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Southern Tongues

Growing up in the Baltimore area I never gave a lot of thought to whether I was a southerner or a Yankee. As a lifelong Orioles fan, I hated the New York Yankees and certainly was not one of them, but that is as far as it went.

When my family would travel to the Eastern Shore of Maryland or venture down to LaPlata, Waldorf, or other Southern Maryland towns and villages, I knew that I was in a foreign land. They talked, thought, ate, and cussed differently than we did, but the analysis stopped there. It was all on the surface and never got down to culture or history.

My first week living in Tidewater Virginia as a freshman at William and Mary, I ventured into the Colonial Deli on Richmond Road. I selected some snacks and a soda and walked up to a short line at the cash register. I was clearly the third person in that line. In front of me were two young Black women holding their selections. The white male cashier looked over the heads of the two women and drawled, “You’re next.”

I was shocked at this apparent misunderstanding and said, “I’m sorry, I think these young ladies are in front of me.”

The now annoyed cashier said, “I can see that but you’re next. Do you want those things or not?”

The women, clearly used to being invisible, parted and I silently stepped up to the cash register and handed the man my money. Change. Bag. Handoff. I turned and left.

Out on the street, I tried to gather my thoughts. What had just happened? What should I have done? How did those women feel? They outwardly treated it as routine. The cashier was clearly playing a familiar role as well. Was I the one now out of step with my new home? I felt ill. I felt like a coward.

Having met more southerners that week than I ever had before, I was not ready to label a region by one unpleasant experience. I had shaken hands and learned the names of a lot of genuinely nice guys and girls and my Southern US 101 course had just begun. I would grow to love the College, the town, the region, and my new friendships.

Now that being said, they did talk “different.”

I remember one little guy named Auggie Saunders. So deep was his Pittsylvania County Virginia accent that I initially only understood every third or fourth word that he said. If you remove cognition of thirty or forty percent of transmission, you are lost. It was like that moment in a foreign country when someone is speaking to you in a heavily accented version of your native language, and you are stretching for just a word or phrase to establish a guidepost or compass point. In the meantime, you just smile and nod like an idiot.

When all the southerners in the room, even those from villages far away from Pittsylvania County, understood every word out of Auggie’s mouth, I knew that I had some work to do. Was it not bad enough to have French 101 to worry about? Now English was going to be a barrier as well?

Over the days and weeks that followed, my ear for the dialect improved and whether the drawl was from Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, or Alabama, I was mostly tuned in.

Auggie, in fact became one of my best first semester pals. He grew up in Chatham, Virginia working alongside his “Daddy” who owned an intermittently profitable sawmill. He attended Hargrave Military Academy right in his hometown and was the first Saunders ever to attend college.

That made his exit at the end of first semester even more tragic. Auggie struggled academically from day one, blew his mid-terms and then just gave up. He drank beer and picked his banjo night and day until Daddy finally came to pick him up in early December.

It could have been a scene from a movie. He and his overall-clad old man silently loading up the dented, dusty Ford pickup in front of our dorm. The tearful hugs, handshakes, and back pats from assembled friends. The old truck making a dust cloud as it headed down the driveway on its journey back to Pittsylvania County. He was a true southerner and the first friend to whom I ever had to say goodbye.

At William and Mary, I also met another classmate, Hayden Rives Gwaltney, a young woman from Suffolk, Virginia who had a different accent than Auggie, but one just as deep and initially impenetrable. I will never forget the first time I heard her voice. I was fixing my dinner in the fraternity house kitchen when an argument ensued out in the adjacent dining room. The subject was whether busing was an appropriate solution to achieve racial integration in the South. Hayden had chosen to take on five of my most southern brothers. Her view was that, though not perfect, busing was one means to a noble and necessary end. My brothers were not in favor of the means, nor the end and Hayden’s southern voice outmatched them in heart, logic, and volume.

I had to get a look at the young woman attached to this deep Southside Virginia accent and when I poked my head around the corner, my heart skipped a beat. Her good logic and noble stance were matched by her good looks. Wow.

Most of you know the rest of that story. We were married on November 4, 1972 and will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary next year.

What you do not know was that my first experience with this southern lady proved to be a major counterweight to my initial impressions at the Colonial Deli. I had now met many southern friends with politics and a sense of social justice like mine, but Hayden was the first southern voice that I heard willing to stand toe to toe with the other side of the racial argument. Her willingness to abandon a safe harbor to argue for racial equality was so very impressive.

All these years later, Hayden’s accent has faded a bit due to pressures of the corporate grind in Maryland, Northern Virginia, and DC. However, her compass for social justice is even stronger than it was when first we met. And now we both awaken and fall asleep each night farther south than I ever thought I’d live. My final resting place will surely be in southern soil.

As to the southern dialect, I now understand it, like it, imitate it, and find that it has many advantages in conveying your true feelings about life and love.

I have also learned that you shouldn’t always take southern diction at face value because what the speaker intends to convey is often being stated in a regional code.

Take “bless her heart” for example.

While sounding like an expression of genuine empathy up north, its southern cousin often accompanies a verbal insult so vile and vicious that it could peel the chrome off a trailer hitch. For example, “That girl is so buck toothed she could eat an apple through a picket fence, BLESS HER HEART.” Or “That girl is so ugly she could make a freight train take a dirt road, BLESS HER HEART.”

Get the idea?

My theory is that the phrase came out of the etiquette of southern gentility where young ladies should never speak ill of each other in polite company. So, hateful comments needed to be accompanied by the verbal equivalent of witch hazel to sooth the burn and at least make the critic feel better.

On the other end of the scale, there is a local expression in Raleigh that has both my native southern wife and I scratching our heads. Genteel, pleasant, and designed to connect parties casually passing in daily commerce, neither Hayden nor I have encountered it any place but Raleigh, North Carolina.

In the U.S. when you pass someone on the street and give them the internationally acceptable greeting, “Hello, how are you today?” (Buenos dias, como estas? Bonjour, tu vas bien?) the universal response is “Fine thank you” or “Fine thank you, and you?”

In Raleigh, there is a different local twist. Here the acceptable and almost universal response is “Fine thank you and I hope that you are.”

This extra expression of good tidings and the stated wish for the welfare of the other person is lovely. It is so uniquely local that I cannot help but think that a former mayor, governor, or beloved local teacher or preacher started it many years ago and now, everybody in the town says it.

It’s nice, as is my new hometown.


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