Friday, November 2, 2007

It won’t wrong, just Southern

One of the reasons I went to college up North was to see what Yankees were like. At first, they sounded funny. Then, over Christmas break, I found myself having trouble understanding even the dialect of my home state.

I grew up in Houston, but when I went to spend the holiday with relatives in a small Texas town, I was called an unusual name. Driving slowly through the neighborhood, looking for the right house and enjoying the warmth with the car windows open, I occasionally waved at little kids playing in their yards. Almost every time I waved, a kid would smile, wave back and holler “Hattie” at me. It happened repeatedly, always “Hattie.”

When I got to the right house and settled in, I asked about it — who’s Hattie? Why in the world would kids call me Hattie? The answer: “Oh, they were just being friendly and saying hello.” But they didn’t say hello, they called me Hattie. “Oh no,” said the relatives, “they were saying ‘Hidy,’ as a form of hello.”

So the Texas dialect had them saying hidy for hello, and the thick, small-town accent made it sound like Hattie. It makes me glad for the North Carolina “Heyyyyy”!

I learned some other interesting phrases and pronunciations when we moved to North Carolina, decades ago. One involves “won’t,” as in “She didn’t see it coming, but it won’t no surprise.” Putting aside the misuse of “won’t” for “wasn’t,” the “won’t no” double negative means it WAS a surprise (as would be the equally incorrect but less used “wasn’t no surprise”). However, few people who hear “it won’t no surprise” misunderstand.

Also interesting are the pronunciations of “Wal-Mark” for “Wal-Mart” and “dest” for “desk.” They’re interesting mainly because the “k” and “t” sounds are switched so neatly. At one point I had some scratch pads printed that said “From the dest of Mike Clark,” but too few people caught the joke.

There are tons of books that talk about Southern pronunciations and other language quirks attributed to the South. I’m mainly interested in regional sayings that convey some real meaning while having a style that is interesting, filled with character, often rhythmical.

Another Houstonian, Dan Rather, used Texas-styled sayings throughout his career. Many people felt they were inappropriate, but some of them were interesting. Consider these: “This race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach”; “Bush has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field”; and, possibly his most famous, “We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon.” The Ratherisms weren’t successful all the time, but at least they encouraged a closer listen.

My mother used to exclaim, “Oh for heavenly stars and garters.” Have you heard that expression? I think it goes back to a British astronomer in the 1800s. He was reputed to have commented on the heavens with “my stars and garters,” with the garters referring to a mark of his knighthood. But even if that’s the case, I have no idea how my mother got to her version of it, or why she used it.

Of course “bless her heart” and “sit a spell” and others are so widespread that they raise no eyebrows, but if your family has sayings that sing, some phrases that contain a touch of poetry in the depth of regionalism, please email them to me at the address below.

In the meantime, let me address one school phrase that you hear from grade school to graduate school. You must admit that at some point, your teacher told you to write a paper that would compare and contrast something. I have had this reaction to “compare and contrast” since I was 8 years old — in three words: (1) drives (2) me (3) crazy.

What does it mean to compare things? It means to examine them to see where they’re the same and where they’re different, to note the similarities as well as the dissimilarities. So if you compare things, you automatically contrast them. I’ll admit that a “contrast” command would look only for differences, but if you compare, you’re done, finished; no further contrast work is needed. So teachers, stop saying “compare and contrast,” please. Makes us want to bark at the moon.


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