“An [American’s] way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other [American] despise him.”
–Paraphrase of “Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak?”
from My Fair Lady, based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
I originally wrote the following piece back in about 1981 when I had been living in Oklahoma only about four years.
I titled it “The Columnist Manifesto” as a paraphrase of the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who wrote in “The Communist Manifesto”: “Workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!” A paraphrase of those words appears toward the end of this piece.
The subtitle of this piece, “Two Great Peoples Divided by a Common Language” is a paraphrase of a statement about the British and Americans made by George Bernard Shaw, an Irish-born playwright. I, of course, used it to describe the differences I noted between the speech of Northeast Oklahoma and Southeast Arkansas after I had moved here from my beloved native state on February 16, 1977.
Finally, the play on words between “Communist” and “Columnist” refers to the fact that I originally wrote this piece as part of a proposal I made at the time to several Arkansas newspapers to let me write a regular column titled “Arkansiana.” Obviously, since I am still here in exile thirty-five years later, that proposal was never accepted.
So now here is that tongue-in-cheek linguistic/cultural observation I made just as I wrote it for an Arkansas audience so many years ago, which means that some of the terms and other aspects of Okie and Arkie language may no longer be entirely accurate or even exist. (Note: In the piece I have inserted a few updates in brackets.)
The Columnist Manifesto:
Two Great Peoples Divided by a Common Language
“Ever’body says words different. Arkansas folks says ’em different, and Oklahomey folks says ’em different. And we seen a lady from Massachusetts, and she said ’em differentest of all. Couldn’t hardly make out what she was sayin’.”
The Grapes of Wrath
How true, Mr. Steinbeck. To those sensitive to words, there is, indeed, a difference between the way “Arkansas folks says ’em” and the way “Oklahomey folks says ’em.”
Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t notice it so much between Fort Smith and Sallisaw, but when my family and I moved up to the environs of Tulsa from the deep southeastern corner of Arkansas some four years ago, we quickly became aware that we had crossed over into a cultural and linguistic Twilight Zone.
Down there, sandwiched between Mississippi on one side and Louisiana on the other, life—and therefore dialect—is definitely more Southern-oriented than in “the greater Tulsa Metropolitan area.”
I once read an article in which Tulsa was referred to as “America’s most northern Southern city.” Interpreting that statement to mean that Tulsa was America’s northernmost Southern city, I concluded that that distinction should go to Richmond, with perhaps Louisville or even Baltimore as possible contenders for the title. Baltimore has been said to be the place where migrating Southern blacks think they are “up North” and vacationing Northern whites think they are “down South.” Louisville, on the other hand, has been called a “Mid-Western city with a Southern exposure”—not a bad description of Tulsa, which, although geographically south of the Mason-Dixon line, is definitely “Yankified” in many ways.
Located as it is “right smack” in the center of a transition zone where the Mid-South, the Mid-West, and the Southwest all come together, the Tulsa metroplex presents an intriguing blend of all three. Spiced by an influx of Easterners, Californians, and even foreigners drawn by its oil- and air-based economy, Tulsa’s cultural and linguistic milieu is a strange and fascinating brew indeed.
Nowhere is this inter-regional, multi-cultural mélange more evident than in its speech—a curious mixture of Yankeeisms and Southernisms, of Native-American nuances and frontier phrases, of Afro-American amalgams and Anglo-Saxon alloys, of big-city proprieties and down-home holdovers.
For example, Tulsans of all social and intellectual levels properly eat three meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner (while we in South Arkansas always had breakfast, dinner, and supper). Yet incongruously some of the same Okies who “dine” in the evening will refer to what they had for breakfast in the morning as “aigs.” They will pronounce “on” Yankee-like as “oh-un” [or “ahn”] (we Arkies say “own”) and “bought” as “bot” (our “bawt”), but will then turn right around and take the “aigs” they have “bot” and “putt” them “oh-un” [or “ahn”] the table.
Arkansas’ “cain’t” is much less heard up here, but other country gems such as “pert near,” “fixin’“ to do something, and the verbal non-distinction between “ten” and “tin” and the like are all alive and well and living in Tulsa. Again, though, Tulsans will usually distinguish between “want” (“wahn’t”) and “won’t” “(“woh-unt”), whereas in our native Arkansas vernacular they are the exact same word: “I `woen’t’ do it `cause I don’t `woen’t’ to!”
Unlike most Tulsans, who invariably address two or more as “you all”—or even the disgusting Yankee-Yuppie, unisex “you guys”—back home the universal plural form of you is “y’all.” (We only use “you all” on those rare occasions when we “woen’t” [want] to sound refined or cultured—such as when the doting dowager announces regally at the luncheon meeting of the New Carthage Arboretum and Floral Society: “Ladies, would you all please be so kind as to take your seats? Miz Yancy has graciously consented to continue her fascinating discussion of the care and feeding of the climbing Clematis!”)
These Okie “you alls” sound Southern (except that I have also heard them used by Kansans and other mind-muddling Mid-Westerners), but will sometimes be inserted into most definitely un-Southern sentences as: “If you all would have stayed, we would have won the game.” The use of would have (where we Arkies prefer the proper conditional form, had) is as Northern an expression as “you guys.”
Funny. Seems like Okies don’t know which side of the Mason-Dixon Line their Indian frybread is buttered on.
This type of hybrid speech takes many different forms and is, even after, lo all these years, still a source of amazement and curiosity to us “downstream people” (the original Indian meaning of the word “Arkansas”). [Now some cultural, geographical, and linguistic experts claim that the word means “South wind people.”]
But probably the most noticeable habit of many native Tulsans is that of their use of the phrase “anymore.” Now we all say things like: “I don’t go there anymore,” or, “He never does that anymore”—but always in conjunction with a negative. Not so these stalwart descendants of the settlers of Old Tulsey Town. Sentences like “I do all my shopping at Wal-Mart anymore,” and “Robert’s grades anymore are terrible” are still shockers to us transplanted Razorbacks.
But the topper is when an otherwise half-way normal Tulsan starts a sentence with this clever linguistic device: “Anymore crime has got so bad people are scared to go out at night,” or, “Anymore we just turn off the TV at ten o’clock and go to bed.”
Curioser and curioser.
Oh, I’m fully aware that “Arkinsaw speech” is just as illogical, ungrammatical, inconsistent, and unfathomable to outsiders as is Okie dialect. (Native South Carolinian Harry Ashmore, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the now defunct Arkansas Gazette—“Oldest Newspaper West of the Mississippi”—once noted: “To the practiced ear, Arkansans, when explaining their peculiar ways to outsiders, sound as though they are accustomed to dealing with fools, but are too polite to say so.”)
My point is not that Okies talk “wrong.” It’s that Okies and Arkies do in fact “say ’em different.” But that’s the fascination of language—its wonderful and infinite diversity. Without that we would all sound just alike—and incredibly dull. This verbal kaleidoscope provides limitless opportunity for interesting, and often amusing, observations.
Take, for instance, the time I overheard a newly arrived Pennsylvanian “correcting” an Okie who had used the word “pop” to refer to a soft drink (another of our inherent differences—where we come from they are all lumped together under the generic name “coke”).
“It’s not `pop,’” declared the erudite Easterner in that condescending tone we all know, and loathe, so well, “it’s soda!”
I couldn’t help but wonder what would have been the reaction of this urbane Seaboard sophisticate had she been able to hear her astute pronouncement corroborated by the slovenly, stringy-haired young Ozark Mountain girl who once whined to my wife: “Teecher, kin ah pleze go git me a sody?”
Despite our differences, like feuding members of the same family, the thing that binds us Okies and Arkies together more than anything else (except perhaps our shared disdain for the orange-shirted, finger-hookin’, Stetson-struttin’ scourges from Baja Oklahoma) is for some “smart-eleck” outsider to attack our geographical brother. There this Yankee was trying to straighten out the speech of an Okie when she herself “said ’em differentest of all. Couldn’t hardly make out what she was sayin’.” I do declare, the nerve ’a some people!
So, Okies and Arkies of the world, unite! Between the Texans on one side (yuck!) and the Yankees on the other (shudder!), we must band together! We have nothing to lose but our “twangs”!
You all for one, and one for y’all!
A Southern Speech Web Site
To test whether you speak Southern or Yankee, go to the following Web site and take the quizzes on it:
Are You a Rebel or a Yankee? Quizzes on Southern speech and more: http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/yankeetest.html
Note: I scored 100% Southern on both quizzes which prompted the computer question: “Was Robert E. Lee your grandfather?” I was tempted to reply, “No, but my great-grandfather was a member of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia!” (For more on this subject see my earlier post titled Some Southern Stuff I: Self-quotes and Robert E. Lee.)
By the way, as evidence of the difference between Southeast Arkansas dialect and Northeast Oklahoma dialect, in the thirty-five years I have lived in Oklahoma, because of my accent I have been asked if I am from: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia–and even England and Australia–but never from Arkansas! As our Yankee friends say, Go figure!
Source of Photos
How to Speak Southern, personal copy. By Steve Mitchell with illustrations by SCRAWLS (Sam C. Rawls), Bantam Books, New York. 1976, reviewed at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Speak-Southern-Steve-Mitchell/dp/0553275194
The Good Ol’ Boy Okie Dictionary, personal copy. Compiled by Daniel Hudgins, Copyright 1979 by The Chase Organization, P.O. Box 1916, Tulsa, OK 74101, reviewed at: http://www.kountrylife.com/forum/messages/12696.html
I Speak Arkansaw tee-shirts. Taken from Web site where the shirts may be ordered: http://www.bearstatesupply.com/2011/11/i-speak-arkansaw/ (Note: Since I added this Web site a few days ago, for some reason it no longer works. Perhaps you can access it by Googling it.)
How to Talk Pure Ozark. Image and information available at: http://www.amazon.com/talk-Ozark-thout-hardly-tryin/dp/B0006S3012