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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
So they talked funny
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

The back country people of the South, in fact, did have some distinctive patterns of speech and word choice and to some extent still do. Many of these were shared with English speakers from other places around the world and there were regional and local variations throughout the South. Indeed, there is similar linguistic variety among speakers of most languages, especially English.

The back country South Georgians among whom I grew up spoke a version of English that is interesting enough to merit further examination. For economy of oral communication, some used the same word to mean different things. “Stob” could mean stab, as in “Jack stobbed old Jim three times.”

It might mean stake, a substantial piece of wood or metal used to establish boundaries, to identify a location or to mark progress in a task or journey.

A more widely used word, typically applied with more grammatical accuracy, is “mess,” which is also seen elsewhere. Its food connection is notable in its use in military circles: mess hall is a place where soldiers eat; officers’ mess is a place where officers eat; mess kits contain utensils carried by soldiers for use at meal time.

Among my country folks, “mess” was used to refer to a measure of food great enough for a meal, the volume varying according to how many people were to be fed, most often a family. Examples, a mess of peas or a mess of fish. My father’s wild game ethic often led him to say, “Do up your poles, boys. We’ve caught a mess.”

Mess sometimes referred to personality or character. A fun-loving, mischievous person might be described as “Old John’s a mess, he is.” Behavior that was a bit over the top but not reprehensible might evoke the same statement but with a frown and a shake of the head. Context is everything in communication.

Mess can connote disarray, even dirtiness. Messy clothes, houses, rooms, work spaces can refer to the need to “straighten up” objects in disarray. If my late wife were still with me, she probably would say that about my desk, maybe the entire house. A family or group in disorganization or disagreement might be described as being in a mess, often with an underlying note of trouble. It is applied to seriously soiled clothes, a dirty body, even in reference to excrement, as in “messy diaper.” Again, context is key to understanding.

My version of Southern speak did interesting things to words that end in vowels. Cuba often became “Cuber,” but President John F. Kennedy pronounced it the same way and he was not a South Georgia country boy. Some detractors contend that these folks call their home state “Georgy,” but I never heard one of them do so. Incidentally, I have never heard a Southern female use the word “shugah” for sugar, either in literal or figurative application. Maybe that is a script writer’s invention.

Many of them did — and still do — dispense with final “gs” in words ending in “ing,” whether in nouns like “building” or omnipresent gerunds used in continuation verbs or nouns built on verbs. Incomplete or progressing verb formations — past, present and future — require such words. “She was or is or will be going.” As the song says, “She’ll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. She’ll be drivin' six white horses...” It was the fate of terminal “gs” to get lost in speech and song.

The lost “g” from the end was replaced by “a” at the beginning by some country folk. “I’m a-comin' just as fast as I can.” Who better to illustrate all of this than the country music artist Loretta Lynn with the song that she wrote and made into a hit recording? She warned her husband, “Don’t come home a-drinkin' with lovin on your mind.”

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

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