I wasn’t born into heat and mosquitoes, wasn’t bred to the Bible lands, where marshes are gator-rimmed bayous and the Gulf is blood-warm enough 9 months of the year to spin up hurricanes and heave them inland.
I learned to speak in snow-heavy latitudes where the Atlantic shivers the skin of swimmers in August. My cousins drank tonic and owned sleds and had a wicked hahd time pronouncing Rs. Their mother’s mother was Nana not Granny. Aunt rhymed with haunt not with can’t. Then we hopped a continent, traded a porch-wrapped Victorian for a brick rancher outside of L.A. and I continued acquiring language in a state too young to have a deep dialect of its own.
We moved for the last time, deep into Dixie, when I was six. I was already too old to claim native status in my new home, too late to develop a taste for sweet tea or scripture. My friends could count their kin by county, show you their gravestones and churches and homes. Their massive families gathered in huge reunions each year, to share tater salad and pecan pie with twice-removed cousins from Yazoo County or as far away as MOH-beel or N’Awlins.
In the South I found, language was drawled into a lazy cadence more aligned with the long summer days and sweltering heat, and it was metabolized like a reptile basking, sloe-eyed, in the sun. I spoke too quickly. My i’s were full diphthongs – my language, rapid-fire and enunciated. No one could understand me, especially adults. I couldn’t count how many times I got a blank face, a pregnant pause.
Ya’ll not from rown here, ahya hun?
Yes, I’d sigh. I’ve lived here since I was six.
A furrowed brow. A sympathetic face.
Well thas alraht, shugga. Jus ease on up a bit. You’ll catch on soonuff.
Yes, ma’am. I’ll do that.
I learned the lingo if not the lilt. Pepper everything with ma’ams and sirs when talking to elders. Future tense is created by adding “fixin to” to any present tense verb. Second person plural is “ya’ll.” And contrary to what my mom kept telling me, “ain’t” is a word and should be used frequently or folks will think you’re uppity. “I reckon” or “I imagine” can be added to the beginning of almost any declarative statement and serves almost no purpose but to slow things down and add rhythm. Because southern-speak is all about rhythm and sound.
Unlike me, my partner is a real Southerner, born-and-raised, though after so many years away, she’s almost completely lost her accent. But there are two situations when it seeps back in – when she’s had a bit to drink or when she’s telling a story. A southern accent is made for story-telling. It’s full of added syllables that create meter out of chaotic talk, extended vowels for pacing and emphasis, colorful phrases like jungle birds in the foliage.
Her drawl is like butter on a summer day and her characters could step right out of the story and visit a while – so real, you’ll miss them when she stops speaking and they fade away. She can weave a spell, that girl, out of thin air and whiskey, an eye for detail and an ear for easy living, the slow river of life in the summer country. I reckon it’s a southern thing.
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