by Henry Lane Hull
“Ahh kent unnerstan you. You tauk phunny.” With those words from a student in my early teaching days in Alabama, I was put on alert that regional linguistic differences truly matter.
That student went on to earn a good grade in the course and gradually we came to be able to communicate with each other. She had difficulty with my use of the words, “house,” “out,” and “about.” Fortuitously, I never had occasion to say “mouse” in her presence.
I explained to her that I spoke the way people did in my rural area of Virginia, precisely as she spoke in her native Alabamaese. Neither dialect was better than the other, merely different. My grandfather came to the Northern Neck from the Erie Peninsula of Ontario, where he totally blended into the local scene, to the extent of being elected to the Colonial Beach Town Council for 20 years, in part because the Canadians of that region speak a dialect quite similar to ours and he was not viewed as a foreigner.
When I was a child, people referred to “White Oak Swamp English” that was spoken beyond the Beach in Westmoreland County. That version would have been a dialect within a dialect and I must admit as a youth I found it difficult to understand.
Perhaps the most distinctive regional intonation in Virginia is that of Tangier Island. When speaking with a group from Tangier, one hears what many students of linguistics consider to be the purest form of 17th-century English still extant in the New World. The island’s isolation has helped to perpetuate its language’s survival, which is one of the distinct delights experienced in going there.
Virginia is replete with regionalisms, such as the pronunciation of the name of the city where President Woodrow Wilson was born. If one pays heed to the “u,” that person immediately is recognized as being the Shenandoah Valley equivalent of a Come-here, for the proper idiom is to say “Stanton,” and not “Staunton.”
More locally, this newspaper is published in what phonetically we would spell as “Lankster” County. To pronounce out the correctly spelled three syllables of Lancaster is another form of Come-hereism. Recently I was speaking with a friend from Lancaster, Pa., who told me that they share our use of the abbreviated pronunciation and that natives there also dislike hearing the word mispronounced idiomatically.
The greatest modern authority of our Northern Neck language and tradition was the late attorney C. Jackson Simmons, who died in 1999. He was a master of both the spoken and the written word and one of his particular bête-noirs was the use of the incorrect preposition when speaking of the Northern Neck. As I have written previously in this space in tribute to his scholarship, to say “on the Northern Neck,” rather than “in the Northern Neck,” is akin to wearing a sign proclaiming that one is a recent arrival not as yet familiar with our local usage and customs.
Since Jack’s death great interest has developed in propagating and using native plants, rather than invasive ones in horticultural pursuits. The linguistic equivalent of that worthy botanical movement is to say that one lives “ON” the Northern Neck, which is a genuinely invasive term. We are not an island, therefore we live “IN” the Northern Neck, precisely as a Parisian lives in, and not on, France.
Fortunately, I do not have to chase “a muse round abute and ute of my huse,” and I do not have to translate those words to the once young lady who thought I talked “phunny.” In short, everyone lives in an oyster and I consider myself blessed that my oyster is the Northern Neck.