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Old Proverbs, New Applications

by on October 31, 2015

                                               Old Proverbs, New Applications

                                                           by Marco M. Pardi

                                         As always, your comments are welcome

 “A proverb is a short sentence based on a long experience.” Cervantes (1547-1616)

Far ago and long away, on a stark and dormy night, an Eastern European colleague and I settled into a cabin to await a scheduled SW burst.  With a few hours to go, we eventually settled on exchanging cultural proverbs to identify similarities.  I started with: A stitch in time saves nine; A penny saved is a penny earned; Don’t count your chickens before they hatch; and, Happy as a dead hog in sunshine (having heard that recently in the American southwest, I just threw that in there).

“How can a dead hog be happy,” she asked.  “I don’t know. I just thought it was oddly picturesque,” I said. She rejoined with: Друг познаётся в беде́ – A friend in need is a friend indeed; Была́ не была́ – Whatever happens, happens; Лу́чше по́здно, чем никогда́. – Better late than never; and, В тихом омуте черти водятся. – Still waters run deep.  Finally, looking at me she said, Будет и на нашей улице праздник! – Every dog has his day (It can also mean The sun will shine on our street too).

Apparently there are shared concepts.  But she was more curious about dialect.  In her travels she had seen American Western films, “Cowboy pictures”, and wondered if people really spoke that way.  The first item I cleared up was “cowboy”, a term which had nothing to do with Clint Eastwood or John Wayne.  Fairly well off urbanites from the early American cities moved into newly purchased or stolen territories intending to get away from developing urban blight and crime.  They acquired land and cattle, but had no idea how to manage the cattle and no intention of being out there with them day after day.  But the vast labor pool provided by slavery offered many young boys and men from African cultures with hundreds, if not thousands of cumulative culture years of cattle herding experience.  In those cultures, young boys were assigned cattle duties, growing to manhood and eventual ownership of their own herds.  It was these boys and young men, acquired on the slave market, who became the “cow boys” of the South and West.  They never acquired the money for their own horses, much less six guns and fancy hats;  that began to develop among the Anglos who filled the ranks once slavery was abolished.  But, the term “cowboy” stuck.  And the term “boy”, applied even to older Black men by younger Whites, lived well into the 20th Century. 

But about that “dialect”, especially that Texan “drawl”, perpetuated to this day as a badge of honor.  A dialect is a call sign, a call sign of solidarity.  In a greatly expanding and more mobile human population simple appearance will no longer suffice to signal solidarity; the “If you look like me you must be like me” rule no longer applies.  The “If you sound like me you must be like me” – from the same region, socio-economic class, educational background has come to the forefront.  It is a comfort, a sign you can relax among your fellows.  In fact, I’ve heard people return from home leave using dialectical speech they had not left with; the transition away from that long term comfort takes time. In the same way, I’ve heard “code switching” from on-duty to off-duty to such an extreme it was hard to accept it was the same person.  Of course, some cannot free themselves easily from the solidarity in which they were raised.  I’ve known several African-American service members who confided their caution on home leave lest they “slip up and get dissed for becoming an Oreo – Black on the outside and White on the inside.”

But it was in the context of addressing the “Texan accent” that suddenly Aesop’s fable of the sour grapes made sense.  Within every country in the Northern Hemisphere, with few exceptions, the southern areas of the country are the agricultural areas, commonly peopled by individuals with far less geographic mobility, awareness of the broader world, and educational development than the rest of the country.  The more slowly evolving dialect in these areas is a distinct marker. It may be exaggerated by some, as in parts of the American “Deep South” for commercial exploitation but it nevertheless stands as a badge symbolizing a perceived (in-group) shared history, educational level, and world view.  Of course, there are also those who quickly attempt to adopt the indicators of membership within the in-groups. During two assignments to Texas I often commented that the people with the biggest hats, belt buckles, pick-up trucks and the fanciest boots just moved there from Michigan. That’s the nice side.

The not so nice side is the intrinsic rejection of the advances, education, and values of the larger society. Just as Aesop’s fox gave up on the grapes, saying they were sour after all, the implicit message in the broadcasting of the “Texan dialect” is that “book learnin'” is inferior to that which is learned on the imaginary Wild West range. I’ve been fascinated by people who were born, raised and educated in the suburbs of mega-cities like Houston and Dallas trying to sound as if they just rode in from a cattle drive. The only cows they ever saw were on milk cartons. But, they did see many Hollywood produced Westerns.  I know people with Ph.Ds, Pharm Ds, and MDs whose speech marks them as flunk-outs from the fourth grade. They are demonstrably smart, but perhaps not so intelligent.  It is well known that George W. Bush, the only member of his family to speak this way, got through college only because he was a “legacy scholar” and as the son of a very powerful political figure had academic insulation from the failure that would have justly marked his intellectual prowess.  I see his adoption of the markers of semi-literacy as his recognition of being well below the level appropriate to the colleges where he was admitted – and passed along, and therefore a “sour grapes” rejection of the validity which was beyond his reach.  He knew he was a fraud so, through his speech and manner, he heaped scorn on that to which he could not aspire. 

This is not to say those aforementioned MDs et al drifted through schools undeservedly.  It is to say that despite the fact they excelled in their fields and became successful in the terms of the larger society the sub-cultural values of rejecting the larger culture are so deeply embedded they apparently are entirely unable to see the contradiction between their universally accepted success and their radically foreshortened, parochial  persona.  Fascinating. Somehow, the 20th Century Hollywood construct of the Texan has become the new Noble Savage: untainted by education, but wise beyond those of us too foolish to avoid the siren song of academia.

An interesting example of the self defeating rejection of larger values can be found in the Lincoln automotive ads featuring a well dressed Matthew McConaughey, an actor from Uvalde, Texas.  Each of the ads features him talking to himself while driving a Lincoln. One in particular has him initiating his pitch with, “It ain’t about hugging trees…..”.  Yes, Matthew, clearly it’s not about hugging trees.  It’s apparently about repeating a derogatory meme intended to belittle and scorn people concerned for the environment.  He married in 2012.  Given the reality of climate change, I wonder what plans he has for his children and grandchildren while so many others die.  Perhaps they can all gather in a dialectically pure enclave as they discover that, for example, secession from the United States – quite popular in Texas and something I wish they would do so their perverted demands for revisionist school text books would no longer taint classrooms elsewhere – is “cutting of one’s nose to spite one’s face”, as the old saying goes.

One of the great linguistic phenomena of the past few decades is the emergence of cable news networks.  Individuals I’ve known in that industry tell me new employees often go through speech classes to achieve “language leveling”, the elimination of regional accent and even dialect.  While this makes the presentation largely more acceptable and understandable particularly in foreign markets, it has the interesting effect of arousing distrust among those holding refuge in exclusive dialects.  A minor example of the local media effort to acquire and hold trust among viewers is the dumbing down of speech through colloquial usage. Thus, “The cops busted down the door” is now so common I doubt any English teachers still react.  But a person such as myself, who worked hard to acquire English and then American, wonders at the direction of speech when hearing this, and hearing someone say “I’m good” in response to a question of their state of being.  

In moving from the North to the South of the U.S. I encountered people who said “ink pen”.  When I asked why they specified ink, they said it was to distinguish it from straight pin.  These were “educated” people, unaware of the difference between pen and pin.  Many also could not distinguish between aught and ought.  Thus, I began to attribute the survival of dialects to the diminishing readership of the printed word.  Conversely, I’ve known some regionally isolated people whose pronunciation of certain words indicates they have read them but have never heard them spoken; respite comes to mind.

So, I finished my explanation of dialect with the explanation that my speech pattern is characterized as Mid-Western American English, accent neutral.  Of course, I still get the “Ain’t from around here, are ya’?”

      

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15 Comments
  1. Hi Marco, I have a lot of trouble leaving comments on this site. This has happened to me on several occasions. I leave a comment, hit “Post Comment”, it looks like it does but then later I don’t see my comment posted. I had posted earlier you answered a question my children and I have often asked. It wasn’t until leaving the south and returning that we really noticed how pronounced southern accents were. My kids would ask why people would continue to talk like that when it made them sound so uneducated, even those they knew were educated. This makes so much sense. It explains all regional dialects. An excellent article. I think travel enhances your writing. Fingers crossed this posts.

  2. Thank you so much, Mary. I am so glad you have found worth in this. I was afraid it might come off as overly harsh.

    I can’t answer for the site failing to post your comments, but will look into it.

    Thank you again. Marco

  3. One of the things I noticed about people in the military is that most of them lack an identifiable accent. It’s like the opening music to the old Patty Duke show, “They look alike, they walk alike, sometimes they even talk alike…” I’m not sure any of us realize we have a regional speech pattern until we return from having been away from it for a while. When we all sound alike, no one hears the sound that is so obvious to the ears of others.

    My husband grew up in the deep south; his grandmother’s native language was German. I’ve never heard the German in his English, but his few words of Italian were spoken with a German accent (due mostly to his time in Turkey, where German in the European language of choice). Ironically, the few German words he learned were spoken with an Italian accent. We pick up the dialect of whatever region we inhabit, I suppose.

    He spent my daughter’s second year of life stationed on a remote site in Turkey. He had not been home an hour when I asked him how many of his site mates were from Arkansas; there were four, and their way of speaking had rubbed off on him. Not only country or region of origin are discernible by accent and dialect, but also, in many cases, socio-economic status. Like Mary’s children, I fail to see why anyone would continue to speak in a manner which defines them as less than what they have worked so hard to become.

    • Thank you, Rose. I initially did notice marked speech patterns while in the military. But, I also found that radio communication tended to smooth them over.

      Yes, I also puzzle over why people cling to speech patterns which define them poorly, but I do feel it is a sour grapes rejection of larger cultural values.

      • I agree with your conclusion, especially when such patterns are actually exaggerated. I can think of many people and situations in which this is an absolute truth, and extremely irritating.

  4. Gary permalink

    Marco, your post rang bells with me.

    I came from a family in which my father had a university education, but my mother only graduated from high school. I should mention this in Canada. My mother really understood the value of being educated and insisted that all her children (there were 5 of us) work towards university. Three of us did, acquiring graduate level degrees along the way.

    One of my memories from childhood is my mother constantly correcting poor speech with proper English. When I was courting my second wife, who came from a rural area ( post high school education was not valued by her family) and had some college courses, but had not graduated with a degree, I corrected her hickisms along the way. I told her that in the work place people are primarily judged by their speech and she needed to improve her English if she wished to climb the corporate ladder. She took my advice, improved, and subsequently was promoted in the companies in which she worked.

    When I took her to meet my mother I warned her that poor English was the greatest sin in her world. We watched a gangster movie in which the dialogue consisted of occasional sentences between the “F**k this or that or you” and “Motherf**ker”. None of this fizzed on mom to my sweetheart’s surprise, but when one of the actors said “ain’t” there was an outburst from my mother to the effect that there is no such word as “ain’t”. I nudged my woman in the ribs to note the reaction.

    I love the English language and I am constantly reading the writings of people who should know better. Advertisers are notoriously derelict and I have all but given up on them, but I begin to see sloppy language creeping into mainstream journalism. It now seems that “gonna” has effectively replaced “going to”, at least in the U.S., and the number of times I see adverbs abused as adjectives is legion (“that tasted real good”, as opposed to “that tasted really good”).

    I think the George Bush phenomenon you cite is partly explained by the fact he is a politician and he wanted to appear folksy and not uppity to his voter base. We have seen Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden performing similar acts when speaking to souther voters or black audiences, Clinton taking on the southern accent and Biden telling them “their gonna put y’all back in chains”.

    In Canada, political isn’t so much related to dialects and speech, it is more visual — Stephen Harper appearing in a casual sweater or being photographed with his sleeves rolled up in a factory setting. One very successful and popular premier of the Province of Ontario used to love cigars, but he would never allow himself to be photographed smoking one, because it implied backroom deals and Big Daddy Warbucks. Instead he would be pictured relaxing with a pipe, implying thoughtfulness and professorial reflection. Ignorance or ill-education displayed by appeal to dialect or poor English does not fly in Canadian politics. We expect our politicians to be smart and educated and speak well in both English and Canadian French.

    Gary

    • Thank you very much, Gary. I confess to not being well versed in Canadian media, but what I have seen and read seems leagues beyond the path currently trodden in the U.S. I particularly enjoyed your portrayal of the visual cues that resonate there.

      Early in my teaching career I questioned whether I should subtract points for grammar and spelling on Anthropology essays. I never really felt comfortable with my surrender to the declining proficiency. Even my attempts at invoking cultural relativism never really solved the issue for me.

    • P.S., Gary. Whenever I brought home a girl “beneath my station” – as my mother put it, she immediately attempted to engage the girl in conversation in French. In short order, she made it clear no one not fluent in French, or at least one other language beside American, was welcome.

      Pretty high turn-over.

  5. Gary permalink

    Marco, perhaps you did not employ “French kissing” to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  6. LOL; with comments like that, this grammar Nazi is taking her thoughts of “ain’t”, double negatives, and deep southern “ya’ll” and going to bed…err, sleep.

  7. Raising my children I was one to constantly correct grammar usually with sarcasm. “Can I go to the movies?” would have been answered with “I don’t know, can you?” I had several of these that drove my kids batty. My oldest daughter became an English major and a strong proponent of, if you understand what the person is saying, do not correct them. We’ve had many a battle over this and she has won me over. I am trying very hard not to correct or judge people based on grammar. I no longer engage in emails with people who do. Emails that are informal conversations. I like the line in the second post I list here, worrying about grammar is not a luxury afforded to all. I took a course in college in creative writing where the teacher said the grade would be based solely on creative ideas. Spelling, punctuation and grammar would not enter into grading. I did the best writing of my life in that class. I do think students need to learn proper grammar, but in day to day interchanges I no longer point out if something has been said incorrectly. With the exception, I was out with a group of friends, one who recently graduated and had just started a job as a second grade teacher. She said “Jim and me went to the movies last night”. I said to her to drop “Jim” and say that again. She gave me an odd look but then soon dawned on her the error of the sentence. I told her before using I or me, say the sentence without the other person. She said she had never heard that, which really surprised me someone with a degree in teaching would not have heard before. I did this only because she is a teacher and that is an area where correct grammar is of importance.
    Here are a couple of posts on the subject.

    http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/writing/online-writer-in-residence/blog/571

    View story at Medium.com

    • Wonderful comment, Mary. A real resource. I really like the mild correction you offered to the second grade teacher. And thank you for the links. Marco

  8. Gary permalink

    One last anecdote that I forgot to include in my longer post.

    I used to go to New York City a lot for business in the World Trade Center (when there was one) and one of my business contacts was a woman who worked in the marketing department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. She lived across the river on the New Jersey side. One evening after work we went to dinner at a good restaurant and we had a lively conversation. In the course of it I made some reference to “corporate fraud”. She looked puzzled and asked me to repeat that, which I did. She said she still didn’t get it. I thought for a moment. I was pronouncing “fraud” with a Great Lakes accent and it came out as “frod”. It dawned on me that she was a Jersey girl, so I said “corporate frawwd” and she said, “Oh, yes “frawwd”, now I understand”.

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