LINCOLNIAN IN HICKFACE: A POST-COLONIAL ANALYSIS
the February 2003 Liberty Magazine, Mr. Timothy Sandefur,
lately a Lincoln Fellow at Claremont Institute, complains that in
the wake of the Trent Lott affair, too many American political leaders
are “minimizing the offensiveness of a Mississippi good ol’ boy
who tells his audience that things wouldabin bettah if thar hain’t
bin nunna dat dee-seg-ruh-gay-shun.”1
my part, I am more taken with the offensiveness of the words I just
put in italics. The effect is hideous — sort of Joel Chandler Harris
+ 90-proof anti-Southern venom! Luckily for us, post-colonial analysis
saves the day.
this Fellow (a singular counterpart to General Lee's "those
people") can dress up in Hickface, what happens to all the
post-colonial literature about white folks, minstrel shows, and
all that? Will new theories arise? If Br'er Strauss and Br'er Jaffa
ask to be thrown in the hermetic briar patch, is it all a big trick?
you, the Fellow's sally is not very funny, but perhaps he did not
mean to be funny. I expect he meant to be insulting. He knows that
Southerners don't enjoy being insulted. There is a whole
literature on this, including a very tedious book by Professor Bertram
Wyatt-Brown, who studied under the even more tedious C. Vann Woodward.
is an implicit syllogism here: 1. People who don't sign on for full-bore
Lincolnianism, rightly understood (= mercantilism), are bad people;
and (1. B.) bad people should be insulted, and as often as
possible. 2. Southerners don't sign on for full-bore Lincolnian
mercantilism. 3. Therefore, Southerners should be insulted daily,
partly because they dislike it so much. It's good for them, builds
character, you know.
Nietzsche might have said, that which doesn't torch Atlanta or Columbia,
once a week, strengthens us.
now I read the sentence: "Things wouldabin," etc., again.
"Well, shut my mouth," I cry, slapping myself on the knee;
indeed I slap my knee a mite hard, but am somehow able to keep time
with the high lonesome fiddle music that runs through the soundtrack
of my post-Hillbilly mind. "How do," I say, in the general
direction of the imagined "good ol' boy" conjured up for
our contemptuous contemplation by the Fellow. How do these
Northern gentry (and scalawags) find so much time to worry about
little old us, when, left to our own devices, we would seldom pay
any heed to them whatsoever? It is a mystery.
Southerners' general lack of interest in what "those people"
do and say is the greatest crime of all.
itself, the Fellow's venture into dialect writing would not long
detain us, especially when he can't be bothered to use IPA or any
other system aiming at phonetic accuracy. His sentence is interesting,
however, as a symptom, and for its sundry shortcomings. We may begin
with its linguistic deficiencies.
what Otto Szemerenyi calls an irritating convention, I shall put
phonetic material between slashes, e.g., /kæt/ = "cat."
Further, a colon after a vowel indicates a long vowel, e.g., /kæ:d/
= "cad." /@/ is the unstressed vowel known as schwa. /'/
comes at the end of an accented syllable. Let us examine the sentence
word by word. (Lest we forget it: "things wouldabin bettah
if thar hain’t bin nunna dat dee-seg-ruh-gay-shun.")
"Things": I include this word only because, without it,
the sentence has no grammatical subject. It is not controversial,
since "things" — the word — has hardly changed for seven
"wouldabin": In ordinary speech, unstressed "have"
is reduced to /@v/ or /@/, anywhere in the English-speaking
world. John Samuel Kenyon writes: "The unstressed form @ is
heard in rapid familiar speech before consonants; as hi k@d @
gon [= "he coulda gone"]. In Early Modern [English]
it was common in cultivated speech and writing."2
/wud'@bin/ is pretty much the expected spoken realization of what
we write as "would have been." Given the five hundred
year lag between English spelling and speech, this should not be
surprising. Who has ever heard the /l/ pronounced in "would"?
Why the Fellow spells the phrase as he does is a puzzle. Perhaps
he believes that imaginary Southerners with incorrect views have
to mentally misspell (and clump together) whole phrases before uttering
would explain why we are so slow.
"bettah": This entry is no better than the last
one. Depending on where you are, /bet'@/ is considered to be in
the socially higher range. At the very least, it is morally neutral.
Reduction of final /r/ to zero is normal in the Home Counties, the
Commonwealth, and the Atlantic coast — and by extension, some of
the Gulf coast. On the other hand, many Americans say /bet'r/, but
no one has ever given them a medal for it.
"if": Not at issue. The Fellow has missed a cheap shot
by not resorting to Snuffy Smith's "iffen" here.
"thar": Now the Fellow really runs his wheel in the ditch.
I suppose he means /ðæ:r/, or – roughly – "thairr"
(rhyming with "square"), a pronunciation widely heard
in the Upper South. The innocent reader, however, may take it as
/ða:r/, rhyming with "car." Whether that broad pronunciation
exists, I cannot say.
looks like the Fellow can’t tell a coastal Southern accent from
an upland one, or can't be bothered to represent the distinction,
if he knows it. After all, he is just putting ideally substandard
speech in the mouth of an imaginary coastal redneck politician,
and what can it matter to the Fellow's audience that the evil figment
breaks into Appalachian a couple of words into his coastal hate
the Fellow really doesn't hear any difference, he might visit Tullahoma
sometime, to sharpen his ear. There, two Southern speech
patterns coexist, making it an ideal place for working with isoglosses
(: paired words illustrating transitions between dialects). It's
a bit like the Benrather Line, which runs across Germany, and where
Low Saxon ick and dat give way to High German ich
and dass ("I" and "that").
of Appalachian, old Abe himself must /@v/ spoken the English of
the Upper South. Maybe the Fellow can start rendering Abe phonetically:
e.g., /eyb/ – wait, no, not just "Abe" — but his
"hain't": There is no excuse for this. Here the Fellow
insults not just his targets but also the intelligence of his audience.
Any native speaker of English already knows that "hain't,"
where it is still found, functions as a contraction of "has
not" or "have not." It has been influenced in sound
by that lovely word "ain't" – the stressed form of
"an't." The latter is a contraction of "am not"
and "are not," and our friends at Oxford cite the stressed
form "ain't" from 1778.3
W. Fowler, with his wonted hardheadedness, rails against "ain't"
in the third person singular,4 but
he's a bit thrawn, an't he? Usage long ago decided in favor of "ain't"
and "hain't" in all persons. Only later did the tidy-minded
classes of London and New England take charge of the language and
decree what was acceptable.
someone really prefer "idn't" (/idnt/) and "idden"
(/idn/) to "ain't" in the third singular? And if he won't,
how come he don't? If he can't, does that mean he shan't?
course "ain't" can also be a reduced form of "hain't,"
as in "he ain't got any more sense than a West Coast Straussian."
Here, "[h]ain't" means "has not" rather than
"is not." "Ain't" and "hain't" are
quite intermingled, but speakers of English follow implicit rules
in wielding them. Not so, this Fellow: in the persona of his imaginary
speaker, he can’t even tell a past conditional ("had not been")
from a present indicative ("has not").
sir, not even the most desperate and savage barbarian from the Gulf
Coast would ever say, "things would have been better if there
hasn't been none of that," etc., which is how the Fellow's
sentence would run in everyday spelling. An immigrant, for God's
sake – some poor fellow who has recently come great-long distances
to energize our economy, improve our morals, and enrich our culture – might make such a mistake; but even he would learn better.
You don't have to be Noam Chomsky to grasp the underlying structures.
imaginary coastal bigot would have at least said "hadn't,"
/hædnt/, or "hadden," /hædn/.
"bin": Zero, zip, nada. Aside from the funny spelling,
there is nothing here: /bin/ = "been" is standard all
over the US. This Fellow shows us no contrast with anything "more
correct" and scores no hits, unless, once again, the bad sort
of Southerners mentally misspell words right before they
say them. Short of asserting that "bean" (= /bi:n/ or
/biyn/) is the correct pronunciation, as it is in Ontario, what
else can be said?
"nunna": This = "none of," which sounds like
/n@n' @v/ in rapid speech, anywhere in North America. /n@n' @/ might
also be possible – and so what? There are no obviously down-market
"regional," religious, or socio-economic associations
organically linked to an unstressed form. Taken together with the
item before last, however, "nunna" does involve an idle
accusation of the dreaded Double Negative.
"dat": The Fellow has opened up a really big can of worms
here. Every Germanic language once had a voiceless interdental spirant
/Þ/ (th as in "thin") and a voiced interdental
spirant /ð/ (th as in "then"). Nowadays only
English and Icelandic still have them in all their glory. And it
is just our luck to have lost two perfectly good letters, just shown,
for these sounds, and all because of the bloody stupid Norman Conquest.
sometime in the early Middle Ages, the two sounds became stops,
/t/ or /d/, in the continental Germanic languages. A word like that
(= Old English Þæt) became Dutch dat,
German das, and Swedish det. In Middle English, initial
/Þ/ became /ð/ in all demonstratives and adverbs, but
remained /Þ/ in adjectives and verbs. Whence "this"
and "that" as against "thick" and "thwack."
enough, colonization came about, making our present post-colonial
discourse possible, for which we are very grateful. The coastal
speech of the Southern colonies derived largely from that of the
south of England,4 especially the
southwest, areas where the continental shift of /ð/ to /d/ had
made some inroads. Thus according to David Hackett Fischer, high-toned
New Englanders visiting Virginia might have encountered "dis,"
"dat," and "de" (for "this," "that,"
"the"), used by all classes of society, precisely as in
Sussex and elsewhere.5
the long haul, /ð/ has prevailed in these words, and the versions
with /d/ have retreated. The older, Sussex-style pronunciations
are still used by such disparate groups as New York cabbies, immigrants,
and African-Americans. For all I know, a few white Southerners may
still use them. But one does not expect these forms from
"dee-seg-ruh-gay-shun": Here the Fellow hits bottom. This
empty and idle re-spelling manages to express the pronunciation
used pretty much everywhere, that is, /di:seg'r@geyu0161n/ (where /n/
is a vowel). You'd have to go to Strine, Kiwi, or South African
English to get anything else, i.e., something on the order of /di:sig'r@gæiu0161n/.
the Fellow writes "dee-" for the first syllable, so he
may have an arm up his sleeve after all. He may have meant to ridicule
the Southerner's preference for recessive accent – all the way back
to the first syllable, whenever possible. If so, his orthographical
tools have failed him. He should have written "DEE-."
course in such case, Southerners would be in good company. It is
precisely the Germanic languages that have favored first-syllable
accent from day one, the only exceptions being a few inseparable
prefixes like be-, ge-, un-, and for-. I find it heartening that
this Anglo-Saxon habit has survived the coming of the Normans and
their hoard of silly French words.
ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE OF HISTORY
sociological or ideological conclusions may we draw from the above?
Fellow has no ear for "dialect" writing. If he really
wanted to present a Mississippi accent, he could sample the oeuvre
of the late Jerry Clower. There he would find one variety of Mississippi
speech along with ample evidence for Celtic substratum sentence-structure
traceable to Ulster. My guess is he will not find this project very
is more likely that the Fellow is just following the set "national"
media rule (in place since the 1960s) whereby white Southerners'
speech must be rendered pseudo-phonetically so as to display the
speakers' boundless depravity, while all other persons will be written
up as conforming in every way with the strictures of Mr. Fowler,
no matter what they sound like.
Wallace always got the Yankee pseudo-phonetic write-up, but can
you imagine Ed Koch, the Rev. Al Sharpton, or Larry King written
up the way they sound? Ha!
a couple of centuries, northern interest groups and their allies
have badgered and defamed Southerners. Poor old critics, I worry
about them: If they finally succeed in abolishing the South, whatever
will they do with themselves? Abolish the World, I suppose.
two centuries, Yankees of a certain type were in the habit of denouncing
Southerners for talking like Blacks, for eating the same
food, and more of the same. They didn't much care how this reflected
on the Blacks.
have changed. And here's the rub, if white Southerners are stupid
for clinging to certain colonial expressions, where does that leave
African-Americans who also use just as many — perhaps more – of
them? If you sneer at one set of linguistic Southerners, how do
you immunize another set of them from this assault?
glad enough it isn't my problem. Anyway, if the Fellow wants to
hear some funny dialect material, he should listen to tapes of the
late Lewis Grizzard. Old Lewis could do a good imitation of a flat,
washed-out Midwestern accent. He found that regional accent amusing,
I guess, but there wasn't much venom in his depiction of it.
venom mixed with the wisdom of the serpent you must betake yourself
to New England, where fanatics grow out of the rocky soil. Maybe
the Fellow will go up there sometime. Maybe he will render their
speech phonetically for our edification.
Sandefur, "One Cheer for Al Sharpton," Liberty,
17, 2 (February 2003), p. 14 (my italics).
Samuel Kenyon, American
Pronunciation (Ann Arbor, MI: George Wair Publishing,
1966), p. 106 (my emphasis).
- C. T. Onions,
ed., The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles
(Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1955 (1933): "ain't" (p.
38), "an't" (p. 72), and "hain't, haint" (p.
- H. W. Fowler,
Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford: The Clarendon
Press, 1965), p. 52.
- Cf. Cleanth
Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects
of Great Britain (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1935).
- David Hackett
Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1989), pp. 256–264.