Southerners confronted by Northerners touring our section are made aware of the difference in their speech from ours. They approach us speaking a form of English known outside the United States as “American.” We of the South also like to consider ourselves American; however, it has long been an accepted belief that we Southerners have an accent. And not just a different accent but a laughable accent. We are hesitant to ask the Northern visitor to repeat; he will laugh at us.
Unlike France, the United States has no Academie Francaise to issue the final word on pronunciation and usage, no court of appeal as to what constitutes good speech.
Who then determines what is accent and what is “correct American?”
You and I know: the Media. The word “media” is perhaps overworked but small wonder: the fact of the media is all-pervasive. Television jargon sets the standard for the American language. National television has decreed that the Southern tongue is “funny”; where Southern speech differs from TV-eze—which is in truth our national language—the Southern version (without resort to dictionary) automatically is branded ridiculous.
One has only to note the family names of those who manage the press and television to know that English is not always the mother tongue of many of these mass media arbiters of speech. Like the Norman conquerors of 11th century England, these modem invaders of our homes, with their show of wealth and assurance, shame the Anglo-Saxons into believing that the good old short pungent native words are uncouth.
Aware of this fact, let us reverse the usual procedure and consider compiling a dictionary defining for the Southerner some of the Northern speech patterns which are at variance with English (and sometimes with good sense).
One such error that comes instantly to mind is the general use on television of the word “forthcoming” to mean candid or forthright. President Ford was fond of this word. He admired people who were forthcoming. His whole family was forthcoming. Or to put it into true Grand Rapids English very, very forthcoming (“very,very” being, I suppose, twice as very as a simple very which is a weak modifier in the first place). Mr. Ford’s son, the President said in a TV talk, confides in his father. “My son is forthcoming,” said he. A purist would insist, I believe, that one’s son could be forthcoming only on his natal day.
Television commentators, usually quick to pounce, let it go. Unfortunately, the term seems to be in general use in the North and it is growing in popularity. Soon those of us who persist in saying “forthright” will be laughed out of court.
I could multiply these little Northemisms many times. I will not go into the use of “myself” as a replacement for the good old short word “me,” which will soon disappear from the American language altogether if TV has its wicked will with us. “The visitor brought a beautiful gift to Mary and myself’ is now standard. In its delight at discovering the all-purpose “myself” TV-eze now replaces “I” with its catch-all. “David and myself will be back soon with more of the evening news.”
But it is the South that is inundated with booklets, paper place mats and wall hangings purporting to translate Southern speech for the benefit of Northern tourists who come South for sun and fun.
I am not for one moment defending the South as a model for written or spoken English. Perish the thought. I am simply stating that the beam in the Yankee eye speech-wise (as he would say) makes him an inept gnat-strainer for the eye of his Southern brother.
The following are a few actual samples from the latest such glossary of “funny words” sent to me by a Northern acquaintance with the notation “I thought you would find these amusing.”
(Like Queen Victoria, “We are not amused.”)
The first word on the list was-“FETCH: me some water from the springhouse, Zeb.”
To begin at the end, I must declare that I have lived in the South all my life and have yet to meet a person named Zeb. I presume this is short for Zebulon. The only Zebulon I ever heard of was Zebulon Pike of Pike’s Peak fame. He was bom in what is now the city of Trenton, New Jersey.
Let it pass. Zeb as a Southern name is cemented in the media mind. How has this been accomplished? By decree. By proclamation. By common usage, without consideration to fact. So be it.
On to the word “fetch.” Surely someone in the Chicago firm where this particular glossary was printed should have noted that dogs do not laugh at the command “Fetch.” So why should we laugh? Fetch is a neat little one-word sentence meaning bring it here. Apparently at TV Talk School where proliferation of words is de rigeur, the word is never heard, and not being heard in the media, it is “funny.” When in doubt, don’t consult Webster, laugh.
But when has a Northerner ever doubted his superiority to the Southerner?
“What he doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing” was an expression my mother used when alluding to people she considered pompous. No expression better describes the Typical TV Language Master.
If it isn’t heard on the telly, and it is heard in the South, it must be wrong, and if wrong, then funny. How does the Northerner know this? The TV tells him so.
The majority of children in the South, brought up in homes where English is the only language (however debased it may be), the language inherited not learned, are familiar with a nursery rhyme having to do with Jack and Jill who went forth for the purpose of fetching a pail of water. Southern courtesy forbids our making fun of the non-English media controllers but surely we of the South need not apologize for the diversity of our own vocabularies. It does seem a little much to this Southerner, long accustomed to outrageous slings and arrows from the North, that such words as “fetch” are funny only because they are not the English of TV usage.
The television is the self-appointed arbiter of our language.
It is the new “word made flesh that dwells among us.”
Here let me cite another example from the same hillbilly lexicon:
SMART: It means “to hurt” — Example: “This cut on my arm sho’ smarts a lot, Ma.”
Considering that Webster defines “smart” as a verb to mean “feeling sharp pain,” one wonders why this word as used in the example is the least bit humorous. Again the ignorance of the scoffer is plain.
As with the name “Zeb,” the above witticism depends for its punch on the rest of the sentence. Therefore, the definition of “smart” lacks integrity. The word “smart” is given as the funny word, yet “sho” and “Ma” are thrown in (as “Zeb” is thrown in) and these two words have nothing to do with the word “smart.”
One might say in passing that if indeed “sho” is used in the South (and I’ve never heard it pronounced that way) then the pronunciation is still somewhat defensible on the grounds that it is very like the way the British pronounce the word, which comes out to the American ear much like “shaw.”
Colonel Blimp is asked where he saw service. He snaps to attention: “Inja, sah.” Omitting syllables and cutting off final “r’s” is, after all ved-dy British. So let us not laugh at the Southerner for speaking English.
Let us aim our guffaws northward, hurling our chuckles over the Bible Belt Boundary where true wit waits for rescue. It’s the sporting thing to do. Turn about, and all that sort of thing.
As I said, I think a dictionary for Southerners who want to understand Northern dialect is overdue. What a wealth of guides for Southern talk they have printed for our edification. In the spirit of Hands-Across-The Mason-Dixon-Line, we should do for them what they have done for us. (I am not suggesting that we cut a swath of desolation from Chicago to the sea as Sherman did for Georgia to demonstrate that strange love that would not let us go.) Of course not! Old times here must be forgotten. It’s a brave band these days that dares to play “Dixie.”
No, the dictionary is all I propose, with translations duly set forth. Here is a sample that should appear in the completed volume:
YOU GUYS: This is the plural for the word “you.” Although the word “guy” is of masculine gender (and is, in fact, a vulgarism) it is used by the Northern tourist to include both male and female of any age, creed, or color. A ten-year-old Northern boy may be heard to admonish a group composed of his mother, grandmother, and two young sisters, “Hurry up, you guys!”
To the Southern mother who would not tolerate being referred to as a “guy” by her son, it is not so much the word itself as the tone of voice that is shocking. People from the North should keep in mind, I think, that their commanding tone smites the Southern ear like the bark of the Marine drill sergeant falling on the ear of the raw recruit.
Recently, I sat in a restaurant with a friend of mine, a Southern girl. She was quietly observing two Northern ladies whose voices rose shrilly from a nearby table.
‘Their words hit my ears like jackhammers,” she said.
“I can’t imagine those women saying in tender moments,” she continued, “Move you.” They certainly must say those words at times.
(Both women were beautiful as movie stars and handsomely gotten out.) But their cadences have all the gentleness of a policeman reading his rights to the accused. No nonsense. ‘Ieee love (short o as in golf) yah.'”
“Isn’t it funny,” she said, noticing my frown, “that although any Northerner will do a Southern imitation at the drop of a hat, on the few occasions when I have done my imitation of the Northern accent, everyone looks displeased, as you do now.”
“Innate Southern politeness,” I replied. “Mockery is not a pleasant form of humor.”
“Humor at someone else’s expense never is.”
“I know,” she said. “I only wonder why it is that we are supposed to take the jokes with constant good humor, but we are not allowed to turn the tables. Is it always our duty to be the polite ones?”
“Duty is the most sublime word in the English language,” I replied, quoting Robert E. Lee.
Southerners pronounce love as “luv.” Remember Robert Bums’ “My Luve is like a red, red rose.” Yes, Southern love is like a red, red rose. And if you don’t think so re-read Stark Young’s So Red the Rose where the old retainer, sent out to fetch (yes fetch) his master’s body home from the battlefield, identified him by the silkiness of his hair-we had no untouchables in our society-we touched and were touched by our servants. He broke down and wept when he lifted the dead body of the young soldier. It is to deny history to say that such relationships never did exist. They did.
But I disgress. Let us return to Southern accents. Much was made of Jimmy Carter’s pronunciation of Italian with a long “i”. Mr. Carter has a good vocabulary. Yet the media saw nothing in Carter’s speech except its Southerness. I do not myself pronounce “Italian” with a long “i”, but this small variance is, after all, only a matter of a long or short vowel. I do not find it one-tenth as funny as Mr. Ford’s “forthcoming” son. Yet from the media I heard nothing at all about Ford’s misused word, while Carter’s long “i” now belongs to the ages.
From the Media Keepers of American Realspeak I have heard Thomas Jefferson’s home pronounced Montesello. Which is funnier: to give long “i” to the word “Italian” or to pronounce the common Italianized word “cello” as “sello”?
To cite another sad case. When the Oven Fork, Kentucky mining tragedy was headline news, I heard Oven Fork repeatedly pronounced as Oven Fork with a long “o.”
“Oven” is a common word here in the South, as I thought it was elsewhere. It’s where you cook your victuals, which by the way, is a word correctly pronounced “vittles.” Am I being picayune in pointing out these mistakes of the TV Word Made Flesh? No, only responding in kind to the barbs thrown at Southern speech in general and Mr. Carter’s in particular.
Like Jimmy Carter, Winston Churchill came from a long line of English speakers. He moved in the language like a fish in water, thoroughly at ease in his native habitat. So, Churchill could say “Nazzies” for Nazi and pronounce Cognac “cog nock” without apology. I do not think the Southerner need apologize to anyone for his speech patterns.
In a previous paragraph I referred to the song “Dixie.” I bemoan the passing of “Dixie,” one of the lightest, brightest, happiest tunes ever written, one of the most stirring airs that ever sparkled a stadium. It was written well before the War by one Daniel Emmett of Mount Vernon, Ohio, and first played in New York. It is no longer played. In a nation where censorship for basest pornography is considered repressive, the tune “Dixie” is repressed. Here are the words considered too incendiary to be played in public gatherings:
I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten Look away, etc.
In Dixie Land where I was bom in Early on one frosty morning Look away, etc.
Intolerable to the Northern ear? Why? I ask myself. The answer drifts to me as sweet as moonlight through the pines: The media told them it was bad.
Yet I, a good ole Southern girl, had to learn and sing at school “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Doesn’t anyone recall that Julia Ward Howe wrote the words to the marching tune “John Brown’s Body” expressly as a battle cry, nothing else? Don’t the belligerent pacifists who sing the song know that she intended it to spur the Northern soldiers into “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” and that this meant (what else could it possibly mean?) for the soldiers to trample out the South? The bleeding purple of the wine vat was the blood of Southern soldiers. What’s more (mixing her metaphors) she incites those Yankee soldiers, aided by God himself, to wreak vengeance on the South with the “fierce lightning of His terrible swift sword!”
A more blood thirsty song was never written! First Mrs. Howe crams the Southerners into a wine vat and tramples them to a bloody pulp. Then, reduced to a mushy mess, we are to be hacked through and through with the terrible swift sword of God Himself!
Southerners who survived the war and lived through the Reconstruction period felt that Mrs. Howe’s song had achieved its devastating demand.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is now sung, North and South, as the ultimate paean of true American soul. “In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was bom across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me; as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, as we go marching on”—(through Georgia?).
The Southerner, being from the Bible Belt, can’t help but know that men cannot be transfigured. The Transfiguration on the Holy Mount happened only to Jesus. The words of Mrs. Howe’s song, however, imply that crushing Southerners may have the same beatifying results on anyone game for the sport.
The tune “Dixie,” on the other hand, has no warlike implications in its lyrics. None whatever. The words simply express the yearnings of a displaced person who wishes he was back home, a universal theme. My burial instructions include this music as the beat for the slow marching, played in dirge time as the cortege moves towards the family cemetery. It will be necessary for the sound to be muted so as not to cause rioting in the streets at the thought of an Old Southerner being laid to rest in Dixie Land where she was bom in (early on one frosty morning).
Are you beginning to see the picture of the Southron’s burden ?
Let us press on. Let us cast sentiment aside. Above all, let’s forget the past. The black may have his African hairstyle, the Irish may wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, and tulip time may be celebrated in Holland (Michigan). But the Southerner who shows pride in this section’s dramatic history is quickly urged to “come out from under the magnolias” and be a “true American.”
It is the Northern TV station and press which delineate for the rest of the country what the South is like, what our attitudes are, how funny we talk, how backward we are, how brutal to blacks, how far behind the rest of the nation. One wonders why 1) the blacks do not escape, smuggle themselves over the Bible Belt Blockade Curtain to the rarified atmosphere of H. L. Mencken’s sweet land of liberty; and 2) why, if the South is as bad as claimed, the North spent four bloody years grappling us to its bosom with hoops of steel. Regardless of how the North feels about the South, there is no escaping the fact that question 2 is flattering to the South.
Does it ever occur to the Northerner, I wonder, to ask how the South feels about the North? Probably not. I will tell you anyway.
To begin with, we must say: we are indeed suspicious of you. Does that surprise you? Why should it when a little more than 100 years ago we were conquered by you, our land laid to waste as a fitting welcome home to the prodigal. We were the Carthage that must be destroyed; we were sown with salt. Are we still fighting the Civil War as often charged? No. The younger generation scarcely knows there was such a war. Southern children nowadays are as ignorant of history as any other public school children of today.
No, it is not historical memory that makes the South suspicious.
We do know in our subconscious mind, however, that you won and we lost. We are taught by the media that it was “for the best,” that “we had slaves and were mean to them,” and “wasn’t it lucky you good people came down here to save us from the brutality of our own natures?”
I, and others of my generation, do not subscribe to this myth but our children are being brainwashed into believing this is how it was.
Recently a nice little girl of my acquaintance told me all about it: “All the good people signing the Declaration of Independence wanted to free the slaves,” she said, “but the Southerners were so lazy they would not do any work and would not let the slaves be free because they had to have them wait on them while they sat on the porch.”
“Who told you this?” I asked.
“My schoolteacher,” she replied.
So much for the fourth grade history lesson for today.
Right or wrong, whether for slavery or states’ rights, whether Lincoln freed the slaves as an afterthought and a war measure or whether he was indeed the Great Humanitarian, the South knows one thing for sure: We lost the war. You are winners. Let the whole earth stand in awe of you.
Some of us still subscribe to the old sentiment that it matters not who won or lost but how you played the game. We know the South played gallantly. But our sons and grandsons are having pumped into them on every side a philosophy that says the rules are pragmatic, the object is to win at any price. So we are suspicious of you. We may win at times but only by a fluke as Jimmy Carter won the Presidency–as surprising to the rest of the nation as if he had dropped from Mars. He was not supposed to win, because he belongs by birthright to the majority of the South (black and white). He is a Christian; he is a Southerner: two anachronisms in the modem world. The South is predestined to lose. Ours is the classic Lost Cause and never more lost than when we became (as we are surely becoming by attrition) assimilated into what the media is pleased to call “the mainstream of American society”—hustling, bustling, merchandising, go-getting, sharp dealing, amalgamated, conglomerated, homogenized, TVspeaking “real Americans.”
“By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down; yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth…”
Apart from our historic suspicion of you, we shrink from your absolute self-assurance that comes through to us who encounter you in business, shop, or society, as condescension to a lower caste.
Even those of you whose ancestors came to this country after the Civil War carry this aura of blessedness at being on the winner’s side.
A friend of mine who runs a small shop in a Southern tourist town told me that when a Northern tourist enters, she feels dispossessed, as if the tourist owns the shop and she is somehow trespassing. He is so infuriatingly self-satisfied.
The average Southerner would not be surprised at being served beans in Boston or lobster in Maine, but the Southern waitress must put up bravely day after day with the inevitable “Why do you serve grits in the South? Why do you put chickory in the coffee? Haven’t you any real coffee?” When a Southerner does not know a Northern custom, he is considered a hick. When a Northern customer is ignorant of a regional custom, he deems the custom amusing, worthy of raucous ridicule.
It must be said here that the Northerner does sometime appear raucous. It is probably his accent, deriving as it often does from Northern European language. It seems to us, harsh. It shrivels our self-assurance; we feel ourselves once more being captured at Fort Donelson and shipped to Fort Warren prison in Boston Harbor, to languish with Mr. Lincoln’s civilian prisoners from Baltimore held there without habeas corpus for the crime of expressing sympathy for the South.
“What about Andersonville?” a Pennsylvania professor asked me one day out of the blue. I was serving as desk clerk in the motel where he was a guest. South-baiting is an unrestricted sport for the Northern tourist.
“What about it?” I asked.
“You Southerners have a lot of shrines to your side of the war,” he said. “But I notice you don’t brag about Andersonville.”
“Don’t be too hard on Mr. Lincoln,” I said.
“Mr. Lincoln,” he shouted. Do all Yankees shout? Of course not, it only sounds that way because of the ring of authority.
“Mr. Lincoln,” I said. “We petitioned him officially to exchange those dying prisoners, the rate being three of theirs to one of ours. He wouldn’t take them. Then we pled to be allowed to send them with escort on boxcars back to Federal lines. Again he refused them. They were sick, starving, no longer useful as soldiers; they would have been an added drain to waging his war. We, on the other hand, were feeding them as well as we could feed ourselves. Rats were being eaten at Vicksburg. Jefferson Davis himself was emaciated. Look at his pictures: skin and bones. I never saw a fat man in my grandfather’s generation—the generation after the war. I give you my word.”
The PA prof turned away without batting an eye. I presume he had seen the play about Andersonville and did not believe a word I said.
“Come on, you guys,” he said to his wife, two young daughters, and one little boy whom he had previously referred to as “Davud” (the Northern pronunciation of David). “Let’s get the show on the road.”
That suited me fine.
After he had the guys out on the sidewalk he had a second thought. He turned around and came back inside. He walked up to my desk.
“Question,” he stated.
Yankees talk like that. I would have said, “Sir, may I take a little more of your time to ask just one more question if you don’t mind?” The Southerner feels that a certain amount of decent clothing softens a naked question.
“Why are you Southerners so defensive?” he asked. That was his question.
I knew my answer was not in his script but I was honor-bound to tell the truth.
“Because you Yankees are so offensive,” I said.
Once it was said, I regretted having said it. I had violated the Southern code of courtesy. That is the Southron’s burden. We must smile and smile while the jokes and jibes roll over us.
To take offense is to add substance to the charge of defensiveness or even paranoia.
That most of us live peacefully with this tension is to our everlasting credit. After all, we know in the depths of our Bible Belt being the truth of the old Christian motto: “To whom much is given, much is required.”
This article was originally published in the Third Quarter 1990 issue of Southern Partisan magazine.