by John Lowe
I knew I was in trouble when Amy said, "Whew, we've got a lot of work to do!"
My wife and I were moving to Mississippi, and, as my only student from south of Kankakee, Illinois, Amy (from Louisiana) volunteered to help me learn the dialect I was fixin to take up with, as she put it. I’d been teaching many years in the south suburbs of Chicago, not quite far enough south to help, Amy noted.
Her concern was heightened by our casual discussion of crawfish--a good place to start, I thought, since I once ate them fixed about five different ways in New Orleans. (And yes, I know, "N'awlins.") But when my young mentor said she liked "bowl crawfish" best, I looked at her like she was from Mars. Sensitive girl that she was, she said again, with emphasis, "bowol crawfish, cain’t you hear?" Sounded like "bull" to me, so I said I wasn't aware there was a gender difference in crawfish cuisine.
Amy was right, we had a lot of work to do. And it's good that that particular variation of "boiled" came up then, because it took several forms when I got to Cleveland, Mississippi.
The first thing I discovered while house-hunting was that there is a town next door called "Bowl" (or sometimes pronounced with two syllables, as in "Bo-ol" with the long "o" sounds).
And just to make sure I was thoroughly confused, Delta State put me to work just down the hall from Charles "Bowls." But I was catching on, so when introduced I said "I'll bet you spell it B-o-i-l-s." But, looking at me like I had a booger on my nose, he said, "It's B-o-y-l-e-s."
Even professing about the physiology of speech was not immune. My DSU students had to reconcile not only the content of Boyle's Law in the respiratory process, but also my insistence that it was not pronounced like "Bowl, Mississippi."
There were other little adjustments, too. I even messed up the name of our county, which looked like a cool, French term pronounced "Bowl-e-var.” Wrong again. Friend Phillip quickly let me know that, here, it's "Ball-uh-ver." So much for French fantasies.
The adjustments have also included some expressions. I had to write to Beth Jacks to find out what she meant by "I swaney" and to Clarion Ledger columnist Orley Hood when he used "major whip out." (But then, Orley never heard of "I swaney," so there you go.)
Took awhile to catch on to just what "a pretty good bit" meant, and about the time I did, one of my new friends on a tennis road trip explained how far something was by noting it was "LESS than a pretty good bit" . . . and everyone nodded affirmatively like they knew what that fool was talking about.
But I didn't move south totally unprepared. My wife and I did get some experience in earlier travels. On a train trip through our fine state ("our" in the present sense--Mississippi!), we must have been showing some affection, as one luncheon tablemate asked, "Are y'all on y'all's honeymoon?"
We liked that, and I liked another use of “y’all” at a professional golf tournament last year. When golfers are ready to putt, marshalls hold up signs to let fans know to be quiet. In the Chicago area, those signs say "Shut up, dammit!" Here in Mississippi, they say (ever so gently), "Hush, y'all"--just one of many reasons to move to Mississippi.
It's taken a couple of years living here to catch on to Southern Speak and how many ways y'all use "y'all." Sometimes we feel majorly whipped out, but I swaney, we're working on it.
John Lowe III is Chair, Dept. of Audiology/Speech Pathology at Delta State University, was raised in the coal mining, agricultural, and sports influences of central Illinois, received the Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, held faculty, department chair, and collegial dean positions for many years at a university in the Chicago area. Wife Sherry is a nurse. John and Sherry have two sons--John IV, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio, and Scott, an engineering student at Stanford.
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