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Linguistic dynamics abound in 'Southern speak'
Now and Then
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

Yes, I know that I have written that there is no region-wide Southern dialect, but rather, many area-specific ways of speaking that tend to share words, phrases and constructions. They retain elements of “king's English” brought from Ireland, Ulster and Scotland, but incorporate some words and syntax from Africans, Native Americans, French and Spanish. Here, as elsewhere, language must be dynamic to meet the communication needs of people who share natural and social space.

The changes from night to day and day to night evoke creative descriptors in language. Dawn is a process not an event. Day does not break noisily. In spite of the line “An the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the bay” from Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay,” dawn itself is silent. Noise from the rising sun is long lost in its 93 million-mile distance from the earth. Day “break” refers to the end of night in the same way that “breakfast” refers to the break of the fast between evening and morning meals in the eons before there were midnight snacks.

Because the change from night to day is a process, people who experience it use varying expressions to communicate about what they see. Among the country folks of South Georgia, “a’comin day” is an inclusive term for the first few phases of dawn. “First light” applies to its beginning as a glow on the eastern horizon. “Crack of day” is not about sound but a bright sliver of light above the tree line or ocean, crack being a familiar term for a fissure in a board or stone or a space between boards in an ill-fitting floor or wall. Progressing changes were captured as “got to where you could see good” and “sunup.”

Farmers needed to be in the field working at or soon after sunup in order to avoid working through “the heat of the day” when such exposure could be dangerous, even deadly. When possible, they wanted to find a cooler place to rest during the middle of the day until the worst of the sun’s heat had passed or afternoon clouds brought respite. Is this the reason why strangers passing through and seeing these people resting from a potential 12-16-hour workday concluded that they were lazy?

The transition from day to night is also a process rather than a singular event. Sundown is not the end of the day but the beginning of the end of the day. Sun’s long shadows from late afternoon disappear, followed by gradual shading toward dusk. Many people characterized that time of day in terms of evening chores to be done, animals to be fed and watered or wood to be taken indoors for cooking and warming.

However, there were words for the departing day, like “dusk dark” or “dust dark” but rarely twilight. Sunset — often a prolonged event with clouds reflecting the rays of the departed sun across much of the sky — was followed by “black dark,” at least during “the dark of the moon” on certain days of the month. There were few terms for sunset’s breathtaking palate because it exceeds normal patterns of thought and imagination. This is no more a reflection of the capacity of back-country people to find expressions to fit this experience than it is for others. For everyone, awe is a state beyond language.

Among my regrets about being unable to hunt because of myriad disabilities is no longer sitting in a deer stand at first light and in late afternoon. I have no need or desire to kill deer. However, these are wonderful times to experience the transitions of the day. It is not possible to become wholly at one with the outdoors but deer stand observations with every available sense brought me close to day’s transitions and how animals respond.

Pre-season checking out of potential stand sites sometimes overlapped with summer birds of late-day: night hawks (“bull bats”), whip-poor-wills and their cousins, chuck-wills-widows. They filled the sky with darting flight and the woods with their calls. Unfortunately, these ground-nesting birds have been driven to near extinction by the predation of fire ants.

However, the woods come alive at the dying of the day in winter. Dry leaves and bushes begin to rustle as thrushes and other birds seek a last meal for the day. They might be joined by late-feeding squirrels and sometimes stealthy deer. They can appear in an open space like a ghost. A quail, the matriarch of the covey, whistles her brood together to roost through the night in a tight, out-facing circle. Flocks of ducks fly from feeding place to a safer roosting place, calling aloud as they go.

Apart from these woods creatures, there is the changing miracle of sunset and afterglow. Somewhere smoke from a fireplace’s chimney suggests home. A growing chill in the air reminds the observer that there is a better place to be at this time.

Early mornings in the woods are similar to evenings but in reverse order. Ducks flush from their roosts and fly to feeding places, calling as they fly. Hen quail whistle together scattered members of the covey as they move out to feed. Dry leaves and bushes come alive with the rustling of feeding birds and squirrels. Suddenly, a deer or a late-feeding racoon or even a coyote might appear. Experiencing day’s transitions connects us to self and nature in ways that do not find expression in any language.

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

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