Who Is My Neighbor?

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It’s ironic that my recent criticism of what I perceive to be an unidiomatic use of folks earned me several comments from Southern readers defending the object of my criticism as acceptable Southern usage.

Ironic because as a Southerner myself, I often react to the way people from other regions of the country mispronounce, misunderstand, displace, or ridicule Southern speech.

Some of my pet peeves:

  • Soda for soft drink: The change was gradual, but is now complete. When i was growing up, a “soda” was made with ice cream. A carbonated drink like Coca Cola was “pop” or “soda pop.”
  • “standing on line” for “standing in line”: The first time I heard this usage was on Seinfeld. To me standing “in line” makes more sense for queuing since for me “on line” is a computer term.
  • using “y’all” as if it were singular: Southern “you all” or “y’all” meets a need. English lost what other languages still possess when we lost the second person singular pronoun thou and its related forms thee, thy and thine. If I want to invite a friend to come to my house, I say “Come see me.” But if I want to invite several friends, I say “Y’all come see me.” In Southern speech, “you” is singular and “y’all” is plural.
  • pecan: A recent Dairy Queen commercial suggests that the distinctly Northern or Eastern pronunciation /pee can/ (a as in and) is to be preferred over the Southern pronunciation /pe cahn/ (a as in father). Since pecans originate in the South, it seems logical that the people who import the pecans may as well import the pronunciation.

Writing in 1926, grammarian H. W. Fowler had this to say about English pronunciation:

The ambition to do better than our neighbours is in many departments of life a virtue; in pronunciation it is a vice; there the only right ambition is to do as our neighbours.

Fowler’s comment can also apply to word choice.

Even in 1926, when England possessed a much more homogenous population, Fowler had to admit that this dictum raises the question who our neighbors are. He admitted that some neighbors are more educated than others, but postulated an “average Englishman.”

What are we to do in the year 2007 when one can argue that there is no such thing as “an average Englishman” or “an average American”?

Keep on doing what you’re doing.

Read resources such as Daily Writing Tips, but read them critically. Inform yourself of those aspects of the language that are relatively stable, such as pronoun case, and prefer them to unjustifiable deviations.

Read widely–in the work of the best writers of the past as well as those of the present. Observe the speech of educated people, and be aware of regionalisms. Write every day, honing your grammar skills and developing your voice. And when you have to decide between two pronunciations, or whether or not to use a regionalism, you’ll have a basis for your choice because you’ll be steeped in language.

Bottom line: You’re the writer. You’re in charge.

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6 thoughts on “Who Is My Neighbor?”

  1. We lived in the boothill of Missouri for almost a year about 20 years ago. To hear them say “Sodie” for “Soda” was really funny sounding to us. Again, growing up in northern Louisiana, it was always, “Do you want a coke?” meaning any kind of carbinated drink in a bottle. It didn’t come in cans yet. Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Coke, it didn’t matter. They were all coke. Now coke means something entirely different in most parts of the country. I still say, “Do you want a coke?” meaning the beverage, not the drug.

  2. Patricia,
    When I was a student in England, one of my companions, a young man from Ireland, asked the waiter for “a Pepsi.” When the waiter brought him a Coca-cola, I was indignant. “You asked for a Pepsi,” says I. The Irishman shrugged. Apparently for him any carbonated drink was “a Pepsi.”

  3. Alabama born and reared here, and as any good Southerner knows, the plural of “y’all” is “all y’all.” 🙂

  4. This actually made me laugh – literally out loud – which is great, except I am at work and people are now looking at me funny. I had an experience this weekend which highlights this perfectly. My brother and I live in Missouri. We are stuck in the middle of the vocabulary “state lines.”

    I said something about pecan /pee can/pie, amazingly enough, at Dairy Queen. He asked me what I was talking about. When I changed it to /pe cahn/ pie, he said, “Oh, that sounds good.”

    Thanks for the laugh and the great tips!


  5. My wife was born in Louisiana. She has some strong feelings about the pronunciations of some words and phrases common in the South. To great humor, she corrected me that the “pee can” was something kept under the bed, and probably for use in the middle of the night way back in the day.

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