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Speaking of Alabama, Part 1

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a lesson in regional English in the American South.

RS: And to give you that lesson is a woman who wrote to us from Alabama named Donna Akins. Donna Akins is not an English teacher, not a linguist, not an author. She heads a non-profit organization for adults with developmental disabilities.

AA: But when she's not busy at work, Donna Akins takes a strong interest in language. And she's proud of her Southern linguistic roots -- roots which she worries may be withering.

DONNA AKINS: "I think we have a real neat dialect and I hear it dying, especially when you visit the larger towns. We're very close to Huntsville, Alabama, and we're not too far from Atlanta or Birmingham, and when you visit those places a lot of the locals you can't even tell are Southerners anymore. And that's sad to me. But then, as I used in the example to you in an e-mail, you'll hear those people who are very proud of their Southern heritage and don't hesitate to use it.

"I heard one woman say, she was asking about someone's family, and said, 'How's your mom and them? Well, tell 'em I said how-do.' And that's just such a neat expression to me."

RS: "And that phrase again is."

DONNA AKINS: "Well, what she said was 'how's your mom and them?' which means 'how is your family?' -- it's 'your momma and them' -- and 'tell 'em I said how-do,' which is howdy-do or how are you, hello, I'm thinking about you. Just a good, all-purpose phrase that means several different things."

AA: "How do you reply to a statement like that?"

DONNA AKINS: "Well, you would say, 'Well, thank you for asking, and I'll let them know that you asked about them."

RS: "Well, that I can understand."


AA: "Now, what are some other expressions, terms you might toss into your conversation?"

DONNA AKINS: "Well, I was talking with Pat this morning, my friend. She has kidded me unmercifully since I told her I was doing this with y'all, that I better not get on the radio and embarrass us. But she said 'you just let them know that we do own pickup trucks and we can come whup 'em if they embarrass us.' You know, that was just a big joke between us.

"But, you know, I still hear friends that will use that expression about 'if he steps out of line, I'm going to whup him.' That's not an uncommon thing to say.

"We laugh about when things are a distance away, it's 'fur and snakey."

AA & RS: "It's what?"

DONNA AKINS: "Fur and snakey."

RS: "You mean 'far and ... "

DONNA AKINS: "Snakey just means it's rural, it's a long way off."

RS: "Like there might be snakes there."

DONNA AKINS: "Exactly! You're catching on. And I remember as a child just certain words that would be used. I can remember my elderly aunt who would say 'we'll do that directly.'"

RS: "You mean like 'right now.'"

DONNA AKINS: "Well, it wasn't right now, it was more 'it won't be too long before we do that.' And I remember my father would use the word 'hope' instead of 'help.'"

RS: "Could you spell that word please?"


AA: "But he meant help. I mean, he was pronouncing it hope."

DONNA AKINS: "That's right. He would say 'I stopped and hoped him.' I always found that somewhat embarrassing. I thought it sounded so old.

"And then I can remember one of my high school English teachers asking, did any of our parents say that? And she told us that of course that was the old English form of the word 'help' and that you still heard that some as a carryover in the South. I don't hear that anymore. I haven't heard that probably since my father passed away a number of years ago."

RS: "Well, one of the things you always hear in Southern speech is the expression 'y'all.' Why don't you go through that for us."

DONNA AKINS: "Well, y'all, I hear that a little bit of everywhere now. I'm hearing it on TV, I'm hearing it when I travel. It doesn't seem to be as much a Southern word anymore as it used to be. I think of it as one word because we would never consider saying 'you all,' which is what you're implying. "

AA: "You don't use that for one person, [but] when you're talking to a group or a couple of people."

DONNA AKINS: "That's right. And I've heard that on TV where they'll be trying to use the word and they'll refer to a singular person as y'all. And that would never be done here. Y'all is a group."

RS: And we hope y'all -- y-apostrophe-a-l-l -- will listen again next week. We will have more of our conversation about Southern dialects with Donna Akins, a resident of the mussel shoals area of Alabama.

AA: Our English teaching segments are all on our Web site: And our e-mail address is With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Sweet Home Alabama"/Lynyrd Skynyrd (the Swampers, referred to in the lyrics, are a music group in the Mussel Shoals area of the state)