In 1975 I arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia, to commence four years of education at Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village. The following year Jimmy Carter ran for president, and much was made of his southern roots. In years to come Americans would find themselves confronted by caricatures of southern culture, especially on television (think Dukes of Hazzard, although Carter Country remains the model).
One of the earliest efforts to capitalize upon this phenomenon was the publication of a mass-market paperback, How to Speak Southern. It was a humorous effort to acquaint non-southerners with the folkways of the South through explaining how (white) southerners said words and what certain expressions meant. My mother sent me a copy.
Now, folks in Charlottesville didn’t quite speak in the ways described by the book, although in the future I came across some folks in Tennessee and South Carolina who sounded a bit more like the examples in the book. Moreover, now that I’m surrounded by southerners hailing from my wife’s family, one can see both common traits as well as differences (ask Texans if they think they are southern).
I didn’t make much of this book at the time. After all, people have also made fun of how people in New England and New York speak, and non-Long Islanders have always been unhappy that I don’t sound or speak like a stereotypical Long Islander. I was fascinated at how the South was being presented to the rest of the nation, an introduction that played off of how the South came across to the rest of the nation during the late 1950s and 1960s. However, I did not see Virginians as average or representative southerners, something that became more apparent when I lived in Tennessee and South Carolina … experiences that suggested to me just how much variation was concealed or obscured by the term “the South” and “southern.”
Moreover, efforts to establish linguistic identity rooted in cultural heritage can prove problematic. Look at the fallout over the concept of ebonics, a term used to describe a construct of grammar and speaking judged to be uniquely African American. Now known by several different labels, the study of ebonics has had to struggle for legitimacy, especially against efforts to make fun of the whole enterprise.
At times I’ve heard white southerners complain about hearing that they talk “funny,” and I can understand their irritation … although perhaps they should fugetaboutit and move on. Some southern folks laugh about it. But other white southerners take pride in their linguistic identity, as we see here … in this declaration of verbal independence. Now you can spell southern, speak southern, and so on, in eight lessons (I’m waiting for the Rosetta Stone edition).