I can remember the first time I realized I spoke with an accent, and I can remember when I realized that all of the people I knew spoke with accents, too. It was an epiphany of sorts, an intellectual dawning that told me the place I lived all my life wasn’t the way life was lived in other places. There were some great insights to be had here, and one of the best was not everyone eats grits for breakfast. I’ve always hated grits. That says a lot about me down in this part of the world, actually.
In the last year I’ve read two books that rearranged the way I think about how language is used and operates. The first was “ Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle” by Richard B. Frank. This book gave me some insight on the incredible amount of information that could be gathered to decipher a coded message. The men and women who put the pieces together were reinventing a hidden language and I am willing to bet that most of them could have gone on to much more interesting studies of language had someone offered them the opportunity. The next book was by far the one who addressed the issue more directly and this is, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. This is the book that explained to me that each and every human language evolved from single source. There are no languages that cannot be traced back, and deciphered therefore, through going back and looking at where the language is from and what it evolved from, and who once spoke it. There are limitations on this, certainly, but if there is enough written evidence to say a civilization existed and enough of the language written in some form, be it clay tablets or hieroglyphics, we can tell what they were trying to say when they wrote it.
Now let’s go back to 1980, when I discovered that not only did I have a Southern accent, it was a very serious and strong accent, to the point that people in LaCrosse Wisconsin had a difficult time understanding me, even though they though the way I spoke was very charming. The differences between Southern Georgia English the way that a very closed and immobile society spoke the thing, versus a larger Midwestern town that was home to a University that spoke English in a totally different manner, may seem a question of enunciation and pronunciation, but it is a little more profound than that.
I arrived back at my hometown for Christmas and was stunned at what I was hearing. Suddenly, everyone sounded like they had just been teleported back from a Snuffy Smith Comic strip. From my grandmothers who I had always revered to my friends I had grown up with, everyone spoke with an accent. It was like seeing people naked for the first time.
Being a voracious reader from the time I was four or five had extended my vocabulary well past the average in South Georgia, but one thing I did not realize is how differently Southerners treated words. They chopped them off, truncated them, made some words up entirely, and used words in ways that the rest of the world never considered true speech. Southern euphemisms were not something I thought remarkable until someone asked me exactly what did “As happy as a pig in mud” meant.
What I never knew as I was growing up is I spoke a dialect. When a closed society, and let’s face it not too many people on earth have ever moved to South Georgia on purpose, at least not in the sixties or seventies, there tends to be less growth in language and more stagnation. This is actually how new languages are formed. A portion of a culture seeks out new territory or leaves for some reason, becomes isolated from the mother tongue for a few generations then suddenly the people they left one hundred years ago are difficult to understand.
To give you an example when I was little boy shoes worn for sports or for playing, not dress shoes or date shoes, where known as “sneakers”. Let’s suppose that someone were to use that term today. If someone walked into a store and asked for “sneakers” they may or may not have a hard time explaining it. But suppose someone wrote that one a note, “I need to go buy some new sneakers” then trying to decipher what this means would require a knowledge of that word. If the note read, “The soles of my old ones are worn out so I am going to buy some new sneakers” then there is more evidence as to what sneakers are, but there is also some confusion. Is sole a fish? What is meant by “old ones”? Is this a reference to people or fish or…?
In the Near East, especially in the area known as Mesopotamia, thousands of clay tablets from many different cultures give us quite a clear picture of who was saying what in half a dozen different languages. We now believe we know enough about the ancient language of Sumer, perhaps the first one every written down, to be able to use it as if we were born to it. We know their alphabet and their letters. There are some who think this might lead us to even speak the language again, and who knows, maybe they are right.
In the end, I’ve kept reading. I know a lot more words than most. I think this gives me an idea of how vast English is that gives an idea of how vast the language of Sumer might have been. I’ve seen a few stars in a cloudy night sky and now I imagine a universe of stars just as this Earth has produced a galaxy of languages. We here on earth right now have an accent, the accent of now, but we have no idea what we sounded like three hundred years ago or three thousand years ago, or three hundred thousand years ago.
Or what we will sound like tomorrow.