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Tidewater Language: Speak the Speech, I Pray You

by G.P. Wigginton


The South is Celtic, but it is also Saxon, and certainly the primordial South was the latter. These two cultures, however, are not mutually antipathetic and indeed are amicable--they had co-existed and intermingled in England for centuries prior to their co-existence here, but I think the distinction should be made. There is more and more evidence that the Anglo Saxon invaders did not slaughter all the Celtic peoples they encountered, but, finding them similar, they intermarried and adopted one another's ways. Celtic Britain provided at a later date settlers from Scotland and Ireland who brought their own customs and speech to the South, but this entire culture is found farther west in the hills and the mountains of Appalachia. These vigorous tough people form a part of the American South, but Northern misconceptions to the contrary, their culture does not totally define that of the entire South, and we must not exclude from the region the French nor the Spanish. It is, however, the Saxon South about which I address this monograph.

The First English South, the South of Maryland and Virginia, shared something that I personally think has been overlooked: the Cavalier in Virginia and the Catholic in Maryland had fled the mother country because of religious persecution-- the Anglican Cavaliers escaping Cromwell's cruelties and the Catholics the Tudors and their complicit minions. Despite later rivalries early Maryland and Virginia were sister states and mutually supportive even giving military aid when circumstances dictated. The First South of Maryland and Virginia was to shape the storied land that would later be invaded by the empire-building Yankee.

In 1989 the estimable Baltimorean David Hackett Fischer published his Albion's Seed, a thorough analysis of the regional origins of colonists in the British new world—and their effects on current American culture. Those origins shaped religion, politics, education, attitudes and dialects, accents and vocabularies. Mr. Fischer confirms what many Southerners have heard, that a multitude of accents in the American South originated in the speech of the ancient Saxon Shore, those southern English counties formed from Sussex, Essex, and Wessex. He tells us of the linguistic influence of a particular group of Englishmen, the so-called Bermuda Hundreders, tightly-knit inhabitants of the Vale of Gloucester, many of whom settled in Virginia in the 17th century. They had been isolated in old England and spoke with many curious vestiges of the ancient Saxon tongue. They said “geboren” for born; they called girls “wenchen”; they pronounced initial “v” as “f” but also said “volks” for folks; they ate hard “grabs”; and “thicke” and “thuck” were their this and that.

These word forms came to Virginia with them but did not persist. One of their linguistic habits did remain, however. It is heard throughout America but is formalized and taken more seriously in the South than elsewhere. It is this: In the Vale of Gloucester and in their new Virginia home, the Bermuda Hundreders placed a “y” sound between names that ended and began with consonants. Hence Robert E. Lee was not Bob Lee but Bobby Lee; And the American president was not Jim but Jimmy Carter.

Although now widespread, this practice had its beginnings in that speech of the remote Gloucester Vale, thence to the American South by way of tidewater Virginia. This “y” sound is now more of a diminutive or romantic affectionate addition. But in the South, at least until quite recently, in tidewater, piedmont, delta, bayous and mountains, Billy and Bobby and Susie were names formally, seriously and gravely given. I was in the service with Southern mountain boys who were legally christened Bobby Lee and Billy Joe, prompting curled-lip sneers and snickers from Yankees, unpleasant 50 years ago as now. South-haters today confirm their snobbery in referring to Southern whites as “Billy Bobs,” meant as a derisive insult. It is however their unknowing affirmation of a venerable, ancient onomastic custom, preserved by better folks than those who despise them.

One cannot but wonder what would have been the names of northeastern urban sophisticates had the Bermuda Hundreders been as sorry seafarers as the Pilgrims and landed in Massachusetts or Connecticut. The Mystic Seaport Marxist Book Club would now be stuffed with members named “Jimmy" not "James" and breathless Bostonians at the Antique Italian Racing Car Auction would await all a-twitter the arrival of Johnnie Cabot and his wife, Annie Faye. A Southerner even should he be named R. Lodge Putnam would nonetheless still be dismissed as a plow boy slope-brow, certainly not fit for inclusion in the political or cultural life of "the America that counts."

But Southerners should stop listening to what Yankees have to say about their speech or anything else. I suggest this: Read Albion's Seed and other works by Professor Fischer as they have proven worthwhile by the liberal elite's denunciation of them. No objective observer of the differences in American speech and mores will be disappointed by his cogent analysis. I also recommend Cleanth Brooks's The Language of the American South. Southern language is more euphonious than snapping grating Yankee accents, and the destruction of the beautiful and preference for the ugly never bode well for any society. Therefore we Southerners must actively resist the aggressive attempts to force upon us an alien and inferior tongue.

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