- Cullman, Alabama

July 7, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: Southern colloquialism

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— For some, it’s a little hard to understand a true Southern dialect. Just as New York has its various boroughs’s that come with an accent distinctive to specific areas like Queens and the Bronx, the South has always had a broad spectrum of dialects, such as the beautiful Tidewater accent of Virginia and the Carolinas that Hollywood always tries so hard to duplicate and fails at miserably.

Other people might not be able to distinguish between them, but most of us who were brought up here can tell in a heartbeat if someone is from out of our area.

If you weren’t familiar with the Cajun accent before, you surely are now that the swamps of Louisiana have become fodder for the latest ‘reality’ shows. But even Cajun’s have distinctive dialects and patois. It’s very interesting to hear two Cajun’s conversing….you can barely make out what they are saying unless you have been exposed to the culture. There are true Cajun pronunciations, as well as Creole, and a mixture of both, plus a little French and some Indian, and the colorful Caribbean dialects that have found their way into the speech patterns of the people of Louisiana. One thing that caught my ‘ear’ right away was the sing-song pattern of their speech, and the fact that in some dialects a sentence always ends on an up-tilt, as if it were a question. The pronoun “me’ is often scattered among the other words in a Cajun sentence, just like salt and pepper, some like it heavy, some with just a sprinkling. As in, ‘I’m going to town, me, and get me some ah’ that fresh catfish offa that man what sells it at the farmer’s market, me.’  Just depends on where he’s from, how many times ‘me’ will be used in one sentence.

All through the Southland, there are local Colloquialism and vibrant patterns of speech. According to Wikipedia, a colloquialism is a word, phrase or paralanguage that is employed in conversational or informal language but not in formal speech or formal writing.  Dictionaries often display colloquial words and phrases with the abbreviation colloq. as an identifier.  

For instance, in bygone days when the crops were harvested, people were very familiar with the term ‘laid by’ as in ‘the crops are laid by for the year’.  Other terms have similarly been replaced with more familiar ones, partially because of the way people live and do business now. When crops were ‘laid by’ they were harvested by hand, after tractors and combines were introduced, the term was gradually replaced with more modern terms, like ‘harvested’ or the name frequently came from the actual piece of equipment, as in ‘the garden has been tilled’ or in some areas, ‘tillered’.   

Colloquialism include such everyday words in our area as ‘gonna and wanna, or familiar phrases like ‘as old as the hills’ or ‘raining cats and dogs’ and ‘dead as a doornail’ and aphorisms, or old adages, like, ‘There's more than one way to skin a cat’.

As a general rule, Colloquialism are specific to a geographical district. They are used in everyday conversation all over the South and, increasingly, the world, in informal online conversations.  

One of the most recognized Colloquialism is the term we use here when referring to carbonated beverages. In the Upper Midwestern states and Canada, soft drinks are called ‘pop’, in other areas, notably the Northeastern and far Western United States, they are referred to as  ‘soda’. In some areas of Scotland, the term ‘ginger’ might be used. But in the Southern United States, particularly Georgia, where coke originated, the term ‘coke’ (short for Coca-Cola) is recognized as a catch-all for any kind of  soft drink, including Sprite or even Coca Cola's long-time rival, Pepsi.

 Linguists sometimes make the distinction between Colloquialism and slang words. According to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann: "Slang refers to informal (and often transient) lexical items used by a specific social group, for instance teenagers, soldiers, prisoners, or surfers. Slang is not considered the same as colloquial (speech), which is informal, relaxed speech used on occasion by any speaker; this might include contractions such as you’re, as well as Colloquialism.  

According to Wikipedia, ‘Jargon is a term especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession or group. The term refers to the language used by people who work in a particular area or who have a common interest. Much like slang, it is a kind of shorthand used to express ideas that are frequently discussed between members of a group.

I like that definition, shorthand. That, is seems to me, is what our Southern dialect is all about. A shorter way to say something or in some cases, a longer way to pronounce certain words.

 The term dialect has two distinct meanings. The first refers to a variation of a language that is characteristic of a particular group who speak the language. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors, such as social class. The second usage is distinguished by its vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Caribbean, when pronounced ‘Ca-rib-ian’ sounds fine coming from people who live in the North, and some parts of the South, but most Southerners, who love to draw words out as long as possible, would sound odd pronouncing it that way. For us, the softer vowels and the rolling letters just naturally come out, ‘Care –rib-e-an’.

Other words that are perfectly acceptable but often pronounced differently, are potato and tomato. Can you just imagine pulling up to a farmer on the side of the road and the farmer tipping his cap and saying, “The toe- mot-toes were just picked this mornin’,” or “The po-ta-toes are really good this year.” (Only he would more likely say “The potatoes are really good this time.”)

Some words were just never meant to come out of a Southern mouth.

So in fact, it seems that we, as Southerners, have a bit of each; jargon, dialect, and Colloquialism, along with a huge helping of slang. Here is an example of all four….

“It just fell a flood here! I liketa died when I saw all that rain in the pasture where Daddy was out plowin’ the mule. He ‘bout had a come-apart when he had to wade through all a’that mud! We needed that like another hole in the head!”