Verbal Souvenirs

Thirteenth-generation Smith Islander Jennings Evans

Thirteenth-generation Smith Islander Jennings Evans

Part of the pleasure of exploration is listening to dialects and regional turns of phrase. The South is particularly rich with iconic expressions like “that dog won’t hunt” for ill-fated plans or the “bless her heart” chaser that serves as absolution from a just-cast aspersion (“All of Violet’s taste is in her mouth, bless her heart”). In a rural corner of Arkansas a cab driver described an employer’s efforts to be rid of workers just prior to their benefits eligibility as “They just wanna be shed of you”—which is hard to fully appreciate without hearing the Ozark drawl on that “shhhehd.” Visions of snakes wriggling free of skins....

When I first visited Ossabaw Island, Georgia, Trey Coursey fetched me in Sandy West’s little skiff from the dock in Vernonburg. He hightailed it back to the island, given the thunderstorm on our tail. As we lifted up on the waves and slammed back down, he mentioned some responses to Sandy’s 1926 Spanish Revival mansion, which has remained untouched except for the additions of an electric stove, refrigerator and a couple of window unit air conditioners. “Some people think of it as Grey Gardens, or even some Stephen King hotel. I guess the light and sounds the house makes do stimulate ghost stories.” Stimulate ghost stories (and again, with a drawl). Wow—I'd never heard the verb used that way—a perfect choice for the genesis of myth. But, errr, where the heck was my pen? Paper? My recorder was stashed in the hold. I had to hold onto those sentences, repeating them over and over in my mind while Trey continued to use the language so beautifully. Splitting my brain into parallel tracks of conversation and conservation while I held onto the dash for dear life was no easy task.

I had a similar experience while being driven in a golf cart back to the ferry dock at Smith Island, Maryland. The captain pulled over to speak with a woman who had attended the heartwrending funeral of a young island man the day before. She said “’Nother day like that, and I’ll be all up with him.” She pulled that “all” out for at least three seconds, and the allusion of her following the deceased’s heaven-bound journey...stunning crafting. Add to this the unique dialect of Smith Islanders— part Eastern Shore Southern cadence, part colonial-era English pronunciations maintained by the centuries-long isolation. Sentences like these are gifts of originality and authenticity. I collect them like the treasures they are—souvenirs for a word lover.

Islands were at an historical advantage for both creative uses of language and retention of original accents and expressions from European (Smith and Tangier Islands in the Chesapeake Bay and Ocracoke Island, North Carolina) and African (Daufuskie Island, South Carolina and Sapelo Island, Georgia) descendants. Less connected to the mainland by newspapers, television and radio, their populations didn’t use the phrases gleaned from advertising slogans or other mass-use expressions. For those of you who want to dive into the rabbit hole on this subject, here are a few links (who knew there was a dialect blog?): americas-strange-island-dialects/

—Anna Marlis Burgard