The Rural Life: Talkin’ the Talk
“Your little boy is so cute,” a teenage girl gushed to me one time when my oldest son was small. Naturally, my face lit up, and I was all ears as she went on to explain exactly what she found adorable: “He talks sooo country.”
Those two observations affected my ego much like a balloon being shot full of helium and then slowly deflated.
I’m sure this sweet young thing had only the kindest intentions, but the truth is, she struck a nerve. I guess I was expecting her to compliment his pretty eyes or his smile or his sweet, shy personality – anything except the lazy way he rolls the English language around in his mouth like a jawbreaker. (As another boy – a Southern one, no less – once observed: “That dude has a deep accent.”)
Not that I have a problem with a strong accent. I consider myself lucky to be from a region that has managed to preserve such a unique part of its heritage. And I find some Southern accents totally enchanting – like the cottony-soft drawls of my older relatives in South Alabama who pronounce “porch” as “POE-utch.” I love to hear my Cajun friends down in Henderson effortlessly mix French and English and how people from “Da Parish” say they’re going “over by my mama ‘n’ ‘ems” when they mean they’re going to their mother’s house.
Unfortunately, I do not find my own inflections – incubated in the Appalachian foothills of North Alabama – nearly so charming. My R’s are as hard as the iron ore that made my hometown of Birmingham famous. When I listen to recordings of myself, I do not hear the lilting cadences of Scarlett O’Hara or Eudora Welty or Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias. I hear Elly May Clampett.
And it’s not just how I pronounce my words that makes me cringe. It’s the words I say – or can’t stop saying – such as “fixing.”
I was well into my college years before it ever came to my attention that “fixing” has a meaning known only to Southerners. I was dating an Italian-American whose family had moved to Alabama from New Jersey. He brought me home to meet his family for lunch one Sunday when I politely mentioned that I was “fixing” to be a senior in college. I will never forget the bewildered look on his grandmother’s face. “Fick-sin? Fick-sin?” she croaked, looking desperately at her grandson. “What does that mean?” I don’t know who was more confused, her or me.
But we both learned something that day. She learned how Southerners say they’re “about to” do something, and I learned not to embarrass myself by saying “fixing” around non-Southerners.
This knowledge came in handy later when I got a job in Atlanta and ended up working with people from New York City and other places where they don’t say “fixing.” For the first time in my life, I became self-conscious about my Southern accent. I must have tried to change it because once, after listening to me talk on the phone with one of my co-workers, my sister accused me of sounding “like a Yankee.”
That would probably make my Yankee friends double over in laughter, but it’s true that I did try to speak a little more carefully and precisely back when I hung around with journalist types in Atlanta. I don’t think it was a case of pretending to be somebody I wasn’t so much as survival of the fittest. I’ve always been highly adaptable to new habitats. You know – when in Atlanta, do as the New Yorkers do.
Which brings me to my current situation. If I spoke more eloquently after just five short years in the big city, you can only imagine how things have gone downhill after 20 years in the country. Lately, I routinely hear myself uttering such atrocities as “Ah-mona work this weekend” instead of “I’m going to work this weekend” or “ah-ite” instead of “all right.”
I’m not imagining this. Several years ago, I went back to Atlanta for a fancy soiree sponsored by the magazine where I once worked. I had been chatting with an old friend for a few minutes when she stopped me and said with a laugh, “Forgive me, but I just have to ask: Are you, like, a lot more Southern than you used to be?”
That would be a yes. And that’s why I worry that my poor children don’t have a prayer. In addition to being raised by a mother who sounds like a Hee Haw cast member, they live in place where people frequently say such things as, “I done ate.”
In all fairness, though, not everybody here talks like that. And in even greater fairness, I got that expression from my very own husband, from a story he tells about going out with his high school buddies. If the gang went out to eat, he would usually decline to order because he was strapped for cash. The excuse he gave his friends: “I done ate.” Then, when the food arrived, he would end up eating off their plates. Eventually, his friends got wise and demanded he order his own food, complaining, “Don’t give us that ‘I done ate’ crap.’” I can never decide which part of this story is funnier: the fact that he got busted for mooching or his appalling grammar.
And where does that leave our children? With a mother who’s “like, a lot more Southern than she used to be” and a father who once went around saying “I done ate”?
It leaves us with at least one son who “talks sooo country.” And then there is our youngest son, who is 8.
The other day, he and I went to a fast-food restaurant. I drove through and ordered a Diet Coke for me and a cheeseburger and a chocolate sundae for him.
As we pulled around to the pickup window, he suddenly spoke up from the back seat.
“Mama, don’t say ‘sun-dee.’”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“Don’t say ‘sun-DEE,’” he repeated firmly. “Say ‘sun-DAY.’”
Then I got it. He was correcting my pronunciation.
“Does ‘sun-dee’ sound really country?” I asked, genuinely puzzled.
He looked up from his video game, gazed at me with pity and quickly nodded his head in the affirmative.
“So it’s come to this,” I thought. “I’ve degenerated into such a hillbilly that my elocution is being questioned by 8-year-old boys who have spent their entire lives in a place that would give grammar teachers nightmares.”
The fact that I drove off with a Diet Coke while he drove off with a cheeseburger and a chocolate “sun-day” didn’t assuage my wounded pride at all.
Then I remembered something that cheered me up.
“That’s OK,” I thought brightly. “I done ate.”