, he talks with a lot more features of the rural English than you would expect from the characteristics he has,” said Ionnazzi, citing the subject’s dropping of ‘g’ at the end of certain words. “It’s one thing to do it on a verb; it’s the next level to do it on nouns.

“He’ll say, ‘I’m goin’ fishin’’ or ‘We were down by the road there.’ The ‘there’ really doesn’t do anything.”

Through his work, Iannozzi hopes to illustrate a ‘southwestern regional way’ of speaking.

“These are the features of this area. These are the things that make it different from big cities. These are the things that set it apart,” said Ionnazzi, adding he wants to create a digital archive of his recordings, along with artifacts and photos.

“I’ve always loved words; I’ve always loved the way people talk; I’ve always loved stories. I was able to find – not just in linguistics where I get to work with words, but within linguistics – a sub-field that lets me hear stories and tell stories,” he added. “I get to be a part of capturing these stories and capturing these ways of talking. I’m someone interested in having that opportunity.”