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More on Southern Speak

posted Aug 24, 2012, 7:40 PM by David Burkhart
I received a few phone calls about my blog about southern dialect. This is an important topic, because I write and edit books using dialect. A close friend, also an author, addressed me (her opinion) that writing in dialect is akin to making fun of culture.

"Not at all," I said. "Using dialect is a celebration--a preservation of the south or of any area--of culture--of tradition. For if  authors don't write in dialect, nuances of speech may be erased. Part of southern history will be lost.

When I wrote the first Jack tale book, I begged for the addition of more dialect. However, New York editors were more tuned in to the Chicago Manual of Style and Webster's dictionary. (Note" second Jack tale book due for release in Sept. 2008.)

Then when "Voices of the North Carolina Mountains" was in copy editing (see book tab for description), the editor called to say that I had words in the document that were not in Webster's. "Of course," I said. "There are many southern mountain words that are not in the dictionary."

"Sorry," responded the editor, "if the word is not in the dictionary, you can't use it in your document. Now let me know when you come up with a substitute word for 'sprangle'."

"But, it will take all the flavor and history out of the text," I said. "The dialect and old expressions are the heart of the book."

There was no winning or losing. I got lucky when my editor in Charleston realized the copy editor in Massachusetts didn't understand the purpose of the book--to capture southern history. Lesson learned. But "sprangled" stayed in.

The average person probably thinks that southerners only use expressions such as "ya'll", "over yonder," "happy as a clam,"sick as a dog," "stickin' your foot in your mouth," "down the road a piece." However, I recently heard some that I've never heard before even though I've spent my entire life in South Carolina, North Carolina, or Florida. (I'm not counting the year I spent in Portland, Oregon.) The following are the sayin's that my mother would have said are "dillies."

all vine and no tater--meaning superficial


organ recital--growling stomach

three pickles shy of a barrel--dumb

purse proud--cheap or stingy

"There must be a "blue million" ways to say things southern," Miss Nettie Murrill of Morehead City, North Carolina once said. And she knew at least half a million. She also said "cattywampus" instead of "crooked" and "mommicked" when she was aggravated in the worst way. 

In his book, "If This Ain't True, Grits Ain't Groceries," Glenn put it in the proper context. He said, "All my life I've been told I talk funny cause I shorten some words when I speak. But when I was young, everybody around talked the same. Now we're told we have an Appalachian accent. It came to me that such a way of speaking needs to be preserved as part of mountain history."

And, he's right. Language has to be preserved.