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They talked funny
Now and Then
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

“They talk funny.” That was a familiar statement not long ago. “Funny” meant different or unusual from the speaker’s perspective. “They” meant some category of people other than the speaker, of which there were many. There are still many, even though the language has become more homogenized by mass culture.

There were noticeable differences from place to place — even over short distances — and people sometimes changed when they moved to new cultural enclaves. During the Great Depression and World War II, many left homes in the country out of necessity or opportunity. Sometime in the early 1940s, “Susie” moved to Savannah from the farm and found a job. After about a month, she caught a bus for her first trip home. Asked about how she was doing, her brother “Sonny” replied, “I don’t know. I can’t understand a word she says.”

It is not unusual to encounter references to “Southern” speech. But there is no such thing. There are many culturally distinctive groups in the South — Gullah/Geechie, Cajuns, Haitians, Hispanics, highly varied Appalachians, Crackers, for example. There are differences in terminology and pronunciation among Southerners who have lived in the region for generations.

Annette and I took my parents on a trip to the North Carolina mountains, a lovely adventure for all of us. After a stop at a roadside apple stand, my mother noted that the owner “sure does talk funny,” although his ancestors likely came from the same parts of the British Isles as hers had.

What about the Southern drawl? Many Southerners do not drawl, never have. I have a beloved niece whose speech is clipped, as was her father’s and that of his siblings and that family has been in South Georgia for well over two centuries. And I know other non-drawlers from these parts.

Of course, there are many location-specific language variations in the United States. Mainiacs, natives of Maine, have to tolerate people trying to copy their “ayup” affirmation of “yes.” New York City, the “melting pot” in which migrants do not really melt quickly, is polyglot city with all sorts of versions of English in its boroughs.

Each new generation generates variations of the language to create boundaries that exclude parents and other elders and identify themselves as in-group. Most of these new words and connections fade as another generation comes along.

Unfortunately, language differences in the South have been part of the pattern of disdain with which its people have been treated since the Civil War and before. The Irish, Scots, Scotch-Irish and Welsh, who settled the backwoods, were worse than second-class citizens in the eyes of the English establishment and that prejudice persisted. The Puritans of New England and the planter aristocracy to the South looked down on the backwoods settlers, some of whom tried mightily to “make it” financially and join the upper classes in disdain for their cousins.

In fact, the “backward” language of the semi-isolated farmers was once correct, “the King’s English.” King James I launched a campaign to unify the politically and culturally disparate parts of his divided kingdom. It included a single translation of the Bible, the still popular King James’ version. Influenced by John Knox, he supported a Church of Scotland, father to Presbyterian Church, and persecuted Roman Catholics in northern Scotland. He established one language, King’s English, effectively driving out the use of Gaelic in Scotland and making it an underground tongue in Ireland.

The King’s English was not the exalted language of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. It was correct but plain, the language of connection, of communication between what had been linguistically divided peoples. It was the essential language of the land-hungry settlers who flocked to the colonies at every opportunity. Somewhat isolated in back country communities, they retained the King’s English for generations.

Among my favorite authors is Patrick Taylor, M.D., who wrote a series of books about his experiences as a young physician in Northern Ireland in the early 1950s, before “the troubles” and his eventual move to the United States. “An Irish Country Doctor” is a delightful book, exceptionally well written. At the end is a glossary of terms that were regularly used there. Many of them are the same as the ones with which I grew up. Of course, they were. The Scots placed in Northern Ireland by James I and successors were exemplary speakers of King’s English. Their descendants there and in parts of the rural South retain elements of it.

Language is flexible. It changes to meet the needs of communication, adopting new words, phrases and syntax patterns. Like the cuisine of the South, its language is rich with words brought here from Africa by slaves. Many — perhaps most — of its streams and swamps carry names transferred from Native Americans. “I’m heading to the Ohoopee” instantly says the speaker is going fishing or swimming, as context indicates.

Since language is often framed by place and time, social change introduces new words and their associations. So events, place and time determine how people live and interact. Dynamic language makes it possible for humans to live together in community in every dimension from economy to family and faith. Theirs is the choice to do so.

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

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