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Tell about the South, Shreve said, but what’s still there to tell?  That we eat at Hardee’s and Krystal instead of Carl’s Jr. and White Castle?  That we watch the Braves on SportsSouth instead of the Red Sox on NESN?  That we feel a little outraged when we have to specify “sweet tea”?

Ever since the colonists moved inland from the Chesapeake and the Low Country, the American South’s been more an idea, an imagining, than a concrete place, especially since the culture has always seeped so, across the Potomac, the Ohio, the Arkansas.  Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri were slave states that stayed in the Union.  People from rural Indiana live and talk almost exactly like people from rural Kentucky or Tennessee do.  Are Texas and Oklahoma the West, or the South?  How about Arkansas?  A native once told me that New Orleans isn’t a Southern city, it’s a Caribbean city.

Many if not most of the contemporary ideas – coming from inside and outside the region – of what the American South is and was are, to be blunt, ridiculous.  Hal Crowther says so, so it must be true.  He and his wife Lee Smith spoke recently at the “Okra to Opera” conference at Converse College in Spartanburg, a conference that saw fit to ask if Southern culture has vanished.

Language has long been thought to mark off the South as separate, but the Southern vocabulary and accent has always been varied if not jumbled, a veritable Dixie Babel (get it?).  Mental Floss looked through the latest edition of the Dictionary of American Regional English last week, and came up with “19 Regional Words All Americans Should Adopt Immediately.”  I’m a big fan of regional and archaic words, and of not letting them die.  That’s the reason I occasionally sound like a half-wit historical re-enactor.  Well, part of the reason.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Times, this article opens by acknowledging that there is no single Appalachian dialect, that immigrants from many places brought their own speech ways into the mountains, and that those speech ways survived haphazardly into our own highly mobile present (a statement that’s true for all of the South).  The writer then goes on to “define” how them “mountain people” (her phrase) talk, which makes me wonder how and why I grew up in the Piedmont suburbs saying, and surrounded by people who said, that we were fixin’ to cut off the lights and change a tair to go see a movie at the (if my father was talking) thee-ATE-r or the (if I was talking) THEE-uh-tur.

I knew a girl who grew up 20 miles from where I did, but she carried her groceries home in a sack, while I used a bag.  My Alabama-born wife waters the yard with a hose pipe.  Will Blythe’s father insisted that in the South you make a pie with puh-kahns, but some South Carolinians say PEE-cans, and Allan Gurganus – about as North Carolinian as you can get – says pee-CAHNs.  In parts of eastern North Carolina, a mildly pleasant past experience is described as “It warn’t bad.”

It’s almost enough to make you think that the South isn’t as monolithic as the stereotypes would have you believe, as CNN (born and based in Atlanta, by the way) admits.

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I was 7 years old when I first went to North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  That was long enough ago that the desk clerk at our motel, the girls at the cash registers, even the DJs on the local radio all, to my young Piedmont ears, talked real funny.

My parents explained to me that I was hearing the Outer Banks’ “hoi toide” brogue, that the isolation of the Banks and the Tidewater region preserved the accents of the original English settlers down through the centuries.  My little history-nerd self thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard.  (Years later, I was in a hotel room in London, falling asleep with the TV on, when I heard a voice speak in familiar tones.  I sat up, thinking they were talking to an Outer Banker; instead, I saw an old-timer from the west of England.  The accent was essentially the same.)

The British Library has completed a project to determine what Shakespeare sounded like; they’ve “completed a new recording of 75 minutes of The Bard’s most famous scenes, speeches and sonnets, all performed in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare’s time.”  The accent is so different as to be unintelligible at times, and though Scott Simon of NPR compares it to that of the Appalachians, to my (now much older) Piedmont ears, I’m hearing much of the same old “hoi toide.”  (I wonder what milepost the Globe was at?)

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