Patricia's Porch Talk: In Plain, Southern English

Monday, October 2, 2006 - by Patricia Paris
Patricia Paris
Patricia Paris

I, like the Peanuts character, Snoopy, have lofty writing aspirations. I had planned to write a thought-provoking essay for you, so riveting and clever there would be a flurry of requests for reprints, or perhaps a book offer, but everyday living just keeps getting in the way. It's the bane of everyday life writers, I suppose. Living life on a side track.

You see, someone stated the other day that the expression 'I reckon' is not 'proper English'. So, I had to ditch that riveting essay to opine and ponder instead on 'proper' English.

What is considered 'proper' English, anyway? And who decides? Noah Webster? Webster, a Yale graduate, worked for copyright laws, wrote textbooks, Americanized the English language, and edited magazines.

He did many great things, but he wasn't a southerner and that's a pertinent fact.

Now, now…let's don't pick that 'anyway' in the above paragraph to pieces. I write the way I speak so my negatives are frequently double (at least) and my participles can dangle better than a pregnant chad on a Florida ballot card. But, I digress….

There's the British kind of English, sometimes referred to as the King's or Queen's English, but let's think about that for a moment. Who in a lucid state of mind would want to sound like the Queen? Or British Broadcasting's snobbish socialite wannabe Hyacinth (boo-kay) Bucket?

To quote from Dialects of English by Dr. C. George Boeree, "English is an unusual language. Already a blend of early Frisian and Saxon, it absorbed Danish and Norman French, and later added many Latin and Greek technical terms.

In the US, Canada, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and elsewhere, it absorbed terms for indigenous plants, animals, foodstuffs, clothing, housing, and other items from native and immigrant languages. Plus, the various dialects, from Cockney to Jamaican, and innumerable sources of slang, from Polari to hip hop, continue to add novel terms and expressions to the mix."

'Southern' American English is a group of dialects of the English language spoken throughout the southern regions of the United States. Southern American English can be divided into different sub-dialects, with speech and phrasing differing between regions. Tennessee, for instance, has three distinct regions – eastern, middle, and west – and each region has its own, unique dialect, but a practiced ear can detect subtle differences. Well-known speakers of 'suthen' dialect include United States Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush, playwright Tennessee Williams, and singer Elvis Presley.

When speaking to a group, y'all is general (I know y'all)—as in that group of people is familiar to you and you know them as a whole, whereas all y'all is much more specific and means you know each and every person in that group, not as a whole, but individually ("I know all y'all.") Y'all can also be used with the standard "'s" possessive.

Y'all is distinctly separate from the singular 'you'. The statement, "I gave y'all my payment last week," is more precise than "I gave 'you' my payment last week." 'You' (if interpreted as singular) could imply the payment was given directly to the person being spoken to — when that may not be the case.

Southerners sometimes use the word young'uns for children, as well as dove as past tense for dive, drug as past tense for drag, and drunk as past tense for drink.

We use fixin' to and afixin' to as an indicator of immediate future action. He's fixin' to leave.

Use of double modals (might could, might should, might would, used to could, etc.) and sometimes even triple modals that involve oughta or a double modal (like might should oughta, or used to could be able to.) Example - "I might could climb to the top." Sometimes "I might" is used for 'perhaps I will'. I remember once using 'I might' in response to a question of whether I would or would not do a certain thing, only to have that person exclaim, "Ewwwww….I'm soooo surprised! You usually use proper grammar." Now, that could only come from a Yankee, and did.

So, I clarified it, then and there. 'It's like this. I might. But then again, I might not.'

Our adverbial use of 'right' means 'quite' or 'fairly' in Southern English. "I'm getting right sleepy" is perfectly understood.

Our use of 'over yonder' in place of 'over there' means 'in or at that indicated place', especially when used to refer to a particularly different spot, such as in "the tree over yonder." Additionally, 'yonder' tends to refer to a third, larger degree of distance beyond both 'here' and 'there', indicating that something is a long way away, and to a lesser extent, in an open expanse, as in the church hymn 'When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder.' The term 'yonder' stems from, and is still widely used in, British English.

Our use of the verb 'reckon' means to reason, perceive, suppose, or presume. For example "I reckon I'll attend the party. " or "She said I could call her, so I reckon she likes me." Many use it interchangeably with 'guess'. For instance, 'I guess so' and 'I reckon', followed by sighs of resignation, have identical meanings. The term 'reckon' is another southern word with origins in British English, and still widely used, also.

Now, let's take a good look at 'directly'. Its many definitions are based entirely on relativity. Most southerners know that if you're going to eat lunch 'directly' and it's ten minutes before noon, that you're 'fixin' to chow down right away. If you say you're going to the doctor 'directly', and your appointment is next week, it is understood that you're going in a few days. But if you say you'll be voting in the national election 'directly', and it is still September, they know you mean in a few weeks.

And don't forget that 'suthen' staple that never fails to have yankees scratching their heads and glancing askance…"Y'all come back now, you hear?" Or, in south Georgia, "you heah?" Only a southerner understands that's very proper English.

I'll write my clever, riveting essay next week, readers… unless I get side-tracked.

Peace…in every language. It's only proper.

Copyright 2006 Patricia Paris
Patricia Paris is an author/columnist from East Tennessee
Member: Tennessee Mountain Writers, Int'l Women Writers Association, Tennessee Writers Alliance, Chattanooga Writers Guild

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