The island that time forgot

Back when I was in graduate school, I took a course on American English.  We studied the history and characteristics of the various American dialects, including that of Tangier Island.  This little island in the middle of Chesapeake Bay was settled by English folks from the Cornwall district back in the 1600s.  They and their descendants were so isolated–today it’s an hour-and-a-half boat ride from the mainland–that their language and culture have hardly changed over the centuries.

As a 17th century scholar, I have always wanted to visit Tangier Island.  So we did. [Read more...]

Playing to the local yokels

We’ve posted about various kinds of condescension to Southerners and Oklahomans (not exactly the same).  Here is another kind, one seemingly more friendly and yet just as ignorant and ridiculous.  Whenever politicians of both parties visit a Southern state to which they are not native to campaign, they try to affect a Southern accent and pretend to Southern folkways!  Thus, when when Mitt Romney visited Southern states for Super Tuesday, he was all “ya’ll” and “grits” (which he called “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits”–the funny part is that when they try to sound like they are just like their audience they nearly always get it wrong).  But, again, all politicians do this, as do many regular visitors to these states, as Melinda Henneberger observes:

His hat-tip to “cheesy grits” didn’t win over the locals, some of whom thought he was making fun of them. . . .

And if some of the coverage seemed skewed towards Southerners from central casting, well, as my late friend the New York Times reporter Allen Myerson once wryly observed, “You can never go wrong pandering to the prejudices of your editors.”

With Louisiana yet to vote, on March 24th, and thus more wonder at the diverse region’s quaint and colorful folk ways yet to be expressed, I’m here to tell you how the hog eats the cabbage: The idea that Southerners have any wish to hear politicians from other parts of the country talk like them is silly.

Still, lots of pols who go South do try to go native, with varying degrees of success. Barack Obama, who as everyone knows was born in southern Hawaii, can drop his g’s without any fear of embarrassing himself.

Whereas Hillary Clinton, after all those years as a Yankee in Bubba’s Little Rock, wisely made no further forays into her husband’s patois after that disastrous day in Selma in March of ’07 when she sounded like Scarlett’s Mammy quoting Rev. James Cleveland’s hymm, “I don’t feel noways tired.”

There may be something in the sweet tea, because Rick Santorum’s accent during his victory speech on Tuesday night was a little more deep fried than usual.

And Obama, if you recall, talked about his love of biscuits and grits on the stump in ’08 – oh, but that was in Evansville, Indiana, where they’re not on the menu, so that wasn’t so much pandering as just confused.

In any case, I move that we give all office seekers a pass in this regard, because many of us who aren’t running for anything do the same thing.

via Why Romney’s grits are fried – She the People: – The Washington Post.

Well, I don’t think anyone should give them a pass.  This sort of thing is brazenly fake, condescending, and the flip side of mockery.  It testifies to authenticity and the lack thereof.

If you must speak improperly, do it correctly

I’m fascinated by the various dialects of English and have studied them a little in graduate school. I’ve defended the regional use of “you all” or “y’all” as serving a valuable grammatical purpose. Most languages have a plural form of the second person pronoun.

Actually “you” IS the plural form, which explains why it always takes a plural verb: “you ARE,” like “they are”; “you eat,” like “they eat,” but “he eats.” What happened is that we lost the second person SINGULAR form, which was “thou.” As in other European languages, the second person singular–Spanish “tu,” German “du,” English,”thou”–acquired also a social meaning, so that it began to be applied as a “familiar” pronoun, reserved for either social inferiors or to people you are very close to. That Luther in his vernacular translation of the Bible used “du” to refer to God–something echoed in the English Bible’s “thou”–meant that though He is the high King of heaven and earth, He is also our close, intimate, heavenly father.

Anyway, if we can’t bring the singular “thou” back (with its conjugations, “thee” and “thy”), we could at least make room for a new plural. In American English, the South has “you all”; some Northern dialects make the pronoun plural the same way we make nouns plural, by adding an “s,” resulting in “youse.” In some Southern dialects–I have heard it in Arkansas and Texas–there is the contraction of “you ones”: “you’uns.”

Last week, though, I heard “you all” used as a SINGULAR! A fellow-Virginian passed me in the parking lot and greeted me with “How are y’all?” Now that is incorrect! It’s using a plural for a singular! When we speak improperly–in the sense of using a non-standard dialect–we must be sure to do so correctly!


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