I’ve always had quite the Southern accent. And I’ve been pretty doggoned proud of it, too. When my Speech 101 professor at Carolina recommended I take a course to “correct” my Southern accent, I politely refused.
My grammar was fine, so what exactly was there to correct? Pronunciation? Who died and made the midwestern accent king?
Now I will admit that I often “put on the dog (dawg)” and use bad grammar colloquially for effect (not in my written English but rather verbal). When I want to show some attitude, I say, “Ain’t no way!”
And some gospel songs just cannot be sung with correct grammar. Take one of my favorite choruses for camp meeting-style praise and worship: “I Got a Feeling (Everything’s Gonna Be All Right).” The title automatically registers on the bad grammar meter.
But I delight in singing the second verse of that song: “Well, the Holy Ghost done tol’ me, everything’s gonna be all right!” The whole tone of the song would totally change if you had to say, “Well, the Holy Ghost already told me…” Some instances of bad grammar should be left alone purely for effect.
Another thing I have noticed about Southern speech is that we often use multiple prepositions or adverbs for emphasis. For example, to show we are serious, we might say, “We gettin’ ready to have church UP IN HERE!”
My kindred soul Braxton Harris, a guest writer for this column before, gives great examples of this. He recalls mothers, for example, using a string of prepositions/adverbs when calling to their misbehaving children — for example: “You better come on out from up in under there!”
A Hebrew scholar friend of mine is fascinated by the Southern use of “fixin’ to.” It seems we are “fixin’ to” do everything. “I’m fixin’ to go to the store.” “I’m fixin’ to fry up some chicken.” “I’m fixin’ to tell her a thing or two!”
Although this idiom is primarily American, it has some credibility. As far back as 1716 in the Oxford English Dictionary, “fix” was listed as meaning “to make preparations.” In fact, the OED gives the quotation, “He fixes for another Expedition.” In 1779, the quotation “Troops are busy in clearing and fixing for laying the foundations of the huts” is listed.
Finally, in 1854-55, we find a quotation that makes more sense to us: “Aunt Lizy is just fixing to go to church.” This is correct because Aunt Lizy is indeed “making preparations” to go to church.
I think these Southern idioms are quaint, and I despise being stereotypically judged as ignorant because of my Southern accent. I told y’all before about calling the hospital flower shop in Wisconsin when my niece Emily was born. I told them I wanted to order some flowers to send up to my sister’s room.
The lady who answered the phone called out that she had a woman wanting to order some “flyers.” As she exaggerated my Southern accent, I could hear everybody laughing in the background.
I resented that. And I resent people on TV shows using Southern accents as indicative of stupidity. Southern accents on sitcoms are often used by people who are put in the show for comic relief — you know, those married to their second cousins, bringing their pet pig to the beauty contest and stuffing all the Sweet’N Low packets at the restaurant into their pocketbooks and guffawing, “Lordy! Grandmaw will never believe this!”
In actuality, local Southern dialects tend to spring from good ole Elizabethan English, such as that used by Shakespeare. Many immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland settled in the North Carolina and Virginia mountains and foothills, bringing their very distinctive way of talking. These habits of speech have lingered in rural areas where populations were shielded from the rest of the country’s changing dialects.
For example, have you ever heard someone around here say, “I’m a-fixin’ to go to bed”? Or “He was a-runnin’ as fast as he could”? If the “a” attached to the front side of the verb is considered substandard, then we’re in pretty good company. Lord Byron penned a very famous poem in 1817; it began: “So we’ll go no more a-roving, So late into the night…” Putting the “a” in front of a present participle was standard English back then.
So we’re not exactly wrong down South. We’re just maybe a bit outdated.
Same thing with our use of the word “yonder.” “Where are you going?” “Over yonder.” One of my favorite gospel songs we sang in our mass choir was “I’m Goin’ Up Yonder.”
For those who think “over yonder” sounds redneck, then let’s all welcome ole Will Shakespeare into the redneck club. Remember that classic line in “Romeo and Juliet”? “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”
Again, we may indeed be a couple of centuries behind, but that doesn’t necessarily make us wrong.
With St. Patrick’s Day coming up, we should take note of a few ways the Irish influenced our Southern speech. Ever heard someone around here say, “I sot down in the chair”? That usage of the past tense of “to sit” has Irish roots and was not considered incorrect a century or two ago there. The Irish even used the verb “hit” the same way: “I hot him on the head with a stick.”
When I was student teaching, my mentor teacher scolded me for pronouncing “again” as “agin.” I should’ve blamed it on my Irish ancestry, because that was the common pronunciation of that word on the Emerald Isle.
So the next time someone berates you for your Southern accent, tell them that this is the way the King’s English was spoken on the old paths. And tell them you’re a-fixin’ to get mad if they don’t git away from you and head on up over in yonder.
Then smile and say with a mis-CHEE-vious wink, “Y’all come back now, ya hear?”
Leslie Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Her blogs can be read at http://timesofrefreshingontheoldpaths.wordpress.com/ and http://oldpathsdreamer.blogspot.com/.