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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Thursday Spotlight: Connie Chastain

Dialog and Dialect

"If southern novels are a distinctive sub-genre of American literature, it is because the South as a region is distinctly different from the rest of the country. It is different in its geographical, climatic, and demographical features; it is different in its history and customs and, still, in many of its attitudes." Burton Raffel

Although modern communications, the ease of travel and migration from other regions have blunted the South's distinctiveness, much of it remains -- and writers still love to write about it. But, as some wit has noted, "The South is not one big Mississippi." There are regions within the region that maintain their distinctions, and that adds to the complexity and fascination.

One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Southerners is their speech patterns.

Early in Southern Man, we learn that Troy and Max "had lived on Georgia's coastal plain long enough to have picked up the liquid drawl indigenous to the area, but it was an overlay and their native vocabularies and accents frequently punched through--Max's the rapid mumble of Birmingham, Alabama, Troy's the hill-country dialect of eastern Tennessee."

These are educated men with advanced degrees, corporate officers who know how to speak standard English--and speak it, when the occasion warrants. But like most educated Southerners, they speak the region's vernacular in ordinary conversation.

If you want to hear what Max's rapid Birmingham mumble sounds like, Google a few video interviews with John Parker Wilson. Although a generation apart, the real quarterback and the fictional executive grew up just a few miles apart--Max in Vestavia Hills, John Parker in Hoover, suburbs of Birmingham.

Troy's mountaineer dialect has faded since he left home at eighteen but he retains some of the vocabulary. His kids are "young'uns." Double modals and similar constructions, as in "should ought," come naturally to him. And when he's alarmed or angry, the speech of his youth returns without effort to his tongue, as in the following excerpts.

Troy has come home from work and is telling his wife about being hit on in his office.

His expression changed to chagrin. "Of course, if you're a man, you can't physically do anything to defend yourself in a situation like that. You could hurt somebody, so you have to deal with it some other way."

He told her about calling security and Brooke breaking the connection. "Something just flew all over me when she did that. I took off like Joseph fleeing Potiphar's wife. The onliest difference is that Joseph was afraid. I was furious."

And later in the story....

Troy pulled the station wagon into the garage and the family emerged just as several cars rolled down Live Oak Street, slowing dramatically as they reached the red brick rambler. Screamed and shouted slurs in both male and female voices echoed through the night--they easily made out "Sick bastard!" and "Sex predator!"--and Patty looked at her husband in alarm.

"Take them and get in the house," he ordered, walking toward the driveway.

"Where're you going?" she said shrilly.

In the faint orange glow of the street lamp, he turned a face like thunder toward her and barked, "I'm gonna shut the g'rage door, now do what I tell ye, git'n the house!"

Patty herded the children indoors.

Writing dialect--that is, manipulating spelling and punctuation to reflect nonstandard pronunciation-- is supposed to be out of fashion these days, but it can be effective if it's not overdone.

Question -- Do you know the origins of Appalachia's double modals and other odd speech patterns?


Jennifer Johnson said...

Very nicely done. I grew up in Alabama, know about Hoover, Vestavia Hills, and "young 'uns".

Anonymous said...

I like your use of dialect to indicate the origins of your characters. Good job!