Frankly speaking of Southern comfort

Published 6:56 pm Friday, July 30, 2010

Knowing good grammar and speaking it are two different things.

I do different things.

Having grown up around beautiful, wonderful folks who, as Mama would say, “murdered the King’s English,” I have always found the rural Southern dialect to be … comfortable.

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It’s easy to be around. Not like the pins and needles I often find myself on when folks are speaking so “proper” that my mouth clamps shut like a clam’s shell and I can’t listen to what they are saying because I’m trying to conjugate verbs in my head.

I know good grammar as evidenced by my survival of Marilyn Phillips’ and Eleanor McKeller’s high school English classes.

The most stressful day of my life was spent alone with Mrs. Phillips. She had asked me to write an article about her late husband’s Coca-Cola collection. She failed to mention that the collection was warehoused in LaGrange, Georgia – two hours away.

If she had, I would have cut the toes off my foot to keep from going. As it was, my tongue went lame. It stuck to the roof of my mouth and wouldn’t come down. I could hardly swallow and my breathing was labored.

Mrs. Phillips was a gracious and observant hostess. She did almost all the talking and any questions she posed could be answered with a slight movement of the head.

My thoughts on that day often drifted back to Bubba’s words.

Like me, he had grown up around folks who were more concerned with the content of what they were saying than with the pronunciation or the subject-verb agreement.

Knee-deep into his college curriculum, he announced at the dinner table, “I can’t stand educated folks.”

“Educated” folks do, perhaps, unknowingly make you feel a bit uncomfortable in their presence if your roots are showing.

That’s why I reckon so many Southerners have made a conscious effort to lose their accents. That’s understandable being as the rest of the country seems to get its jollies by making fun of the way we talk.

Once, when I’d gotten dizzy driving on those dippsey-doodles in Boston, I stopped to ask directions. Oh, the man pretended that he couldn’t understand a word I said. Asking again and again with a condescending, curl of his mouth.

Turn on Puberty? Puberty? I thought what an odd name for a street. But I did as he said. I went down two blocks, took a left onto … PEABODY Street! And, he thought I talked funny?

Just the other night, I got a phone call from a stranger above the Mason-Dixon Line. Why me, I don’t know but he was inquiring about sugar cane. He wanted to plant sugar cane, not for syrup, but for chewing. He asked if I could put him in touch with someone who could help him make it happen.

I said I would be glad to do that. But he couldn’t hang up without making a silly comment about my accent.

I obliged him.

“Well, I may talk funny but I ain’t the one callin’ about no sugar cane.”

I’m not sure he understood the humor in that.

Now, before I get accused of advocating poor grammar and backwoods talking, well, I am.

It’s not the gospel that you have to hang “ings” onto verbs, enunciate “Ts” so sharply that your tongue whips out like a frog after a fly or say “she and I” and stuff like that.

“Me and Mama” is so much more personal than “Mama and I” that I absolutely balk at saying it. Some things are just better miss-said.

We, as Southerners, don’t have to murder the King’s English but we do need to realize that our way of talking – that slow, almost lazy way of talking – defines us in unique and comforting way. It’s who we are.

It sets us apart and we should be proud of it and quit trying to talk like a CNN news anchor.

If the rest of the populous would admit it, they probably wish they were confident enough to talk like us.

Never has the Southern dialect brought me as much comfort and as close to home as when we lived in Ohio. Crossing the Ohio River into Kentucky, I could hardly wait until I saw the water tower that read: Florence Y’all.

What a wonderful sound it was to hear folks talk “right.”

What a comforting feeling it was to be back down South where dangling participles were music to my ears.