The two summers before moving to the Bootheel, Pirate and I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) in a migrant farm camp not far from where we lived. We had minimal Spanish so we relied heavily on teaching the basics of pronunciation, conversation, and language structure. Many of the works' families came from Mexico and via Texas and Arizona. Those who lived at the camp were all documented and the camp itself was a mission through the Migrant Worker Program of the Catholic Diocese of Stockton. Sr. Edith, from Mexico, managed the day to day matters of the people seeing to their spiritual and personal concerns. Like many nuns, she had a way of asking for something and you just could not say "no". And so it was that we learned the intimacy of communicating without a common language. By our third summer we were on the road out of California and interestingly, Sr. Edith was transferred to Eutah, Alabama, just a short 5-6 hour drive from us. I expect we will be seeing Sr. Edith again, sooner rather than later.
Language, and more specifically, how language sounds, has always appealed to me. Like interesting faces that capture my attention so does the sound of the human voice. It's no surprise to me that landing in the Bootheel has set off a party in my ears.
The first thing I learned is that not all Bootheeler sound like my pirate. After 50 plus years away from here, his drawl has softened to the sound of a slow-moving creek over a bed of rounded stones. The second thing I learned is that you can't associate one particular accent with the Bootheel. The voices here have moved up from Arkansas, over from Tennessee, down from northern Missouri, which sounds very different from southern Missouri. Even Louisiana is represented. We have Katrina, most recently, to thank for that.
Locals continue to be amused as I trek through the ocean of sounds and usually all it takes is a "what" from me and a puzzled look. That's when I get the "right" pronunciation and a spelling lesson. Most recently, my GPS and I discovered there is no such place as Hawkem. I was looking for a place called Strawberries, which by unanimous agreement, has the best BBQ in the Bootheel. Believe me, unanimous doesn't come easy when it comes to BBQ in the Heel so this must be something. My snooty California BBQ self will have to check this out. Anyway . . . I was finally steered in the right direction when I learned that Hawkem was really "Holcomb". Who knew an "L" would be silent and an "om" would sound like an "em"? What I call my standard English had taken yet another hit.
The most remarkable example I can give of this sound trick is actually from three years ago when we were on an extended visit and the Wal-Mart was still open. You all know that C'ville is small enough that on shopping day you can actually encounter the same person at several different places. So, when I arrived at the Hays Market after leaving Wal-Mart, I was struck by seeing a really fascinating looking man whom I had first seen at the check out line in Wal-Mart. Now he was at the meat counter in Hays. Well, as I've said before, there are no strangers and three years ago it was just as true. He was short and strong looking as a fireplug and dark as a moonless night in the desert. And he was just as friendly then as he was earlier, chatting people up who were also in line. So, I said hello and nice to see you again so soon (or some such friendly thing like that). But this time I got the full-on blast of his voice, his accent. The man was speaking English but I was not understanding a single word he said. My ears and attention homed in on his voice and after a few minutes of friendly chatter, I came away feeling like I had actually encountered an unusual English/Cajun/Creole dialect, Gullah. I had seen a few videos from my linguistics studies days in college and of course, now YouTube is a treasure chest of languages to listen to. I sure would like to see that man again.
Another area I got hung up on initially was how to pronounce certain town names. Why isn't Blytheville pronounced "Blithe" ville? Why does the "Ma" of Madrid have a short "a" sound instead of the softer "ah" sound and why is "drid" pronounced without an emphasis on the second syllable? Fill this all up with colorful phases and some of the nicest insults I've ever heard (bless his heart) and you have a recipe for some fun listening time.
I used to tease the pirate at the ESL classes when I would tell the students that he spoke a form of English and not to listen to how he pronounced words. All of his i's and e's sound the same. I spoke Standard English and that was proper pronunciation. But, actually, the joke is on me. Listening to the lively sounds of language here, well my California Standard English really does sound rather boring. I need to start learning some Southern.