The South has always loomed large in my life, as my people come from Andalusia, Alabama, a speck of a place with no fame ‘cept that it is the seat of Covington (pronounced: Covin’tn) County, population 8,794 and home to the World Championship Domino Tournament.
What it lacks in fame however, it makes up for in magic, for the South generally, but Alabama specifically, boasts many charms, tales and totems, if you know where and how to look. If you can invoke the right incantation.
Like Pidgin and Creole, the Southern dialect is a hybrid (a la Latour) language that mixes and remixes words, phrases, meanings, spells. The Southern dialect generally and not incidentally has spread across the Continental United States along the same map pattern on as the yearly heat wave. Perhaps this is why heat is so often a character in Southern literature.
We share most major points of speech with Black Southerners because of our inextricably linked histories, and so I have inherited a language, a set of metaphors and a vocabulary for explaining and relating to the world by way of Ireland and Scotland, and also Africa. This is an uncomfortable thought for some white Southerners I know.
Common features of our language include use of the circumfix --a and –in’ as in a-hootin’ and a-hollerin’.
Southern dialect also uses the simple past infinitive instead of the present perfect infinitive. In example, …I like to had killed him for hurtin’ her.
Though my grandmother would never use the term done as an auxiliary verb because she was an educated and proper white woman, many southerners still use the word done as such, as in…I done told you to put the fatback in the beans ‘else they won’t taste right. But to use the term done in this way is to be without class, an insufferable offense to white, affluent southerners.
Like any Creole, we Southerners have our own vocabulary:
Cattywampus: to knock askew as in Say it again and I’ll give you a cattywampus.
Crottlement: to huddle together or make-shift; an eyesore as in Get that crottlement outta the front yard.
Pusselgut: a derogatory term usually referring to a man who is “no good” or a cheat, a liar as in: stay away from that pusselgut.
When I am under great stress, full of anger, or threatening someone because my body has chosen to fight instead of flee, my speech pattern changes. I put on the South's dialect like armor. My inner-scrapper is needle-tongued, punch-ready. This girl tears the sleeves of her dress so there’s more room to put up her dukes.
I wrote this girl as the protagonist of my first, and failed book, Southern Providence. I named the central character Lulu. She wore one of two things: a thin, printed cotton dress or jeans and a white t-shirt, stained canary yellow at the armpits. I gave her the ability to speak Southern Pidgin so that when she returned home to contend with her past, she would be able to communicate, commune with, her tribe.
Creating this widesite and reflecting on the past and present through the context of these short narratives has made visible a lifelong struggle to reconcile the two girls as me: the doll-as-girl cum belle that others wanted and expect of me; and the fierce, silver-tongued, androgynous Lulu, an alter, no doubt, of Lee’s Scout, with whom I more naturally align.