Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 6: The Drawl

A Southerner speaks music.
--Mark Twain

Southerners can probably say "shit" better than anybody else. We give it the ol' two-syllable "shee-yet," which strings it out quite a bit and gives it more ambience, if words can have ambience.
--Lewis Grizzard

If you are going to be underestimated by people who speak more rapidly, the temptation is to speak
slowly and strategically and outwit them.
--Doris Bettis, on the Southern drawl

It's funny how, after you've been away from a place for a while and then come back, you can see and hear things that you never noticed before. For me, coming back this time, I now notice the Southern accent. I've spent the last 6 years in the Northeast and although I would occasionally hear my parents' or siblings' accents from time to time on the phone, I really had forgotten the immense range of drawling variations that strcuture the rhythms and tones of language down here.

In my second year living in Philadelphia, one of my grandfathers told me that I "talked like a Yankee." I assumed that this must be true and that I had lost my Southern accent. (I was quickly informed by friends and strangers alike that this was not the case.) I've never really been able to hear my own accent, but I know I have one. I've tried (very hard at times) to lose it, but it appears that is a futile endeavor.

Just a couple of random remarks on the Southern accent. First, I think people underestimate the kind of prejudices associated with having a drawl. I spend most of my time around academics, and I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, but I still get the impression that whenever I meet someone for the first time and open my mouth, they immediately make a fairly standard set of assumptions: (1) that I'm un- or under-educated, (2) that I am socially conservative and/or fundamentally religious, (3) that I'm secretly racist, and (4) that I love country music. (Well, I guess 1 out of 4 ain't bad...) I like Doris Bettis' quote above because it recognizes the way in which an apparent handicap can be turned in one's favor. There are a lot of advantages to being underestimated, not the least of which is that it can be played like an ace up the sleeve. Silly, silly Yankees... bless their hearts.

Second, there is no adequate linguistic substitute for the word "fixin'". Believe me, I've tried them all.

Third, in my view, Southerners don't just have a unique accent, but a unique relationship to language in general. According to Roy Blount, Jr.: Southerners think words are like people. Peculiar people. Mix a bunch of them together and you can't tell what might happen. That's so true. I think that Southerner idioms are always either hyperbolically overstated or hyperbolically understated. Constructing the perfect euphamism is a fine art here. As is perfectly recounting "the one that got away." I like to say that I don't tell funny stories, I tell stories funny. That's an inheritance of my region and my family that has proved immensely useful over the years.

I'm not sure if anyone is still out there reading these posts. Comments? Anyone?


Anonymous said...

Hi Leigh. Matt has been hanging around our family for almost 8 years now, but every once in a while when my dad is talking, Matt's eyes will get big and he will look at me and say "What did he just say?" He's usually just said something that I've heard my whole life, so it doesn't occur to me that it's especially funny, but it's the funniest thing Matt's heard all week. I think the most recent example of this was when my dad referred to some "boy" as a "lost ball in high weeds."

LEIGH said...

Ahhh, thanks for the comment Melanie. I was beginning to get that very distinct "echo-chamber" feeling...

And I don't know what's up with Matt... doesn't EVREYONE know what a lost ball in high weeds is? Ain't no flies on us, it's clear, though I'm not sure we can say as much for your boy there...

petya said...

My roommate in college was from Birmingham and had the best parents ever. They used to get such a kick out of teaching me southern idioms. Crazy as a betsy bug is by far my favorite! :)

LEIGH said...

that's funny... I've never heard of a "Betsy bug", though I have heard the expression "craxy as a BED bug."

Are you sure you didn't just mis-hear that one, Petya?

And if you heard it right, can anyone tell me what a "Betsy bug" is?

petya said...

It IS "Betsy bug". I asked about it specifically. Apparently, betsy bugs have a really random (hectic, nervous)flying pattern. So you use the expression when people are having troubles sitting still and talk and gesticulate and babble a lot. I never saw a betsy bug, though.

Katie said...

"Bless their hearts" has always been one of my favorite things to hear a Southerner say, even when it's directed at me with a look that clearly indicates that my heart could use some extra blessings. I don't know how y'all can make people like it when you disparage them, but it's a talent worth cultivating.

On that note, I'm surprised that nobody mentioned how much we northerners admire one of your major contributions to English: y'all. There's no better pluralization of the second-person pronoun

Anonymous said...

I love your posts on the Quotable south! Southern expressions are so colorful: My favorite southern phrase from my southern husband + his family is "full as a tick."

Another favorite is, "Ma'am, I believe you're more holy than righteous"--to be said to someone with a visible hole in the sock.

Ooooh, there are so many more colorful southern phrases that I love...

A Dixie Diva said...

Love this site! As a Mississipian (pronounced "Miss-ippi-un"), I can certainly relate to these posts.

I wanted only to look up the phrase I've heard all my life--"crazy as a Betsy bug" to see where it originated,to stumble across your lovely remarks. Since I'm the author of a series of books set in Holly Springs, MS, (the Dixie Divas series) I have been accused of creating "over the top characters" and repetition of phrases considered to be cliches. Well, shee-yet fi-ar, ain't the South a cliche in itself?? A wonderful, unique, colorful region to be born in, and to call home, indeed!

As the above accusations have been levied largely by persons of the Northern persuasion (apparently they think we no longer use the word "yankee" down here), they missed the point completely. I am saddened by their loss. Bless their hearts.

Lisa Huther said...

I found this blog while looking up the origin of "crazy as a Betsy bug." Now who would have believed that? I was born and reared in the South as were my husband and son. We moved to North Dakota at the end of 2010. As we are not "military," we are oddities as we use ma'am and sir and call our elders Mr. and Miss before their names. People here love our manners, accents, and colorful expressions.

Hannah DeAnne:) said...

Haha I grew up hearing Betsy Bug it's another name for a bed bug basically :)