I’m a live, working editor from the Deep South—Mississippi to be exact. As an editor, I work with people from all over the world, and it’s fascinating to hear assumptions about southerners. Because we talk slower than other Americans do, some assume that we are slow—mentally, that is. Though I may be biased, I think that southerners are some of the most intelligent, interesting people ever.
However, I’ll be the first to admit that we southerners have a unique dialect. We use some words and phrases that don’t necessarily line up with grammatically correct formal English. As a side job, I also teach college writing classes, and this southern conundrum of mechanics comes into play with that job as well. I always tell my students that dialect is dialect—we talk how we talk. On the other hand, it’s just as important to be empowered with grammar knowledge. That knowledge is of vital importance when interviewing for a job, giving a presentation, or writing a manuscript.
It’s also important to note that just because I’m an editor doesn’t mean I’m the grammar police. I don’t go around correcting people’s words, and it annoys me to no end when someone else smugly corrects my grammar when I’m ‘off the clock.’ Off the clock, you say? You, an editor, knowingly and casually use improper grammar? You bet I do. When in Rome…So when I’m with my family and friends, it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic to hear me say something like, “Daddy, she ain’t got no sense.” As I tell my students, I may speak this way with friends, but I know the difference and can speak formally in a professional setting.
When writing (or editing) a manuscript, it’s my job, my duty to make sure that each sentence is written correctly. I do that, and I’m good at my job—even if I am a southerner. Dialogue, though…ahhh… dialogue is a separate playing field. When writing dialogue, it’s acceptable (even preferable) to write phonetically accurate dialect.
So, I’ll end with two lessons. First, remember that editors, teachers, and writers are real people. Though we may be intelligent, we are social creatures too, so we don’t mind drinking some sweet tea and throwing around the word ain’t and y’all. Don’t correct us. I know it’s tempting, but we know grammar rules, and we’ll apply them at the appropriate times. So that leaves us with the second lesson. People all over the world are fascinated with the South. When we traveled internationally, my husband and I were swarmed with people asking us questions about the South, and as it turns out, people all over the globe love the movie, “Sweet Home Alabama.” It’s also true that readers enjoy reading about the South. So the subsequent list is for those writers who want to incorporate some true southern dialect into their manuscripts.
*Bless your heart-This is a tough phrase to describe. Sometimes we mean it as a compliment. Other times, though, we’re saying it because our mama’s taught us to say nothing at all if we can’t find something good to say. This is our something good to say.
*Y’all- This is a staple word used by all southerners. Y’all is the plural of you. We never say ‘you all’ or ‘you guys.’ For us, the plural of you is y’all.
*Ending sentences with prepositions- All southerners end sentences with prepositions. We may ask, “Where are you from?” or even “Where you at?” Other common examples are “What’d you do that for?” and “Who’d you talk to?”
*Ain’t- We use ain’t a lot. Ain’t is a contraction for am not or is not. For example, “I ain’t gonna go to that party.” Here’s another example: “She ain’t telling me what to do.”
*Using double negatives- Southerners tend to over use the negatives, and this is usually in an insulting context. It often occurs with incorrect subject verb agreement, which makes the sentence shorter—and it sounds more sinister. When this happens, a southerner is angry. “She don’t know nothing.” Here’s another one: “That won’t do you no good.”
*Pronunciation- We often pronounce words differently than Yankees. For example, ‘dog’ is pronounced ‘dawg.’ The same goes with ‘frawg’ (frog) and ‘lawg’ (log). In the South, my name is pronounced like ‘Keyum’ (Kim). Some people even say ‘tile’ (towel) and ‘shire’ (shower). Southerners like to argue about the pronunciation of ruined, as some southerners pronounce it by saying, ‘rrrnt.’
*Fixin’- This is also a staple of southern dialect. If you’re writing about southerners, this word should definitely be in your dialogue. Fixin’ means you’re about to do something. Here’s an example. “I’m fixin’ to go to the store.”
*Words we don’t use- We don’t use the word ‘empties’ to refer to empty cans, and when we hear ‘come with,’ we think it’s an incomplete sentence. We don’t cook stuffing—only dressing, and a buggy is a shopping cart, not a horse and buggy.
This is a small list. Southerners are famous for our expressions and unique way of speaking, but if you’d like to get an expert opinion to write authentic southern dialogue, then feel free to contact me. In the meantime, here’s an example of a conversation in southern dialect. If you can comprehend the following paragraph, then you’re probably southern.
“What in the tarnation was he thinkin,’ Gail? That boy done got in a wreck while he was muddin’? Why don’t he just go cow tippin’ or rollin’ yards like them other kids in his class?” Sandra asked.
“It all started when he took them licks from Buster,” Gail said. “Jenny got all gussied up and flirted with him, and Buster got too big for his britches. I guess he was hankerin’ for a fight cause he slapped Ed over the head. Course that made Ed madder than a wet hen, and he threw some licks, himself.”
“Well, I declare, Gail. And he’s been all half-cocked sense then?”
“Yep, like he ain’t got no sense. Came home the other night drunker’n Cooter Brown. He wearin’ me slap out. It ain’t like when they were kids. I’d say ‘y’all go make up. Give Buster some sugar.’ But this fight really tore him up. Him and Buster were friends since kindergarten, but now, he says Buster’s been acting real uppity since he got that scholarship. Then they fightin’ over Jenny. She’s pretty as a peach, but she’s fast as all get out.”
“Heavens to Betsy. I reckon it’ll all work out, Gail. Youngins’ go through phases. He’ll come around, and he won’t forget his raisin.’ Momma’n em said I was a hellion too for a stretch.”
“You probably right, Sandra. A’right. Let me get off this phone. I’m fixin’ to call Ed and ask him where he’s at. He better be comin’ home from supper or I’m really gonna fly off the handle.”
“Mmmkay. I’ma pray for y’all.”
Photo Credit: Steve Snodgrass