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A Letter to the Governor of Arkansas
I am going to write a letter to the Governor and to the Arkansas Department of Education. Something needs to be done about the language these kids are using nowadays.
Yesterday, while pumping gas over at the EZ Mart, I overheard a gaggle of boys who couldn’t be a skinny minute over 12 saying “shit” and "damn” like it was legal. And it broke my heart–they pronounced both words with only one syllable.
We need to do a better job teaching these kids to sound like Arkansans. As it stands, with the influence of tv and tiktok, southern kids are graduating high school sounding like Yankee-Doodle chowderheads and nondescript Midwestern weathermen.
In the Deep South, “chair” is not a monosyllabic buttrest. It is (at least) two syllables, requires two seconds to pronounce, and may or may not have an identifiable “R’ at the end. The same goes for “hair,” “bear,” and “pair.” The pattern holds for non-rhotic words like “bed,” “said” and “dead.”
There is a certain musical quality about southern speech that we dare not lose. There are some words that are too grand for ordinary speech and have to be turned into a melody. A greeting like “hey” is known to have three syllables inflected across two octaves. The negative “naw” may have two or three syllables played in a variety of keys, depending on whether one is being coy or is making a true and vigorous denial.
This brings me to the chief complaint I had with those boy’s vulgarity. They were cussin’ like Bostonians. Which is a tragedy. Yankees can’t cuss worth a damn. As Mark Twain said of his wife, they memorized all the words, but they never learned the tune. They tend to wield the F word like an assault rifle and those who have the misfortune of standing within earshot are hit, not with conversation but with shrapnel. Northerners all seem to cuss either under their breath or at the top of their lungs, leaving out the one region a well-executed expletive needs–the heart.
In the South, we approach swearing like we would a prized tomato we hope will take blue ribbon at the county fair. Something that needs nurturing and finessing. Something we can be proud of. Something that sounds as natural and contented as a fat pig in a puddle of sunshine. So a true southern artiste knows that “shit” is always “sheee-yet,” half-sung through three-quarters of a grin. If one is angry, it is sung half a step lower with a full grin. In short, Northern swearing sounds like Hitler trying to give a wedding toast; Southern swearing sounds like Billy Graham reading from the Psalms of David.
Much could be said about words that are the sole property of the South like “fidna” and “spect” and “nary.” Or common English phrases that are an idiom of their own down here. Like “Bless your heart” (which may be anything from a benediction to a death threat, depending on context), or “just the other day” (which may refer to any day following the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ).
But I am most concerned about preserving distinct cultural accents, pronunciations, and inflections. I want these local boys to sound like they came from somewhere instead of sounding like hatchlings from a Chinese Spyware app.