How We Talk Here


November 2013

Before Lisa and I head out on our trip to Alabama, one of my students, whose vocal style hints of her formative years in the South, suggests that I be “real patient” when those folks down there talk to me. “Yeah, why’s that?”

“They talk real slow,” she says, real slow.

Reminds me of the time my friend left Pittsburgh to teach elementary school in Georgia.  She met her class of eight-year-olds the first day like this.  “Good morning class I’m Miss McKay and I have so much fun planned for us and every one of you is going to have such a good time and it’s just so exciting and you’ll learn good things and we’re going to read books together and learn numbers together and create great works of art and…”

During this whole monologue her group of students sat blank-faced, staring, mouths hanging open, dumb as cows, and not a one of them uttered a single word.

Perplexed, she went and started up her whole motivational speech again — “Good morning class I’m Miss McKay and we’re going to…” — and once again she was answered with the same expressionless vacancy.  Nothin’.

Finally, one brave towhead in the back of the room shyly spoke up.  “Miss McKay,” he said, as slow as you please.  “You talk a whole lot faster than we can listen.”

We first fly into Memphis, Tennessee, do some visiting, drive east to score the high point of Mississippi, and continue on into Alabama.  Along the northern tier of Mississippi, we stop at a convenience store for water, juice and of course, chocolate.  The fine gentleman behind the counter strikes up a conversation with us in his native tongue, which is Southern.  He’s going on, we’re nodding, everyone is in good humor.

As we drive away, I ask Lisa, “What did he say to us?”  She admits, “I have no friggin’ idea.  Not one single word.”  N’wait, we did get two words.  One was “Alabama” and the other was “Auburn.”  Ahh, so we just had a heart-to-heart conversation with a local about the very big football game on Saturday.  Only we didn’t know it.

Registration is in the first building we come to when we enter the resort part of Cheaha State Park here in Alabama.  It’s a combination office/store/registration/gift shop.  Two charming young women and a somnambulistic young man are working behind the counter.  Lisa and I stop in to confirm my trail map.

On the drive up the mountain, several red birds flew into our windshield.  We ask the young women if they know anything about suicidal birds.  The lounger woman suggests that, “It might be a weep-or-wheel.”  I’m pretty sure she is saying, Whippoorwill.  Then she says, “Don’t mind me.  We make up words here.”

I say, “You make up words?  Heck, you make up whole languages.”

She says proudly, “I can tell you which part of Alabama you are from, just by the way you talk.”

“Yeah?”  I challenge her.  “Which part of Alabama are we from?”  She just laughs.  “We are traveling through the south,” I say, “and people keep asking us if we are enjoying our visit.  I wonder how they know we are not from here.”

One way they can tell is that we don’t pronounce one-syllable words as if they have two or three.  “That trail you are takin,’ she says.  “It’s re-uhl stee-ip,” for example.

say, “stee-ip”

As we encounter people going to or fro here at the resort, one says to Lisa, “How y’all doin’?”

Lisa answers, with impressive diction, “Excellent.”

I gently explain my perspective to my beloved.  In response to “How y’all doin’?” people here in Alabama do not often say, with perfect diction, “excellent.”  When you ask them how they are doing, you may have noticed that they say, “good.”  Only they say “goo-ood.”  “Excellent”?  You might as well say, “Brilliant.  Quite well indeed, thank you.  Yes, good show, good show.”

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