- Cullman, Alabama


June 5, 2014

SOUTHERN STYLE: Theory of relativity

Most of you have probably heard of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” wherein measurements of various quantities are relative to the velocities of observers, particularly space contracts and time dilates, whatever that means …or that the speed of light is invariant, or the same for all observers.

Obviously, Einstein never spent much time in the South.

Had he ever lived here, or visited for any length of time, he would know that the theory of relativity means that theoretically, you are related to most of the people up and down the road you live on, and the word can be used accordingly. “Because of our relativity, we can’t get married.”

Or, “Relativity means never having to eat alone,” says an aunt who always has Sunday dinner on the table at 12:30 p.m. sharp, in spite of having just come from the church house at the same time as the rest of the relatives.

Relativity, in the South, is a term that could quite easily be interchanged with relatively, which means much the same, depending on who is doing the talking and how they use it in a sentence, but it’s not as interesting a word. Mostly, it is, by mutual understanding of people born below the Mason-Dixon Line, one of those words that we can use anyway we see fit, like most other words, come to think of it. Tomato or to-ma-to?

According to Wikipedia, “Southern American English, commonly known in the United States as Southern, is a group of dialects of the English language spoken throughout the Southern region of the United States, from the southern extremities of Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, as well as most of West Virginia and Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, and from the Atlantic coast to most of Texas and Oklahoma, and the far eastern section of New Mexico. The Southern dialects make up the largest accent group in the United States. Southern American English can be divided into several regional sub-dialects.”

With migrations due to the Depression, the Dust Bowl and the California Gold Rush, people spread the Southern accents and pronunciations of words like “nice” which might sound more like “nahs” or, drawn out words (because of the slower cadence of our speech patterns) in which, “girl” might sound like “guurrl”.

We also drop letters with great abandonment. Like the letter “g”. It gets left out at every gathering of one or more Southerners. The following words almost never have a “g: ending when relatives get together in the South: Goin’, gettin’, fixin’, farmin’, playin’, cookin’, eatin’, weddin’, lookin’, workin’, readin’ and on into infinity. 

In a recent conversation, the pronunciation of the word “crawfish” came up. I looked it up after hearing someone else, who googled the word and found a string of “crawfish” definitions, but only one entry for crayfish, it being the first on the list.

So, naturally, I googled it again, and this time I found something really interesting… according to Nature Bulletin (No. 405-A February 6, 1971)  printed by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Il. and written by a Mr. George W. Dunne, President and Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation, the question is an ongoing debate. Crawfish, or Crayfish? “There are heated arguments about which is the correct name,” Eisenbeis wrote. “The name crawfish was used in 1817 by Thomas Say, the first American zoologist to study these animals. Crayfish was coined by the English scientist, Thomas Huxley, about 50 years later. In this part of the country they are also commonly called “crawdad,” “crabs” or, in the southern part of the state, “mudbugs. “ 

The esteemed gentlemen from Illinois continue to refer to the crustacean as crawfish throughout their discourse. 

Finally, I went directly to the source, the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research board. Throughout the entire site, the word was used thousands of times as “crawfish” although the spell checker on their site prompted ‘crayfish’.  

According to the website, “Grammerist,” crayfish, crawfish, and crawdad are interchangeable terms for a large group of freshwater crustaceans (not fish) resembling small lobsters and living in many regions throughout the world. Crayfish and crawfish are renderings of regional pronunciations of the same word, descended from the Middle English crevise (-vise became -fish), which in turn has Old French and Germanic origins.

Crawfish is preferred in the U.S., while crayfish is preferred in most other English-speaking areas. Crawdad is prevalent in parts of the U.S., and cray is frequently used in Australia and New Zealand.

It’s that theory of relativity, again. If it is pronounced “crawfish” by most of your relatives, it’s probably best to go with the flow.

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