Like most native Southerners, I find many things about this region to be fascinating, perhaps none more so than southern English.
As a college student I attended a leadership seminar in Washington D.C. with a crowd of students mostly from New England. My group served as the host for the event and so we performed all manner of duties from starting up work sessions to asking the blessing before meals.
We made friends with students from New Hampshire and Maine who expressed great delight at listening to our accents. We couldn’t hear our accents, though it was easy enough to hear theirs.
A few weeks ago, friend and former colleague Helen Holt and I met with a foreign exchange student and, during the course of our conversation about a problem she was having, I offered a solution. If that didn’t work, I told the student, “we’re going to – and you’re about to learn a new North Carolina phrase – nip it in the bud.” As I spoke the last part of that sentence, Helen joined in and we sounded like a chorus.
It caught my attention because the phrase, from Barney Fife, has become a part of our everyday jargon.
It’s not always easy to understand Southern English. In high school, I attended a journalism workshop with other high school students from around the state. I met a girl there from Whiteville. I thought she said she was from Widevul, and so help me, I couldn’t think where that was. After we got past that confusion, she told me about her after-school job working at the Food Line. It took another five minutes for me to figure out she worked at the Food Lion.
Despite the fact that I couldn’t understand half of what she said, I thought her accent was so remarkable, I could have listened to it for hours.
Later, I had the chance to travel abroad with my church. One of the things we did was teach English. I was mindful of my tendency to use slang and cut words short - lyin’ instead of lying. I tried hard to avoid those mistakes, but more than I care to admit, I found myself staring back at the quizzical faces of my students and realizing I had just lapsed into some good ol’ Southern English.
Much has been written about the Hoi Toiders of the Outer Banks, but much less has been written about the elegant accents of people along the Roanoke River Valley, from Southside Virginia into Warren, Halifax and Northampton counties, where the porch is the poach and the house is the hose. That is the accent of my mother’s family and I deem it beautiful and graceful.
Nothing, however, tops the grace and the elegance of people like the late Terry Sanford, who’s aristocratic form of Southern English reminds us of the moonlight and magnolias era of the Great South. It is at once, both an educated and wizened accent that almost demands the listener pay attention.
We Southerners are a widely varied lot and, as a people generally lumped together as uneducated hillbillies because of the way our speech sounds, I take great delight in knowing just how wildly wrong that is.