I’m a native of the Northwest Arkansas Ozarks, and damn proud of it. I’m sure I’m an embarrassment to some because of my accent, but I don’t care. We’re no worse than someone from, say, the Bronx or the Northeast (it took me a long time to figure out the Massachusetts accent my former in-laws had). I’m not making fun of any of these accents, since I have one of my own.
But I have to clear something up, a misconception I believe is fostered mostly by Hollywood ignorance.
Go back and watch a movie depicting Southerners and you’ll run across this: “Hey, y’all!” somebody says—to a single person.
Now, look, maybe we don’t speak proper American English (we actually speak something close to Elizabethan English. I won’t give you all the references—for and against—that abound online. Go look it up yourself), but that doesn’t mean we can’t tell the difference between one and many.
Y’all, as I learned it growing up, refers to a group of two or more. Maybe it’s said when two young couples meet (How y’all doin’?”), or between groups of friends “Hey, y’all, let’s go to town.”), but it’s never used toward a single person. Not in my experience.
Except in the movies. I see it all the time and, quite frankly, it offends me. Of course, the rest of the country has never had a problem insulting the South, so I guess I should be used to it. And I’m not trying to start some kind of movement or something here. Not asking anyone to join me in some kind of anti-defamation group. But if you’re gonna portray us, try to make it accurate. You do it for the rest of the country, so why not for us?
Y’all is, of course, a contraction of two words: you all. Most times, especially in older movies/books, it’s used with that antebellum accent made famous by Gone With the Wind, and it a usually ends up sounding like yew awl. But the way I learned it was as one single word: yawl. And it’s always applied to more than one person.
Yeah, it’s a minor gripe in comparison to some other things I could bitch about, but I just wanted to bring it up. I try to portray my peers on both sides of the law and at all financial levels accurately, and that includes using our words correctly. At least as I learned them.
I have to say that I’ve lost a lot of the accent. TV is to blame, of course. For instance, as proof of the Elizabethan English theory, my dad used to use a word that sounded like dreckly, and it took me forever to realize he was saying directly. It was the context that finally gave it away: “We’ll get to it dreckly,” or “Okay, we’ll be there dreckly.” I always understood what it meant, but it took a long time for me to realize what it actually was.
My dad also pronounced words like chair as cheer, and my paternal grandpa said hit for it.
And of course we use ain’t all the time and drop pretty much all our gs from –ing words, and say things like “They was there,” instead of “They were there.”
Oh, and we don’t all have that really slow drawl that you see in Gone With the Wind and other such movies. If you
wanna see a really accurate portrayal of our accent, watch the movie Chrystal with Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton is a native of Arkansas, as is Lisa Blount, who plays the title character. Director Ray McKinnon is also a Southerner, and a good actor (he appears in the film as Snake, the local drug dealer and Billy Bob’s antagonist). He is best known as Reverend Smith in Deadwood and plays Lincoln Potter in Sons of Anarchy.
I guess the real point I’m making is, if you’re gonna put us in your novel/movie, try to be accurate with us, please. I do my best to be accurate with all my characters because I believe it lends my novels authenticity. And I like to see that in other works, as well.