Words That Sneak Up On Me III: Some Serious Talk About Sass and Other Sundries

Now, I’ve been wont to say I don’t really have a Southern accent.  While this is not strictly accurate to the ear raised in other latitudes, it does hold largely true that I am less likely to betray my origins by bend and elision of speech than I am to give it away with what I say.  As well, there is the consideration of verisimilitude in story telling.  You just can’t leave the accent out of the picture when recounting the ways in which daily proceedings in the South unfold.

I Am a Native Interpreter

While my accent is somewhat subdued, my propensity for the recreation of its swaying, loose-jointed forms has come quite in handy in the past.  I did not grow up in the deep country or the back hills.  I came of age in the cultural anti-oasis, the concrete stain of suburbia.  Here, the public architecture is bland, the social trends are bland, the food itself is bland–things that can and have been found all over the country.  So, when I went to work in suburbia, my linguistic talents were put to work as well.

Not only was I able to decipher the requests of visitors from far away lands, but also, I could translate the deep woods’ tang and twang, the Middle Georgia sprawl and sprain–all the violations perpetrated upon clearly understood language by native speakers.  People who sneer at the quality of speech offered by those for whom English is not a first language need to rein in their disgust and listen to a line full of Maconites and Augustans.  More than once, a coworker has whispered, “Is that even English?”

Yep.  It is, and those individuals are as “American” as they come, so no one had better point a finger at people who’ve arrived with the air of other places still hanging thick about them.  It’s no crime to know the soil of another homeland, nor does it make you any better or worse than Betty Lou who wants a “Kwee-suh-deal-uh”–translation: Quesadilla or her friend who just bought a bottle of “You-duh-Lann-Vin”–translation: Eau de Lanvin.

I’mownbustcha and Other Elisions

Comedians have made much of our blurring the boundaries between distinct words–units of information, symbols, etc.  However, let’s consider the moment at which these elisions take on a discrete meaning of their own.  Two of the more popular instances, via Jeff Foxworthy who ought to know, are “Y’ont-tew” and “Fixin’-tew”.  The first is a query of intent: Do you want to? The second is a statement of preparation taken prior to an action: Fixing to.  In the case of the latter, “I’m fixing to go to the store.” Makes absolute sense when you understand that “to fix” has become synonymous with “to prepare”.  It also indicates that the speaker is not yet ready to commit to a course of proposed action.  Is there rain? Do they need to take stock of the pantry? Is their “show on?”

In the same way that “ain’t” is considered improper English, due to cultural and historical factors surrounding the Norman conquest of Danish-Saxon England in 1066, these novel linguistic evolutions have roots that are rather common-sense when you bother to pick them apart. They are, however, stigmatized as belonging to a lower class of individual, someone without the benefit of greater education or social graces.  So, I imagine it might come as a shock to hear “I’mownbustcha” come out of my mouth.  Out of context, this deeply southern maternal utterance smacks of lowliness–barefoot, dirty, slovenly, uneducated, countrified ignorance.

But it isn’t.  It’s shorthand for “I’m going to discipline you,” and I heard it often enough growing up from my gentle, genteel, and deeply graceful mother.  Because, well, I was a double-handful and then some. The root “I’mown” may be attached to a number of phrases or other partially elided words as seen above.  “I’mown get me some o’ that” indicates a less definite future time frame for procurement than “I’m fixin’ to get me some o’ that.”

Words in a Rock Tumbler

Now that we’ve covered some of the more general distinctions, imagine tossing words into a rock tumbler with a generous handful of gravel and turning it on.  This is what many Georgia accents sound like to me, irrespective of other features, such as openness or tightness of lips and palate.  “I’mown git me a tar ove’ thar” translates to “I am going to procure a tire at that particular place.” When recounting a story that involves people from Georgia, it’s important to be able to mimic and explain the various ways in which speech has evolved.


To Sass, Whose Sass, and Who is Sassing

Sassing is a serious subject.  It may also be found under the heading of “backtalk” and is something children do that they are constantly being instructed not to–“Don’tchusassme” is a constant refrain whenever children are present in particularly large numbers at country venues, like the Piggly Wiggly.  But it’s important to note that it is not reserved for use with children.  Often, the implementation of this word indicates a decided lack of respect on the part of the speaker.

If I look at you and tell you not to sass me, I am letting you know that I do not think of you as an equal.  You have been placed on the level with recalcitrant children.  If I declare that I am “sassing you” I have voluntarily assumed a role that is defiant, and often dominant, in fact.  What is most interesting to note is that I often tell people of the masculine sex “not to sass me” while also offering plenty of sass to that same group of individuals.


Now you know, and you know what they say about that.


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