TRANSLATION: MEMPHIS: An Elegy for the Northern Drawl 

Love it or use it everyday, I think there’s an undeniable allure to the so-called Southern drawl.

As for me, I wasn’t born with one. (Well, as we are all born without the learned art of speech, I suppose nobody is.) But what I mean to say here is that I seem to be acquiring one here in Memphis.

The power of dialect is amazing. Though invisible it carries with it some intrinsic power. It’s as if the aura of a cultural region, the essence perhaps, is somehow injected into a statement with something so simple as the particular placement of one’s lips and tongue.

If I went farther into the heart of the delta, there are surely those who would scoff at my claim that I’m participating in anything remotely resembling a Southern accent. When I go to New Jersey there are those who scoff because I have.

But as a truly unique form of cultural commerce, language and dialect can of course be traded. The intriguing thing is that it’s done largely outside the context of a conscious decision on the part of the speaker.

Recently, for example I found myself fixin’ to do something. Never before, understand, had I EVER fixed to do anything.

But this isn’t some rehashed Yankee derision of Southern linguistics. I’ve heard that when a woman leaves the South, she can get anything she wants with an accent like this!

Ha ha.

Besides, I’ll never get it quite right. After three years, I still haven’t learned to say my name in a manner that’s not interpreted as Jan, Jane, or Jean. It’s enough to make me want to change my name, and I’ve become “Jennifer” in a few circles for lack of the will to attempt proper localized enunciation of my preferred nickname.

Furthermore, the transfer of dialect is never a complete process, that is, there’s never a total transition from the tongue of one’s home to the tongue of one’s new horizons. (Isn’t that an imageÉ)

Recently a friend of mine backed this theory up, informing me that when I’ve had a beer or two the Jersey comes right back to the tip of the teeth. Bud Light number one, and I’m drinking “caw-fee” again. Bud Light number two and a word like off, which has magically split into two syllables since I set up camp in Tennessee, goes right back to the Hudson river “awf.”

Language is endlessly fascinating to me, whether being practiced by “you’s” up North, or “y’all” down here.

I go into all of this because I went to a reading last night of poet Rodney Jones, who’s poem “Elegy for the Southern Drawl,” published his collection of the same name, hits upon this theme of language and it’s power to define a region, to imbue it with something completely unique and beautiful.

It also hints at the fact that over time these dialects, these unique vocal patterns, can grow homogenized, can be lost.

How interesting it would have been to travel this country’s regions at the turn of the century before advances in travel and technology connected all of the disparate voices that colored our American landscape. How romantic.

And maybe it’s the people like me, the transplants, that lend themselves to the deterioration of dialect.

At the same time, though, I think the melding of voices tells a story of its own-if I’m Tennessee by day and Jersey by night it expressing something unique about my own personal experience of the regions of this country.

And that, too, is beautiful.


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