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  • Maggie Wallem Rowe

Learnin' to Speak Like a Local

When you visit another country or take up a new dialect, do you sometimes feel as if you’ve reinvented yourself a bit? Frances Mayes, author of the memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, calls it “translating ourselves into a new language.” Next week we’ll be tackling a challenging topic – mental health – but this week y’all have me thinking about something entirely different: The beauty of language. (Plus I have a fun recipe to share!)

I was intrigued by your responses to last week’s post What’s One New Thing You’ve Tried Lately? Some of you have taken up painting or completed your first marathon post-65. Others have experimented with new recipes, vocations, and ways of helping those in need.

But what surprised me most is how many of you are learning a new language.

Toutes nos félicitations, congratulazioni, felicidades! Congratulations!

I possess a smattering of French – just enough to translate a menu or find the métro – and enough Norwegian to come home with most of what I need from the butikk. My formal linguistic training ended in college and hasn’t progressed much since.

I can modestly confess to speaking two languages fairly well, though: English, in which I am somewhat fluent, and Southern, the language of my adopted home. I’ve lived in western North Carolina for nearly five years, so I’m no longer a Southerner wannabe as in the days when I auditioned for every production of Steel Magnolias out there.

August 1966 - I'm the skinny kid on the right.

I’ve loved the people wherever I’ve lived, but my present home state has held my heart since my first trip here as a thirteen-year-old. They like to say in these parts that the good Lord is everywhere, but he gets His mail in North Carolina. You sense His influence here: Both the weather and the citizenry act as if they like you.

Southerners have always fascinated me. They draw out words and relationships, are famed for culinary traditions (ever hear of a book called Northern Cooking?), and their reputation for warm hospitality is honestly earned.

As a plain-faced, flat-chested female in the 60’s who lacked any discernible talent, I was fascinated by the Miss America pageant, the only version of royalty we fifty-staters possessed. It didn’t escape my notice that it was the contestants from the South who often took home the top prize.

A local pastor’s wife here in town was once Miss Mississippi, and my friend Jane, a former Miss South Carolina, stayed with us recently while speaking at our church. I love hearing stories from these southern beauty queens. A tip of the tiara to smart, gifted women.

But as for learnin’ to talk like you’re not from away, it helps if you dress the part, too.

I’ve found that speaking Southern instead of English helps me shed inhibitions around strangers, making it easier to match them friendly-for-friendly. I’ve learned to pronounce Appalachia properly (“It’s a soft A, Miss Maggie, like the latch on a door,”) and our neighbor state to the south is Jawjuh. If you need more-than-three but less-than-five muffins at the Farmer’s Market, you request “fow-wah.”

Some linguistic wars are still being fought, though: Do you use puh-cahns or pee-cans in your pie? Pimento (Puh-minna) cheese is on every menu in the South, but they’ll know you’re from up north if you ask for “Pah-mento”. And whatever you do, do not take offense when every waitress south of the Mason Dixon calls you Darlin’.

So if y’all come to visit me here, don’t be surprised if I slide into a southern accent easier than a dress from Dillard’s. It’s comfy, like the frock, and friendly like the people. And if you’re new to a place or a culture? Adopt the local dialect as your own. If it doesn’t come natch’erly at first, you’ll git there. Patience, Darlin’, patience.

Have you had a funny experience with language in another part of the US or another culture? Tell us about it, please!

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- Maggie Wallem Rowe is a transplant from somewhere above the Mason-Dixon line who now lives and writes from the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The author of Life is Sweet, Y'all, Miss Maggie wishes to encourage you all to "Have another slice!"


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