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Rich: Lessons in learnin’ a thing or two

POSTED: October 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.

As though it was just yesterday, not the too-many-years-to-count that it really was, I can hear my daddy clearly. He'd pull back his shoulders, raise an eyebrow and point his finger at me - always with great meaning - and say, "Little girl, I'm about to learn you a thing or two."

Mama often said, "Now listen to me." This she always said when it was really important. "I'm gonna learn you how to cook cabbage real quick. There's a trick to it."

My parents, both from separate places in the mountains, always had unique words and phrases that I heard at home and from our families but never in the educational institutions of my youth. In fact, often the English teachers admonished my classmates and me not to talk like my parents did. Impressionable, I believed the teachers were right and that my parents were lacking in grammatical correctness.

"He didn't drug the bag, he dragged it."

"She climbed the tree, not clum it."

"It's never, not nary."

And, the one that made the biggest impression on me: "You don't learn someone else something, you teach them."

Immediately, I set about cleaning up my grammar and removing such words and phrases from my usage. It is very possible, being the little snot-nosed-know-it-all that I was, that I even tried to correct my folks and teach them differently. If I did, they should have learned me a thing or two by giving me a good whack on the backside.

My mama's mama came to visit once for a few days. She was as pure a Scotch-Irish as I ever met. I was 10 or 11 when I found her searching around the bedroom.

"Whatta ya lookin' for?" I asked.

"I'm lookin' for the poke with my Sunday shoes in it."

I had no idea what she was talking about. "Poke? What's that?"

"Here it is." Triumphantly, she held up a brown Winn-Dixie bag. "A poke is a paper sack."

I spent years thinking that my people talked in uneducated mountain slang. Then I discovered something riveting: These people weren't speaking with an uneducated tongue, they were speaking in the finest language known to the world. The language of these mountain people is known by one of three names: Queen's English, Elizabethan or Shakespearean because it was perfected during the reign of Elizabeth I. It is the finest, purest English ever known to the world.

Apparently, when the Scotch-Irish and other English-influenced settlers came to the mountains, they brought their native language. Since they were isolated in those mountains - no disapproving grammar teachers - they were able to maintain the purity of their words. But when folks like my parents moved to more populated areas and sent their children into more refined educational arenas, our language was corrected and the Queen's English moved toward extinction. How sad that it is.

I don't want that to happen. So, I listen carefully to the words of those who still use the Elizabethan language, write down the phrases and words and try to incorporate them into my stories.

"Learn me how to lose a winning match," Shakespeare wrote in "Romeo and Juliet," while both he and Chaucer practiced the use of "clum," "drug," "poke," and other words that are now considered archaic by many.

"Will you pick me up some arsh potatoes at the store?" Mama often asked, using the proper English pronunciation of Irish. She also alternated between pronouncing "idea" as "idear" or "idee." "Idear" is the pronunciation used by proper-speaking Brits, particularly in London society.

Again, I see that Mama and Daddy, meager though their educations were compared to mine, have proven to be far smarter than me.

Now, if we could just learn those other scholars a thing or two.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter.


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