Dadgum! Katy, Bar the Door! Speaking Your Mind in South Carolina

by Deborah Fallows
South Carolina. Image via SCPRT

 

Greenville is located in the heart of The Upcountry of South Carolina. Colloquially, most people now seem to call this The Upstate. It's not simply geographically upstate, as in "upstate New York," but a moniker with strong cultural and historical references. The Upcountry or Upstate was the heartland of South Carolina's now-diminished textile industry, and by their own description, the people are scrappy and hard-working. Besides referring to The Upstate, people in Greenville generally divided the rest of South Carolina into the Midlands, which includes Columbia, the capital; the Pee Dee, in the northeast and named for the native American Pee Dee tribe, and the Low Country, home of plantations and historic Charleston. It's a smaller state, #40 of the 50 by size, but with a lot of internal variation.

I went to Greenville listening for what kind of southernisms I might hear. I wasn't disappointed:  the accent is alive and well, classic words and phrases abound, and best of all, the conversations are comfortably padded with folksy, southern expressions. You won't regret watching the video below.

Regionalisms: A look at my favorite Harvard dialect study confirmed that I could count on the obvious: South Carolina is “y’all” country. Some 72% of South Carolinians say that, compared with 14% in the US overall.  Even the strong national pull of “you guys”, which my husband Jim, a Californian, swears originated in California and moved out from there, can’t take over from y’all in the South. Only 13% of South Carolinians use “you guys”, so far at least. In one modern moment, when I was talking with a Greenville native, she said y’all to me. Then, her regional linguistic self-awareness kicked in and she hesitated, tracked back, and offered up a clarifying “you”.

Harvard Dialect Survey, overall nationwide responses.

And here is something really bizarre. Again from the dialect study is question #80: “What do you call it when rain falls when the sun is shining?” Well, over half the people in the country don’t even have an expression for this. But in South Carolina, over 43% of people say  “ the devil is beating his wife”.

HDS, nationwide responses.

One question the survey didn’t ask, but I wish it had, is about greetings and introductions. In my own personally-conducted linguistic survey in Greenville (read: I asked around), several residents reported that the follow-up you’re likely to hear after “Hello” or “How do you do?”  is “Where do you go to church?” I suspect this isn’t confined to the South.  When I asked about the intention of this phrase in Greenville, two women I met went back and forth about its real meaning. They settled on some version of “Who are your people?” or “Where do you fit in?” That makes sense to me. If you have your own nomination for this after-you-say “How do you do?” question, send it along to me (contact details below) with your location, and we’ll make our own nationwide map.

Pride and Surprise: We had many conversations with residents of Greenville about the story of the town center’s revitalization as an exciting, attractive, busy place. All sorts of people talked with us: city officials, developers, educators, artists, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, journalists, students, parents of students, and wage earners. Two sentiments about the town prevailed: pride and a sense of surprise.

The first we almost expected. Of the more than half dozen towns where we have spent time over the last several months, I would say they all share the trait of having intense pride for investing in, among other things, the revitalizing of the downtown space. This was true in Sioux Falls, Holland MI, Burlington VT, Rapid City, Eastport ME, and Redlands CA. This same sense of pride came through clearly in the thousand or so responses we received in the “nominate your town” request to suggest places we could visit. (Here was the original nominating page, still open for new suggestions.) People love their hometowns and what they are building there.

Downtown Greenville. Photo via MASC.

The second was unique, so far, to Greenville – the surprise from residents at how quickly and broadly their town has improved.  Greenville reports on itself that it had a long way to go. The vision of  Mayor Max Heller in the 1970s to rebuild the town after the collapse of the textile industry to one of culture, recreation, and commerce was beginning to see some results after a long decade. But even into the 1990s, people recounted to us, there were not many reasons to go to Main St., and there were a lot of reasons not to. There were few restaurants and lots of empty storefronts.  The now elegantly-restored Westin Poinsett Hotel was “the tallest crackhouse in town” hitting its nadir after its demise from a grande-dame hotel to a retirement home to abandonment.  The general warning from residents to each other was about the derelict nature of the southern edge of downtown, including the traffic bridge that crossed the Reedy River above its natural falls. “Don’t go near the bridge,” people today said that people used to say. Now, people generally marvel at the changes over the last 15 years.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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