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Good or bad: How to judge language
Now and Then
roger branch

During the eons that humans have lived on earth, their most important discovery was language. The ability to communicate with one another about objects around them and actions of objects or other people was a dramatic tool for survival and for creating social bonds that supported survival and quality of life.

Pictographic representations followed, enhancing communication and laying a foundation for writing and, ultimately, history. Writing, symbolic representations of things (subjects), including other people as individuals or groups and of acts, feelings or intentions (verbs/predicates), became the cornerstones on which civilizations rose.

Realizing that mathematics is a specialized form of human language, it is obvious that the most dramatic of today’s innovations are but extensions of humanity’s oldest discoveries. The bits and bytes of information that empower computers, keep satellites under control and make cell phones “intelligent” are applications of rather simple math.

Humans also use non-linguistic forms of communication. Bodies speak through postures and gestures. Facial expressions convey significant information, which can be symbolic because of cultural variations in what expressions mean. However, writing is most important because it is portable, can be sent and received over distance and remains as a record to be revisited over time.

Depending upon the nature and context of communications, there are more and less demanding rules of syntax and grammar. Mathematics requires unbending rules and definitions. (Well, there is one type in which this is not strictly true.) “Bear” means one should exercise caution to avoid attack. (Well, bear is a nickname for some people and a type of stuffed toy.) However, it remains true that depending upon time and circumstance, many communications must be governed by strict rules.

The English language, spoken or at least used as a second language around the world, requires rules and standards to make such universal communication possible. I was fortunate to have as a grammar teacher in high school Mrs. Georgia Wilkes Hilliard, who demanded that I learn all of the correct usages, a challenge dealing with a country lad who grew up among people speaking South Georgianese. I still understand and sometimes speak both dialects.

However, how “wrong” is South Georgianese? It certainly can get in the way of effective communication in the wider world of English speakers. On the other hand, this language works well among the people who speak it. If effective of communication is a measure of worth, the verdict has been “It works.” Still, it does need an interpreter for those who are unfamiliar with it.

For example, the words ain’t, ant and aunt can be confusing in the ways they are used. As written earlier, ain’t winds up replacing other contractions, perhaps perplexing to some. Ant, pronounced like rant, is the name for the crawling insect which typically lives in nests in the ground and stings the unwary. Aunt, sibling of a parent or wife of a parental sibling, is pronounced in the same way. There is a variant, namely “ain't,” as in paint. It is widely used, as is “caint’ instead of can’t as the contraction for cannot. Interestingly, some African-American residents do pronounce the word “aunt,” as in haunt or taunt.

There are reasons for the persistent, localized differences in spoken English. Settlers in back country regions brought with them from the British Isles linguistic variations typical to their places of origin. They added locality to specific words and phrases. In some ways, their language grew to fit their world. Rural isolation tended to fix in place speech and other cultural patterns that guided life in the hinterlands. As is normally the case, it worked for them in their world. Finally, comprehensive basic education came late to many places in the South, certainly true for rural Georgia.

Many rural Georgians were adept in two dialects, using proper English when circumstances prescribed and down home talk with their country cousins. This was true for both of my parents, Daddy’s older sister, Eula Morris; and her son, Neal Jr., whom I never heard violate any rule of perfect grammar. Doing homework under supervision of my parents was a constant exercise in doing it right, including pronunciation of words.

The everyday language of the community was valuable. Double, even triple, negatives helped to emphasize a point. Its promotion of figures of speech, particularly similes, made for apt and colorful expression. “Dull as a froe, dumb as a stump, mad as a hornet” are good examples. “From wire grass to wire grass” painted a picture of a stream flooded beyond its normal floodplain to the wire grass-covered highlands on either side.

It was Hank Williams’ creative expertise with this language that led a learned contemporary to call him “the Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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