The Spake With Divers Tongues


FINDING myself for the first time north of Mason and Dixon’s line, and feeling much like a cat in a strange garret, it was comforting to read, under so impressive a title as Biology and Human Progress, T. D. A. Cockerell’s opinion that “ Provincialism of the right sort is a virtue, not a vice,” — one instinctively assumes that one’s own provincialism is of the right sort. In the notoriety —the word is not too broad — thrust upon me by my Southern accent, I recall with gratitude Dr. Van Dyke’s saying, “ A local accent is like a landed inheritance ... it is a beauty, an heirloom, a distinction.” Under the circumstances, however, I find it impossible to share Mr. Cockerell’s alarm “ lest the indiscriminate mingling of peoples now going on should give us a sort of dull uniformity of mediocrity, stamping out ‘ provincialism ’ altogether.”

This article in a recent Atlantic suggested to me that there might be some interest in the view of an American newly transplanted from the South to the Northwest. I was prepared for change, but I have found the differences amazingly many: in customs, in standards, in tradition, but most apparently in speech. It is of these that I want to write while my ear is still quick to note these distinctions, and before I grow so fond of my kind neighbors that I shall be willing only to dwell upon our points of contact.

I had always resented the fact that Mr. Howells, to whom I owe so much delight, persistently presented phonetically the speech of the Southern girls who appear upon his pages. The last few months have taught me that it was necessary, if he meant to convey any idea of our speech to people who speak English as it is spoken here.

Of course I understand that the English of Illinois is not that of Maine or of Massachusetts, nor is that of Virginia the English of Mississippi. Nevertheless, what I have read coupled with what I have lately heard, convinces me that Mason and Dixon’s line is in these matters a real point of departure.

First and most striking of the differences is of course the use of the letter r. The roll of these Northwestern r’s is in my ears like the rattle of artillery. At home we think the letter has fulfilled its duty as a consonant when it is used as an initial. We do not drop the final r altogether, as many writers of Southern dialect falsely assert, but we do give il the sound of ah. Phonetically written, this looks like dialect indeed; but just here, at the risk of offending forty million Americans, most of whom however are not of the class that reads the Atlantic, I cannot forbear expressing my conviction that “ first folks ” nowhere roll their r’s. The r of an English gentlewoman is as soft as that of a Kentuckian; a gentleman from Massachusetts neither drops the letter nor rolls it. Having eased my mind on this point, I mean to avoid all other comparisons of values; I am talking only of differences. These are certainly enough for the limits of one article,—inflection, pronunciation, construction, words.

At the risk of being thought un-American, for the purposes of this article I must speak of classes, and T shall avail myself of the words furnished us by our Negroes, who are so wisely discerning in social matters. “ First folks ” are first folks, everywhere. The synonymous use of the word “ quality ” tells much. The “ quality ” keep true to the best traditions of our vigorous English, making the differences indeed only such as “ mark a man’s place in the world, and tell where he comes from.” “ Poor white trash ” pick up a working knowledge of words as they can, and their speech has often directness and vigor, and to them the language owes a valuable part of its growth. But the “half-strainer”—the phrase shows the Negro a genius in differentiation — is born to prove that a little breeding is a dangerous thing. It is the halfstrainer everywhere who does most violence to the mother tongue. In what I am about to say, I shall quote first folks, half-strainers, and poor white trash from both sections, and upon the reader is the onus of the labeling; but the comparison shall at least be class for class.

When I first heard real people say “ rut ” for root, and “ ruff ” for roof, “ hull ” for whole and “ wunt ” for won’t, I felt that I was meeting old friends from Elsie Venner or David Harum. The persistent dropping of the h’s in such words as “wheat” and “when” found me unprepared. My interest in a recent baseball game was chiefly in the cries from the side-lines. When the bleachers echoed with the cry, “Kill ’um,” the sound was not unfamiliar, but in the South we should have meant kill a number of people; these gentlemen meant only, “ Kill the umpire.” On that occasion, too, I saw clearly illustrated the weakness of a local idiom. As a small boy left his mother’s side, she said sternly, “ Now, you don’t want to step in the mud.” But he did want to step in the mud, and, in the language of the sailor at the historic courtmartial, “ Also he done so.”

Even in the choice of gross errors, Northerners and Southerners differ. In the South, I think pronouns are apt to be roughly handled. There “ him and me ” may go a-walking, but we are less apt than our Northern neighbors to find “ we had n’t ought to went.” “ I guess I had n’t ought to did it, but it’s the way I’ve allus did.” That looks incredible, and it sounded so, but I heard it from the lips of a woman who owns the pretty house she lives in, goes to Chautauquas, and gets reading matter from the public library, though she does n’t own books. “ I presume likely,” — the cautious phrase was new to me a few months ago, but it has become very familiar. “I want you should ” is uttered as cordially as our Southern “ I hope you will.” “ I don’t wash only every two weeks.” Why should one use that, of all roundabout constructions ? The word “ ambitious ” is used in a sense for which I can find no Southern parallel unless it be in the old word “ pert.” “ Up and a-coming ” I find as an improvement on our phrase “ go ahead.” I can find no clew to the behavior of these Northwestern prepositions. Why say “ to home ” or “ to London.” “ In under,” “ onto,” are composites for which there is no Southern demand, yet the Northern housewife says “ up attic,” “ down cellar,” when we would use two more words with each noun.

These quotations after all are easy to classify, but many of the differences pervade all the classes. Almost every expression as to time differs in the two sections. These neighbors say, “ in a great while,” we say, “for a long time;” they say, “by and by,” we say, “after a while;” they speak of “ forenoon, noon, and afternoon,” we sometimes say “ afternoon ” on formal occasions, but in our hearts we feel that this is affectation; our natural divisions of time are “ morning, evening, and night.” The Northern child says, “ See the baby,” “ Hear the bird; ” the Southern child would say, “ Look at the baby,” “ Listen to the bird.” Does this imply, I wonder, that the attention of the Northerner is more alert, that if he sees and hears he will surely look and listen ? Usage in language is certainly apt to grow from habit of mind, but a notable exception is found in the Southern use of “ I reckon,” and the Northern use of “ I guess,” for in reality the Yankee reckons and we guess. But truth will out, and it does in the Northern use of “ I calculate.”

By the way, we say, “I reckon,” but never, the writer of “ Southern dialect ” to the contrary notwithstanding. “ I reckoned ” or “ was reckoning.” The false impression seems however as deeprooted as the belief that we say, “you all.” meaning one person. It is never so. If we say “ you all ” to one person, we mean “ you and your family,” and I notice that the people of this community, lacking that useful form, say “ you people,” or “ you folks.”

My neighbors here say that a vase will tip over; I think it may upset, and both of us are wrong. The Southern use of tote or pack has been much derided, but we never say we “lug” things. The word suggests a baby carrying a cat; which may be a dim memory from dear Sophy May.

I asked my grocer to send up a gallon of coal-oil, and a man standing near said compassionately, “ I know what she wants; my wife is from the South: she wants kerosene.” A boy presented himself at my back door, and I asked, “Did you come for the garbage ? ” (Perhaps I said “ geearbage.” In Virginia we argue for its correctness, citing Dr. Johnson and the spelling of long ago, but the best argument in its favor seems to be that “’t is our nature to.”) The boy, with evident goodwill, but some bewilderment, answered, “ I don’t know about no garbage. I come for your swill.” To be quite fair in making these comparisons class for class, I think our corresponding Southern word would be “ slop.” Certainly it would n’t be “swill.”

A child interrupted the story I was telling, to ask me, “ What is a bucket ? ” I had only a reading acquaintance with the word pail. Boys in the dear St. Nicholas stories used to “ do chores ” at the time when the Southern boy was “ doing his night’s work;” but I was surprised when a neighbor whose flowers I ad mired said, “ They’re nice, but it’s quite a chore to tend them.” It was the same woman who told me she was “ husking sweet corn,” when I would have sworn she was “ shucking roastin’ ears.” And she thinks my skillet is a spider.

Almost every vowel and diphthong is sounded differently here and at home. To words like “ house ” and “ about ” they give a sound of ow, howse, abowt. The longer i — heard also in some Southern states and, much prolonged, throughout Appalachian America — sounds pretty, and has, I believe, such authority as dictionaries can give. I find here, though I am slow to believe that it is the best usage anywhere, in the pronunciation of words like thought and wrought, the justification of the poet, —

I long have sought
And sighed because I found it not.

The sound of “ often becomes oo in this section, in words like Tuesday, duty, new. A in “want” is chopped off, and the word sounds like our pronunciation of wonted. When a Southern colonel in a Northern story is represented as saying, “ I wawnt to tell you that I have a little money awn that hawse,” I resent both the implication and the phonetics; but to my newly critical sense it seems a fairly just reproduction of the sounds, — and oh, but the sounds would be sweet to my ears!

The difference in inflection is so great that I find it difficult to follow a general conversation every syllable of which I could catch if the rise and fall, especially the rise, of the voices had not that alien sound. And—to give fairly the other side — I have practically abandoned the use of my telephone because Central can’t understand a word I say.

I do not know what may be said to be the standard of English speech, nor would I attempt to judge which section varies most from whatever standard there may be. I do know, however, that in the state where I was raised — I know you would say reared — the population was almost altogether of English descent. Here I find many families of north-of-Europe extraction. How far these facts affect our speech I cannot say. The difference is so radical that I am disposed to believe that if the spelling reformers were given free rein, and the language became really phonetic, it would be found in the United States to be not one language, but at least two, having no more similarity than two European tongues of common origin.

Having formulated this opinion, I find that I hardly agree with myself; but this much is certain: we have not words enough in common to pronounce alike those chosen to illustrate the diacritical marks in the Cyclopœdic Dictionary.