We Are a Brand of Bubbas

A LINCOLNIAN IN HICKFACE: A POST-COLONIAL ANALYSIS

In 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

For 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.

If 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?

Mind 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.

There 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.

As Nietzsche might have said, that which doesn't torch Atlanta or Columbia, once a week, strengthens us.

And 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.

Perhaps Southerners' general lack of interest in what "those people" do and say is the greatest crime of all.

By 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.

SAY WHAT?

Following 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.")

1. "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 hundred years.

2. "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

So /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 them.

This would explain why we are so slow.

3. "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.

4. "if": Not at issue. The Fellow has missed a cheap shot by not resorting to Snuffy Smith's "iffen" here.

5. "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.

It 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 speech?

If 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").

Speaking 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 speeches, too.

6. "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

H. 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.

Must 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?

Of 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").

No, 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.

The imaginary coastal bigot would have at least said "hadn't," /hædnt/, or "hadden," /hædn/.

7. "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?

8. "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.

9. "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.

By 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."

Soon 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

Over 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 white Southerners.

10. "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/.

Unless: 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-."

Of 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.

THE ONE-ROOM SCHOOLHOUSE OF HISTORY

What sociological or ideological conclusions may we draw from the above?

The 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 fetching.

It 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.

George 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!

For 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.

For 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.

Things 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?

I'm 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.

For 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.

Notes:

  1. Timothy Sandefur, "One Cheer for Al Sharpton," Liberty, 17, 2 (February 2003), p. 14 (my italics).
  2. John Samuel Kenyon, American Pronunciation (Ann Arbor, MI: George Wair Publishing, 1966), p. 106 (my emphasis).
  3. 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. 854).
  4. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 52.
  5. Cf. Cleanth Brooks, The Relation of the Alabama-Georgia Dialect to the Provincial Dialects of Great Britain (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1935).
  6. David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 256–264.

February 1, 2003