Who Is My Neighbor?
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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