The Northerner’s Guide to the Southern
It’s been nearly ten years since I packed up my
rented moving van and motored South. I came on the wings of love, so the
five day trip – which was also my honeymoon – was breathlessly romantic.
Then I got out of the truck in Aberdeen, Mississippi.
It was July. Need I say more?
As if the heat and the humidity were not enough of
an adjustment for this Montana girl, there were immediately evident
language differences which convinced me we had passed through a cosmic
fault zone somewhere near Iowa and had landed upon another planet.
I’m the Communication Kid. I have a fairly firm
grip on the English language and can sometimes even respond in one or
two other tongues if such is required of me so, naturally, I figured I
could handle a little South-Speak. I knew enough to expect some “Y’alls”
and “All y’alls.” I even expected to “reckon” from time to time. I did
not, however, anticipate being faced with such an entirely daunting
In time, I learned that the four wheeled vehicle
used in grocery stores to convey foodstuffs from aisle to aisle and out
the door is NOT a grocery cart. It’s a buggy.
My kitchen range has four eyes and not the first
I do not take my mother to the Doctor’s office. I
now carry her there.
I no longer plug-in the Christmas lights, I plug
them up – an interesting concept to me who heretofore only plugged up
kitchen sinks and the occasional toilet.
I now pull the door to, fix to accomplish daily
tasks, and, from time to time, in the course of conversation I
abbreviate the latter term to “finna” which is, of course, an even
cooler and much more colloquial way of saying “preparing to...”
Almost instantly, it became apparent that there was
a larger problem with my ability to communicate in this new world. Black
people, with whom I’d had nearly no previous intercourse (in any
application of the verb,) speak an entirely different language. I guess
Oprah and her similarly pigmented colleagues take lessons or something.
In case you had not yet noticed, newsy-actorish black folks speak just
like..well…Northerners! Such is not the case in the South. I actually
heard two black women whispering about another who was speaking in a
newsy-actorish way on the telephone to a client. The two, in scorn and
revulsion accused the third girl of “talking all white.” That confused
First of all, most black people in Aberdeen speak
backwards. It’s interesting and colorful (no pun intended,) but rings
very discordant in the unprepared Northern ear. They never “ask” a
question they “axt” it. Nor do they string the words together in the
traditional English manner. Where I might ask, “Where is the tapioca?”
they say, “Where it is?”
Black people in Aberdeen don’t LIVE anyplace. They
“stays,” as in, “Where you stays?”
Additionally, they have an entire dictionary full
of words which are meant to be spoken in English, but are abbreviated so
thoroughly that it was impossible for me to sort it all out in the
beginning. Here is a short list:
Fo – the number between three and five.
Do – the thing you pull to in the bathroom
Po – what ‘peoples in the projex is.’
Yo – belonging to you.
Chirrens – offspring
Babies – another word for offspring which may be
used for the entire life of the child.
Mess – fecal matter of undetermined origin - as in
“He done stepped in mess!”
A conversation might go something like this:
“He aunTEE Shamika baby.” (What ever happened to
possessive nouns like his and hers?)
“He yo cousin, (insert the “n-word" here.)”
“Ah’s finna say, he bright skin like aunTee.”
Interestingly, black people have an entire bushel
basket of terms to describe the particular color of their skin.
Light-skin. Bright-skin. Red-skin. (I wonder what the Native Americans
in Montana would make of this news?) For my part, I have the most
trouble with this one. My training in race relations came from NBC news
and Sesame Street. I try very hard not to see skin color differences
between white people and black people at all, so to expect me to remark
upon the subtle shades from "blue-gum" black to “she so bright she
almost white” is, I fear, an impossibility.
I promise it took six or eight months for me to be
able to take and translate a phone message at the law office where I
worked. I spent the first year in Mississippi bewildered. The good news
is, after nearly a decade, I’ve managed to become almost fluent in
South-Speak and am pleased to converse with my neighbors of all colors.
I can even understand those whose necks are rumored to be the only
The rednecks among you have yet another dialect to
which I’m catching on quite well. The problem I have with Redneck is, I
don’t know how to spell the words some of my “country” friends use.
“Where did you put the potato chips?”
“Where’s the wheel-barrow?”
“Oh-vaire yonder way.”
“How did you do that, anyway?”
“Hey, Ricky Bob….why did you ride your bicycle to
work? Did you get another DUI?”
“Nah. Truck wouldn’t crank. I don’t know what’s up.
It crunk just fine last night…..”
I don’t think y’all can surprise me much these
days. Y’orta bout got me trained.
The Redneck Dictionary