contributed by Dr James Everett
LS Cultural Committee Chairman, Maybinton, South Carolina
steady push to homogenise the Southern language into the bland empire-speak of
the equally bland personalities of the major television networks reminds me of a
bit of social history from the Ireland of the Nineteenth Century, before that
country gained its independence and threw off the yoke of the English. The
tender children of the Irish countryside under the tyranny of the government
(public) schools were forced to wear tally sticks and slates on cords around
their necks so that each time they used a Gaelic word, the teacher would make a
notch on the stick or write that word upon the slate. At the end of each school
session came the daily reckoning. The tally stick determined the degree of
punishment, or the child's slate was counted up and he or she was kept after
hours and made to write each correct English (foreign) word over and over again.
If the child had a full slate of crimes (as the most Irish and most traditional
and most rural of the children did), he or she stayed many hours after school.
This kind of cultural genocide practised on the Irish people is what eventually
led to Irish freedom. Gaelic was nearly exterminated in the process, however.
Even Irish parents themselves encouraged the teachers because they felt that for
social or economic reasons, the quicker the children learned English the better.
It was a desperate matter of economic survival. And even after Irish
independence came in 1922, it took years for the Irish people to get over the
English-inspired stigma of the non-standard-of using their own native tongue in
their own land-begun as early as the 1300s when the Irish were not permitted to
speak their language in the presence of their English masters. But precisely in
the year of freedom in 1922, the tide began turning, and within three decades,
Gaelic had become a required subject in school. Still, most Irish people as late
as the 1950s felt Gaelic to be useless commercially and associated it with rural
poverty and backwardness. It remained the first language in only a few mostly
coastal areas. Only today, over seven decades after Irish independence, is
Gaelic being widely honoured and making a good substantial comeback. The number
becoming fluent in their native tongue is said to be growing steadily. Spoken
Irish has become fashionable with the young. The middle-aged folks who hated
Irish in school are now taking night classes to catch up with their children.
Deirdre Davitt, deputy chief executive of Bord na Gaelige, an Irish government agency that is fostering the revival, reports that today Gaelic is very far from a dying language. 'When I left school,' she said in 1994, 'it was not fashionable to speak it. Now 20 years later, my friends regret that they cant.' Davitt relates that part of the new interest has come from the young Irish diaspora working or studying in Europe. They have learned that the best way to express their identity is to speak Gaelic. Otherwise, physically, they would be taken for English. The language itself helps to carry their identity and to set them apart as a people with a common bond and history. Gaelic has now become so fashionable, in fact, that over a hundred Irish public schools, now freed from the inferiority complex placed on them by centuries of English conquest and haughty English rule, now conduct classes entirely in the language. In other public schools, students take several hours a week and must pass a test for a high school diploma. By 1994, the Irish government was spending the equivalent of about 45 million dollars a year to promote the use of the language, with a plan under way for an Irish-language television channel. This, of course, is a complete about-face-a far cry from the tally stick and slate. Such is one of the blessings of freedom. In a free land, there is no stigma attached to being oneself-of practising the honourable ways of one's own people. It, indeed, becomes a way of asserting identity, and comes as a result of knowing who one is.
In an 18 June 1998 issue of the Charleston (S.C.) News and Courier, there appeared an article entitled 'Are Accents Holding Us Back in Life?' It begins with the questions 'How much is your Southern accent worth?' and 'Could keeping it cost you a chance at a lucrative career?' A professor at Mars Hill College in North Carolina proposes and 'accent modifying' center for Southern college students. She hopes to get funds (a big Federal grant, no doubt?) to study just how much of a Southern accent can hold a person back. Then the 'modifying centers' will reteach Southern students to achieve a 'national standard.' The professor cites the example of a top student who was a sure bet for a graduate fellowship in biomedicine at a top Southern university-until she had her interview, that is. The professor continues: 'She had to go to a secondary institution. It was specifically her accent . . . . They needed her to be able to present at national conferences.' One may question whether it is actually the accent that is wrong or the rank prejudice of the academics who denied the candidate her position on such grounds. One might also pose the question of whether the professor would do better by demonstrating such cases of true discrimination (and might we say, violation of an individual's civil rights?) toward the purpose of eliminating the discrimination rather than the accent. It seems that once again in this crazy time of absurd reversals and values run amok, that the cart is put before the horse, Where too, we might ask, is the academic's professed honouring of diversity-that sacred cow idol of current academia.
The article goes on to say that a Charleston 'speech pathologist' agrees that slow speech gives the impression of slow mental capacity. He says his 'Speech Center' gets about five persons a year who want to change their accents. Predictably, the local TV stations do some of the referring. It takes two weeks to a year to 'modify an accent' and costs about $80 an hour. At the local College of Charleston, a professor is 'designing a course with speech modification goals.' The College (as of the June 1998 article) had not decided whether 'it will be a continuing education or regular college course.' The speech pathologist is quoted as saying: 'You restyle your hair. You get new clothes. If you need to get better etiquette and table manners, you do that . . . . When you are talking to someone from New York of California on the phone, you dont want them to think that you are ignorant.' He concludes that at the very least 'you can eliminate "y'all."' Notice the speech pathologist awkwardly uses the verb get. You get a language like you get new clothes, or you get a new hair style or etiquette or good table manners. And the Southern accent is put on a par with old unfashionable clothes, outdated hair styles, bad manners, and improper etiquette. All these 'things' seem to be of the same value to our pathologist, and all are to be gotten. To a thorough-going materialist whose chief aim is getting wealth, they are indeed of equal value. I would recommend that our speech pathologist seek a 'values pathologist'-and immediately. Call 911!
In the modern era, unfortunately, when everything has gone radically askew, both priorities and values get radically confused and twisted. The results of this dislocation is what we are seeing in the inane pronouncements of the pathologist. Such a jumble is the logical result of our illogic-and we might say, of the ills of the age.
Not each and every academic at the government schools is a bad guy, however-although most would do just about anything for a big fat and juicy government grant for something like a speech modification study or a speech modification center. Their institutions are constantly hounding them to seek grants and write grant proposals. There are numerous seminars and lessons on how to write such proposals. As one of the few academic good guys, a professor at the University of South Carolina disagrees with all this modification business and says he wouldn't help someone modify his accent even if asked: 'Their accent is a part of their identity. If they want to change what they are, then I dont want to have anything to do with them.' He relates that those who think their accents are going to hold them back are only responding to prejudice. Well said. A person's accent is a part of who he is. It is not something he can get like new clothes or a hairstyle. If he wishes to sell himself and who he is, in order to make it up the corporate ladder, to be able to get these new clothes and hair styles, then the one sure thing that will be missing is the substance behind the show. What will result is perfectly described in T. S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men"-a condemnation of the modern's essential emptiness and the death of values and worth:
We are the hollow men
This brings us full circle to the poor Irish school children wearing their
slates of repentence around their necks. In a sense, the 'national' prejudice
against the South has placed slates of repentance around all our Southern necks.
If we cooperate (at the tune of $80 an hour) by writing the foreign 'correct'
words over and over again as our punishment until we get it right, and thus
sound like the cultural imperialists who hold the invisible but effective rods
of chastisement, we might just get rewarded for the destroying of our identities
by the increased means to buy fashionable new hair styles and clothes. But even
so, we Southerners will still all wear that heavy slate about our necks. Accents
will be only the first of many objectionable traits that must go. For us
Southerners, like the Irish school children of the former century, only with the
blessings of Freedom will there be no stigma attached to being ourselves. And we
should not fool ourselves into believing that the slate can be removed by any
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas! Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass . . .
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.
James Everett Kibler is the LS Cultural Chairman, and the author of Our Fathers' Fields.