Poetry and personal blog – Spilling my guts to strangers

The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. – Kurt Vonnegut

What speech patterns did you grow up with as a child?

My mother’s family migrated from North Carolina when she was young, and from then until the time I met her, she had eliminated everything from her speech that would betray her roots.

Not so my grandmother.

My grandparents were born in the 1890s. Just to put that in context, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. My grandfather’s father was nicknamed Pen but his full name was Independence–so named, I think, to celebrate his birth outside of the institution of slavery.

My grandmother was a fairly typical of black women of her day. She had raised her brothers and sisters when their parents died youngish. She herself was a young widow who eventually married again, to my grandfather. She was not overly educated, at least not formally, but she was wise in the ways of life, witty, and quick on her feet.  When my own parents separated when I was 7, my mom, my sister, and I went to live with her for a few years and she helped raise me.

At first I had to ask for help to understand what my grandmother was saying. What did she mean when she said, “I fin to make dinner?” Why did she ask us to tote this up yonder instead of to take or carry this over there? When she was busy with her housework and I was bothering her with too many questions, she would say, “Chil’, I ain’t studin’ you.”

I soon came to understand this language and meet children at school with similar speech patterns, though a little more geared toward urban life. I even recognize subtle differences based on what part of the south their family was from.

Much to my mother’s chagrin, I became bilingual. She needed have worried. It didn’t take long for me to learn when speaking my second language was acceptable and comfortable, and when it was not.

As the years went by and assimilation became more widespread and desirable–and people like my grandmother died–so went the language. It’s retro. Some black people are ashamed of it. The minute you drop the ‘g’ on the ‘ing’ you’re immediately suspect. Whereas people from other cultures freely and unashamedly speak the language of their ethnicity, we dare not speak ours. Hell, even for me, it doesn’t flow from me as naturally in everyday speech as it once did.

But when I think of my grandmother–and I do a lot–I almost always hear her voice. I hear her rhythm.

I’ll write more on this topic in a future post.

© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011


Comments on: "The Language of Childhood" (33)

  1. I have never really thought about this one before. We all have our slang. Each state is like another language and accent.

    Now you have me thinking about the slang my 15 year old speaks with her friends. Each generation has their own version of language as well. Hmmm, wondering now what the slang was from my childhood? I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s.

    Have to give this some thought…Thanks!

  2. Very interesting post. I look forward to reading more.

  3. if you think that was sometin i grod up with Cockney, deep southern Arkansas Kansas and Texan and Irish and some charakee, and the queens English, my toung has a fit every time i open my mutt
    blime tis a route i be himself , now yo’ii get that thank you and god bless think dyslectic helps

  4. I love “The Language of Childhood” and enjoyed learning about your family’s history, and how your mother’s family migrated from NC. Do you know where they lived in North Carolina? We’re from the eastern part of the state.

    When I was growing up I was so embarrassed by my father’s dialect. He sometimes used old English (Shakespearian style) like, “Sam come over and HOLP me yesterday.” Not “came,” not “helped,” as in normal speech. And some of his phrases were totally foreign. As an adult I learned that my ancestors came from England, Wales, and Ireland. While reading Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes I had several déjà vu moments. He used many of the same phrases my father had used.

    How appropriate the quote you used by Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers. Great post! Brought back so many of my own memories.

    • Wow, that’s amazing how the Irish phraseology came through in your father speech so intact. My mom’s folks are from the Raleigh area. My grandmother also would say “come” instead of “came” as in you example. We have a lot in common; Vonnegut is one of my favorites, too!

  5. Really interesting Adrienne. If you met my father and knew nothing about him, you would say he was born here in the US, with NO accent of any type to pinpoint him. English was only one of several languages he spoke. Polish was his first language, and Hebrew/Yiddish. Then German. Then he added all the languages that he encountered in Auschwitz. The only time I heard something different was when I went to my Grandparents (Russian on one side; Polish on the other). I never noticed the difference in that I was with them every weekend, if not more pre-school.
    Growing up in The Bronx: name an ethnicity, religion, etc… we all spoke the same. So.. I do know I talk differntly if I’m in NYC too much, hang out with teens too much, or spend more than a week in another place. I have my dad’s ear for language, but I’m not accomplished like he was.

    • You father has an amazing history, Stu! I’m always impressed with people who are fluent in several languages. Another language is another world open up to you. The Bronx–now that’s an accent! It’s funny how in certain circumstances, the childhood language comes flooding back!

  6. Wow I just love this…I love learning about peoples ancestry ….it fascinates me…..by the way… i never use the “ing” LOLOL ……i am lovin thissssss…..As always….XOXOXOXO

  7. savirag said:

    I enjoyed reading this…. while growing up in Malaysia my english was mixed with a malay word ‘LAH’.. this word would be used to complete the sentence… even now. Here in India ‘Hinglish is spoken… admixture on hindi and english!
    Now you may ask am I confused… yes because there are moments where I add “Mais Non” to my sentences and other times a mixture of all
    Mais non! this post rocks “lah” and i am “toh mama” impressed…….

    • Thanks so much! I’m impressed with your knowledge of all these languages. Very cool. And why not add a hint of French to the proceedings? ;p

  8. My family lives in NC, and has for a while. While I did not spend much time there, I still understand it all- though I still go into giggle fits when I hear the word “reckon”.

    • Oh my, my grandmother used to say ” I reckon” all the time. Except she didn’t pronounce it as reckon but it sounded more like “ree in” Thanks so much for that comment, it threw me right back into her presence! ❤

      • How about “I’m fixin’ to” or “younguns”? My friends from up north think it’s so funny when I say these because they had never heard the phrases until they came to North Carolina.

  9. Very interesting. You’re making me challenge some thoughts. I know I am well educated and well versed in vocabulary, but sometime you’ve got to evoke the emotion of the dialect to really bring the feeling through!

    • I hear you. Language is all about communication, and it’s most effective when the language fits the situation. Professionally, especially, there is an expectation about how someone is supposed to talk. That’s not likely to change any time soon, but really, it’s all about perception. Some of the smartest and wisest people I have ever known spoke all kinds of nonstandard English! And yes, when we’re emotional, our “authentic” language comes rushing back!

  10. I love the quote, never really thought of things this way. You made me think! I loved hearing about your background 🙂

  11. We all have accents but we tend to be so conscious speaking English with our accent. It is almost looked down upon and laughed at. I wish it wasnt so. Very interesting post Sweepy. Looking forward to more.


  12. This is very interesting. I’m from the south, so I can relate to this article. I understand proper English, but I will continue to speak Southern!

    • You mentioned “fixing to” in your earlier comment. Well, “fin to” I think is the southern black way to say it. Yup, I remember “young’uns” and “chil’run” (children)

  13. Thanks for helping me think of my grandparents.. They came over from Italy. They spoke broken english( as it was called back then) They owned a bakery and hired many italian bakers and I always remember hearing them say things like the car red, the pie apple. As a young child i though it was funny till my parents explained it to me. I would pay anything to hear them speak one more time.


  14. Very interesting Adrienne. It is always a wonder how different languages have an impact on you. I come from an Indian family, living in an Arab country, going to an English speaking school, had a college where British accent was emphasized so I speak funny English. Just depends on who I am speaking to. Also, my nephew and niece are residing in the US, so when they come over, they find my language “very odd”. According to them I should be speaking “their language”!

  15. […] talked about my grandmother’s way of talking in the last post, but how did she influence me as a […]

  16. I was born on a farm in Southeast Alabama and lived there until my dad sold the farm and we moved to “the city” when I was 9. I don’t know exactly where my dad’s family originated, but all his life he had a quite colorful vocabulary in many respects. For instance, Panama City, Florida, was “Paneemaw City, Flardee.” Cuba was “Cuber.” Ear ache was “yher ache.” Over there was “over yonder.” Right here was “write cheer.” Just a few examples. Also, his “swear words” were things like, dad-gum it, con-sarned it, confound it, dad-blame it, and durn yo hide. All his life, going back to the old farmstead area where we used to live was “down home.” I could write a book, but I’ll stop write cheer! LOL

  17. […] in the hood staying away from the windows so as to avoid stray bullets during the riots of 1967. As a 7-year-old, I didn’t really understand the racial complexities of the situation, but during that time I […]

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