published Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Kennedy: Why y'all talk that way

I've always known that I was linguistically challenged. A child of the South, I've dropped enough "l's" and "g's" in my life to fill a sinkhole.

Back when I was an education reporter, one of my co-workers used to tease me. He'd say: "Got a skoo board meeting tonight, Mark?"

Very funny.

My wife, who is from Jefferson County, Tenn., makes fun of me for my Middle Tennessee idioms, such as calling a garden hose a "hose pipe." Thankfully, Google has my back on this -- I searched for "hose pipe" and it took me directly to Sears.com.

I started thinking about regional dialects the other day when I happened upon an interactive feature on the New York Times website. The title was, "How Y'all, Youse and You Guys Talk."

The game takes you through a series of 25 questions about how you talk that are designed to triangulate your location. Some of the questions are about word usage, and others are pronunciation and inflection. Imagine a computer playing a game of "20 Questions" with you to pinpoint your hometown. (To play along, go to the New York Times website and search for the article title above.)

Each time you answer a question, the interactive tool flashes a temperature map that identifies the region where your particular language quirk is most intense (red for hot, blue for cold). This is all based on 350,000 survey responses collected last year. By the time you've finished, the computer pretty much knows your ZIP code.

It's funny what marks us as Southerners. Who knew, for instance, that most Americans pronounce "lawyer" with a first syllable that rhymes with boy -- loy-yer. Here in the South we pronounce it as if the first syllable rhymes with "flaw."

Do you pronounce "ant" and "aunt" the same way? (I do.) I'll go you one better, my mouth makes very little distinction between "oil" and "all."

Sometimes simple usages give away your roots. For example, do you say "sneakers" or "tennis shoes." For me it's the latter -- which is apparently another Southernism.

Then there are questions that are quite inexplicable. For instance: "What do you call it when the rain falls while the sun is shining?"

I call it: "Look, the sun is shining and the rain is still falling." Apparently in some parts of America they have an actual name for this phenomenon, such as "fox's wedding" and "the wolf is giving birth."

I came across a website called TV Tropes where serious writers try to subdivide the Southern tongue. Apparently, we are smack in the middle of a language band called "Hillbilly Appalachian" which includes East and Middle Tennessee, North Alabama and parts of western North Carolina.

Instead of the syrupy sweetness of the Deep South accent -- dubbed "Dixie" by TV Tropes contributors -- our accent is "more musical like a tightly wound banjo string." It also carries the DNA of our Scotch-Irish roots, by placing r's in weird places. Do you say "warsh"?

If you want to hear the accent in pop culture, the website suggests you listen to the Clarice Starling character played by Jodie Foster in "Silence of the Lambs," occasionally Miley Cyrus, who spent some of her youth in Middle Tennessee, and Ernest T. Bass on the old "Andy Griffith Show."

Now, that's a trio for you.

By the way, the New York Times thinks I hail from Huntsville, Ala. -- which is not a bad guess since my hometown is about 75 miles north of there, and some of my forebears are from North Alabama.

My people eat supper (not dinner) at night, catch lightning bugs (not fireflies) and finish our cakes with icing (not frosting).

But never mind us, we didn't spend much time at skoo.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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