Barry Smith: Irrelativity
GREENVILLE, Miss. – I think I need a Re-Y’alling, and I’m hoping it’s an outpatient procedure. When I tell people I’m from Mississippi (which I ALWAYS do) they say, “You don’t have an accent.”I say, “Thank you.”I kid the South, I’ll admit. I did grow up right here in the Delta, a very specific part of the South – the most Southern place on Earth, it’s been called – so I feel entitled to do a bit of teasing. Lord knows I’ve had my share.I moved to California from Mississippi as a teenager, and people would stare open-mouthed at me whenever I spoke, as if they couldn’t believe that such noises were coming from a human. If I’d been making Chewbacca sounds I don’t think the stares would have been any more intense. Like it’s not hard enough just being a high school freshman.So I set out to work on changing my accent – a painfully slow process. It took most of high school before I began to notice any real progress. I had to start out simple – “y’all” was the first to go, replaced by “you guys.” “I’m fixin’ tuh” was then replaced by “I’m about to” or “I’m in the process of preparing to.” An excited squealing sound was replaced by a simple “cool.” “That man couldn’t stand in a bucket of s#*t and raise an umbrella” was replaced by, well, a knowing silence.And now, after 30 years of NOT living in the South, I’ve settled into a generic North American accent. Nice flat tones, not too much volume or inflection, and barely a trace of Southern-ness.Though recently I’ve noticed my old accent creeping back. I figured that as I got a bit older – and further from the trauma of high school teasing – that maybe my old accent is poking its head out, like a shy, frightened creature willing to come into the open for a sip of sweet tea. Not long ago I said the word “beach” and my friends felt moved to comment, claiming that I’d put a little more “buh” into the word than is necessary in this part of the country.I kinda liked this idea, this return to my vocal roots. So I’ve been going with it. I figured all I had to do was just relax and let it happen, like releasing the tension on some verbal sphincter and letting the y’all flow freely.But my last few days here in the Delta have shown me just how far I have to go …For starters, I’ve totally forgotten how to say ma’am and sir. After my move to Cali it took all my power to NOT call people ma’am and sir. They found my attempts at respect to be insulting. Very confusing. But now I don’t remember how it works. When you’re a kid in the South it’s easy – EVERY adult is ma’am or sir. But now that I’m older and out of practice, I’m totally lost. If I call someone younger than me ma’am, will that be insulting to her? Do I need to call my uncle “sir?” I mean, I know I did as a kid, but do I still have to? I can remember how grating it sounded to hear people NOT say ma’am and sir – Yankees, mostly – so I certainly don’t want to be disrespectful like that. But my occasional ma’am and sir feel forced, and I’m sure it’s obvious. When you live here these things just come to you, no need to overthink and analyze.And then there’s the ultimate Southern word – Y’all. What a great word, and I’m sad to say that I’ve let it slip away. “You guys” has moved in and taken over, and it won’t even give “y’all” a bit of shelf room in my enunciation refrigerator. I miss it. And now that I’m here in a place to really let it happen, to really let my y’all flag fly, “you guys” keeps hogging the conversation. Dang.This is why I think a Re-Y’alling is in order. I’m going to put myself on a strict All Y’all verbal diet. Y’all was the first to go way back when, so it needs to be the first to return, too. This may be the only hope I have to recapture my true inner self. You guys wish me luck.
Barry’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. Read more at http://www.barrysmith.com.
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The past sneaks up on us in the strangest of ways, and I don’t mean bounty hunters flashing those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in our faces.