Recently when I was in the hospital I said something to one of the nurses and she responded to me in a sweet, syrupy voice: “Where y’all from , honey?”
I may have been somewhat sedated at the time but I do remember that as nice as the nurse was, she thought she was being very friendly to pose her question in this manner to me. This identical question has been hurled my way for the last 70 years of my life.
The answer is always the same on my part: I was born in Alabama and grew up in Mississippi but haven’t lived there for over 60 years. To most people I sound like I am from California but a couple of vowels betray my true origin. So, I just go along with it. However the one part of the nurse’s statement that got some direct comment was her lack of proper Southern grammar. You see, when you are talking to one person in the south,, you say “you” like anywhere else.; however, when you are talking to two or more Southerners,, you will say y’all or you all. It really does rattle a true Southerner to hear you all or y’all used to just one person. It sounds pretentious and unlearned to us. I always correct people on that little bit of Southern grammar. Adding the”honey”, just makes it a little more obvious that I am being played with. So, when she said ”Where ya’ll from, honey?”, I just shook my head a bit and went back to medication land.
When I was growing up in Mississippi, most Southerners did sound like Huckleberry Hound. I’m sure when I was a teen, I was the same. Many older people still have a deep Southern drawl and are proud of it. I think it is charming and I can well remember friends and family members who fit in this category and I remember them fondly. A true Southern Drawl always sounded friendly and charming to me.
Over the years things have changed in the South though. Most young Southerners these days sound like they are from Pennsylvania. They don’t have even a tinge of a Southern drawl. I suppose this is due to the far-reaching influence of TV and Films. My nieces and nephews of the present generation do not sound Southern at all. The deep drawl of their past has gone the way of the dodo bird.
My brother’s children grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, an area which is deep in the heart of Cajun territory. Most people in the area used to speak Cajun French and had a very pronounced Cajun accent when speaking English. I loved hearing it spoken and many Cajun comedians came from their midst. ( Justin Wilson, for example. Check him out on You Tube.)
I suppose though that like all things in life, change takes place in language whether we like it or not. The Cajun accent and the speaking of Cajun French is flying with the dodo birds these days.
New Orleans is a different kettle of fish. Even though they have the fabled and famed French Quarter, it would be very difficult to put a cap on what exact accent is spoken in this fabulous city. The last time I was in New Orleans a couple of years back, I strolled around and listened to the sights and sounds of the city. Some people sounded like they were from New York, some had a definite Creole laid-back sound in their speech and others had a kind of sophisticated Southern drawl like Emeril Lagasse, the famed New Orleans restaurateur. (Perhaps his local accent is acquired being that he is originally from Massachusetts.) New Orleans though is truly a mixed bag when it comes to the spoken language.
The Southern part of Louisiana is water-logged for the most part and these areas are called bayous. The language spoken in the Bayous used to be Cajun (Arcadian) French predominantly. Those hidden waterways which were so concealed from the everyday world and filled with gators and snakes and lots of wild game were a way of life for many people. They were a tough group who spoke their special brand of French and lived in very isolated communities and situations.
Today the young people in those areas are leaving and no longer speaking their special brand of French. For the most part, they are abandoning their past and moving on to more fertile areas such as New Orleans, the big cities of Texas, northern dry Louisiana and many even move to California.
You can go these days into the bayou country of Southern Louisiana and you will still encounter some of these hard-living people but nowadays they speak English with peppered French expressions and the Cajun accent is not as predominant as it used to be.
Their music has become popular and thus many Cajun and Zydeco bands have sprouted up all over Louisiana and elsewhere in the south. This type of music is a blues-influenced style of Cajun dance music and usually played on accordion, guitar, and violin. The origin of zydeco is heavily tied into the Louisiana French roots.
Along with this unique music are crawfish (some say crayfish) boils in which big pots of these miniature lobsters are boiled and eaten by pinching them with the fingers. It’s all part of a special Southern charm and many young people (including my nephew in Los Angeles and his friend Colin) hold on to crawfish boils and Zydeco music. John, Colin and their friends have many New Orleans and Cajun get togethers at their homes in Los Angeles and as they say in their best Cajun French: “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” French for “Let the good times roll.”
Southern dialects can change from state to state but these dialects are having to hold on to their heritage for dear life. So, when a nurse asks in a friendly way, “Where y’all from, honey?”, I guess the proper response (especially if you’re flat on your back in a hospital) is to be glad that the nurse was interested enough even to ask the question.