Thursday, January 27, 2011

Cutting Back on Southern-Fried Speech

Southerners have long been known for colorful expressions and honeyed tones. But just as Southern accents are fading, Southern idiom is gradually disappearing. Check it yourself. When was the last time you heard anyone say "yonder?"

It's inevitable, of course. The South is no longer a backwater, populated by poor folks enduring a hard-scrabble life. Thank goodness. Regional differences across the American landscape have been smoothed and graded by exposure to the voices pouring from radio and television. Again, that's on balance a good thing. It is often noted that before the Civil War, "the United States" was a plural name, as in "these United States." Citizens felt their first loyalty to their states, then the federation. Today's Americans would consider that a strange notion.

While it's all to the good, I can't help mourning the loss of the traditional Southern way of speaking, a bit slower, with all the rough edges polished away. I regret that I would no longer say "We're going to that shop over yonder." Now I "take" a friend to the shop, rather than "carry" her. And I "carry" a shopping bag, rather than "toting" it.

I remember my grandmother, when giving me an errand, urged me not to dawdle by saying, not "hurry up," but "make haste." (It took me a while to realize that was what she was saying, as it sounded like "may case" to me. But I knew it meant "get a move on.") If I tried that command now, doubtless it would produce baffled stares instead of the desired snapping to.

There must be hundreds of Southernisms that gradually faded from my vocabulary, and, at times, I miss them. Likewise, there must have been a proto-Word Crank centuries ago who lamented that young folk no longer say "forsooth" or "prithee" as their elders did.

I understand that language constantly undergoes a destruction-creation cycle. It's all very natural, if bittersweet. But wait, a kernel of Southern speech not only survives, but even has been spread by displaced Southerners to other parts of the country.

Take heart. No matter how homogenized our speech becomes, we will always have "y'all."


  1. Ha! Monica is always laughing at me for saying "yonder." I never realized I use that word so much. Also, I'm very likely to "leave out" when I'm "fixin'" to go somewhere.

  2. Declining "you" for singular and plural is useful to retain. The rest of Southern-speak is nearly gone with the wind... and like a lot of things in our Southern past, perhaps that's not so bad.