It’s how I grew up. It’s how I learned to speak. And speaking properly in southern West Virginia is unlike anyplace else I know.
Now grown with grandchildren, and having traveled some within our country’s borders during my adulthood, I’ve learned that while home might be where my heart is, I’ve always been glad that I got my education someplace else. Having been raised by grandparents who had only completed grammar school, getting out in the world and hearing how others expressed themselves was quite a shock to my system.
I do still speak with a slight accent, I’m told. I’m also informed that it thickens with emotion – especially anger – or during times when I’m incredibly tired. But the euphemisms are as much a part of me as anything else.
My husband is from Pennsylvania, a true northerner from my humble perspective. His adaptation into my world seems remarkable, given that he’s had to pert near learn a whole new language. He’s done well. Although there are still occasions when he turns to me and says something akin to, “Okay, tell me. What the HELL does that mean?” When I explain the expression, his northern logic kicks into overdrive until he comes up with something to intelligently explain just how, or even why, the particular expression in question might have come to be.
And there are times when he still laughs at my pronunciation of a word here and there. Like ‘acorn’. My West Virginia mouth just can’t say it the way most people do. It always comes out ‘akurn’, with the emphasis on the ‘A’. There are other words I use that have him guessing their meaning. For example, my enunciations of ‘fill’ and ‘feel’ sound pretty much the same, as does ‘mill’ and ‘meal’, ‘still’ and ‘steel’, ‘well’ and ‘will’…you get the idea.
He likes to believe that he rules this roost, so I don’t argue. I do giggle a lot, though. And every once in a while something will come out of my mouth that still takes him by surprise. Once, while driving with our youngest someplace, my daughter and I had gotten into an argument. She was arguing with me from her place in the backseat, and when I’d had enough of the bickering, I turned around from my front passenger seat and let loose a torrent of my grandmother’s words that I couldn’t quite remember when it was over. The car was completely silent for several thick minutes until my husband, from his place in the driver’s seat, quietly cautioned my daughter to be very careful because, “Your mother’s speaking rural.”
He and I used to be activists for organized labor, the fight for the little guy. It took us both to some extreme places. At one time we were both arbitration advocates for our Union, presenting the little guy’s case to an arbitrator who acted as a judge with full and final decision-making authority. It was our job to bring the arbitrator around to our way of thinking, in each case we presented, every single time.
My grandmother had always been good at that. She had a real knack for persuasion that could always bring my contrary grandfather around to her way of thinking, regardless of the issue. And she did it with remarkable finesse. However, she, with all her wisdom and propensity for persuasion, just didn’t understand my work. She once accused me of gettin’ above my raisin’. I knew what she meant. If she had only understood that my work was for the little guy, maybe she would have been more proud. Maybe if I’d only told her that some folks need a voice, ‘cause their own just ain’t loud enough. Maybe then she’d have understood why I was always getting on an airplane to jet someplace beyond our confining, yet gracious, mountainous borders.
My very northern husband and I once watched a film together entitled, “Even the Heavens Weep”. It was a documentary about the coal mine wars complete with interviews of elderly West Virginians who had been small children at the time of the conflict. After it was over, he expressed genuine gratitude for the subtitles during the interviews; otherwise, he proclaimed, the incredibly dense accents would have prevented his understanding of what was being said.
Subtitles? I had seen that film five or six times already and had never noticed the subtitles! Upon reflection, though, and after having seen the Jodie Foster movie “Nell”, I can appreciate his difficulty in comprehending what the old folks were saying. I feel it necessary to point out, if only as a source of pride, that I had very little trouble understanding what Nell had to say. Give me something to get riled up about and I will instantly slip into old speak myself.
It’s a language unto its own. It’s colorful, tantalizing, almost aromatic, and usually contains all the flavors necessary to make a meal worthy of satisfying any hunger. It sustained me as a youth and it’s what I return to even today. And sometimes it’s without thinking that I dip into it, providing a taste of what was to those around me now. Sometimes they laugh, yes. But more often than not they just…get it. Instantly.
Taking periodic pages from my grandmother’s book, I’ve been known to inform an arbitrator that while two ideas might be similar, comparing them would be like comparing a cucumber and a chicken leg. Both are food, but they just don’t fry up the same.
During one particularly argumentative hearing I accused the management representative of attempting to use a horse’s tail to paint masterpieces on a burlap sack. In other words: that dog don’t hunt.
And in yet another, I explained that the opposing advocate’s attempt to beautify a pasture by covering it with snow didn’t quite remove the existence of the cow-patties underneath.
And that’s the thing with southern-isms. They paint an unmistakable representation of thoughts and ideas that leaves no doubt as to its meaning. A message is conveyed in simply spoken words that enables the mind to see, and feel, its complex content clearly.
Those who would look at my grandparents and regard them as backward hillbillies will never know the comfort of clear expression, the certainty of unambiguous communication with just a touch of color, or the resolute knowledge that life really is what we make of it for ourselves.