Monday, August 11, 2008

Southern Modalities

In his article in yesterday’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Paul Greenberg responded to the writer of a letter to the editor complaining about a line in an earlier editorial: “the board might could use a little guidance.” The writer was “utterly amazed” that the phrase “might could use” would occur in an ADG editorial. The writer continued, “What English grammar book did that come from? Shame on you. Your Arkie background is showing.”

Well, those editors are not the only transgressors. When I was an undergraduate at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, my German professor, the offspring of a German mother and a British father, called me down for saying that I “might could” do something. She haughtily informed me that only in the South had she heard such usage. Two modal verbs! One would never use such a construction in proper English or in German. I might add that none of the other students in the class, all Southern, had had the least trouble understanding me, nor were they shocked at my usage.

Besides German, this professor, who was also fluent in French, taught the Freshman Composition classes for all international students, and a great deal of her time, she said, was spent in helping these students, who had been trained mostly in British English, understand the ways Southerners “mis-used” the English language. One day, she said an international student came to her confused because another student had told him that she was “fixin’ to” go to the Student Center. “I do not understand,” he said. “Fixing is what you do to a broken machine.” This, of course, was another Southernism that didn’t meet with her approval. She said she could always tell when she was south of the Mason-Dixon line because, invariably, as soon as she drove across language disintegrated.

Mr. Greenberg rightly pointed out that for those who want to be precise in their usage, “might could” is a helpful construction. “Could” and “might could” signal a great difference in probability. In Standard English, “could” has both indicative and subjunctive meanings. But in Southern English, “I could come” is indicative, whereas “I might could come” is subjunctive. Quoting a linguist, Greenberg points out that “the use of double modals in Southern American English fills a gap in Standard English grammar, namely the loss of inflectional distinction in English between indicative and subjunctive modals. Dialect or regional forms are often more progressive in gap-filling than is a standard language.” Well, of course. That's why we use it.

Greenberg also gives another example where Southern English has filled in a language gap—the famous pronoun y’all, our second person plural. “The less discerning standard usage,” he continues, “has only you for singular and plural.” So there.

Unfortunately, at that time I was unable to mount as good a defense as Mr. Greenberg did. All I knew was that I was perfectly able to express myself, and, double modality or not, the construction worked for me. It expressed exactly what I wanted to say.

Well, I might could write more, but I think I’m fixin’ to stop here.

1 comment:

James Redford said...

On a somewhat related matter, I'm from Austin, Texas, and it seems to me that people raised around that area don't have much of an accent.

I've heard it said that accents are all relative. I hadn't previously thought much on the matter, so I took no opinion on it.

But lately I've come to think about it more, perhaps due to boredom.

And in thinking about it, I've come to the consideration that there may be something of a non-accent within a particular language.

The reason I think this seems to be the case is because I've noticed that the most apparent of accents actually involve mispronunciations. Such as the so-called "Received Pronunciation" of King's English, which involves dropping R's.

Hence, someone who actually pronounced the words as they are seen in the dictionaries would have no accent, or close to no accent.

At any rate, I'm all for knowing the correct use of English, since it's only in knowing its correct use that one can properly abuse it.