Although it was many years ago, I can recall my mother correcting my grammar. Ain’t was not a word that was tolerated, even though I heard it all around me growing up in the Deep South. Them was, rather than those were, he done gone, rather than he has gone. All around me were horrible corruptions of the English language. There were many other words and phrases that I mispronounced and she was quick to correct.
Mama did a good job. All through junior high and high school, I was commended for being so very articulate. English teachers used me as an example and encouraged me to write. My papers always received good grades. After school, when my sister and step-sister were practicing for drill team and playing in the band, I was sitting in the back of the library reviewing all of the National Geographic magazines from 1875 to 1972, and reading the classics.
When I went to college, again, my English lit professors and composition professors were impressed. That’s not saying so much though. You have to remain aware of where I was coming from. People in the Deep South have always had their own way of speaking and I am not simply talking about dialect. We had our own words for things. Many of these words came from colonial English.
We wore britches instead of pants or trousers. Under those, we had our bloomers on. And phrases; we did not come inside, we had to get inside. We did not have our breakfast on the plate we had it in the plate, and we sat in the floor, not on the floor.
This was the language I was surrounded by for twenty years before college.
My human anatomy and physiology professor, Dr. William Birkhead, got me good one day. He came out to our farm and tagged rat snakes in our chicken house to see if they homed in to a food source or homed in to mate. When he was out on the farm, he spoke like all the other country folk around. He seemed like one of us.
Then there was the language he used in the classroom. It was much different. When tests were over, we always reviewed the answers in class. One of our questions was to name the five main functions of skin. I thought I had them all correct, but he marked one wrong and I could not understand why.
1.Maintains the body’s integument.
2.Regulates body temperature and maintains homeostasis.
4.Produces vitamin D.
5.Gathers information about its environment. (sensory)
My first answer was, “Holds the innards inside.”
I was the laughing stock of the class. My uneducated, farm girl, southern roots were showing.
Often, when I am writing my regional character’s dialogue, I allow them to slip back into these old countrified, southern roots. Even today, living in the city, the lousy use of the English language is all around me, mixed with Spanglish, Creole and Patois. This corruption is everywhere. No one I know speaks formal English.
When I am writing a character that is southern or influenced by the corruption, it can come across that the writer doesn’t understand the correct use of language. I have to be ultra-careful to keep the narrative correct, else it comes across that the writer doesn’t understand proper use of the language. It appears to be bad writing.
American English is constantly evolving. I want my regional southern fiction to come across as authentic. There is a very fine line between permitting a regional colloquialism to stand in a manuscript and writing poorly. I have to remind myself that it is the perception of the reader that is critical, not the perception of the writer.
Do you use strictly formal English in writing?
Do you encounter colloquialisms that influence your work or writing style?
When you run across a local colloquialism in reading, does it throw you a curve and jerk you out of the story?