Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How they Talk in Houma: A Hillbilly's Observations

I've spent most of my life in places where people talk funny. And I like it that way, because I talk funny myself. I grew up in the Arkansas Ozarks, which is why I sound like Bill Clinton or Billy Bob Thornton. After high school, I went on an unplanned tour of interesting North American accents. I spent a year in New Orleans, which is the only place in the south with an accent that could be mistaken for Brooklyn's. Later I spent two years in Newfoundland, where people sound like Popeye...if Popeye were Irish. For the last four years I've lived in Cajun country in Houma, Louisiana. Now I'm about to move to Colorado, which, for all it's natural beauty, is sadly lacking in non-standard dialects. They sound like newscasters out there, and the only linguistic spice is the occasional "y'all".

I always wished I had written down some of my favorite dialectical quirks from Newfoundland, because now I've forgotten most of them. I don't want to make the same mistake again, so before I leave I want to write about how people here talk.

But don't get me wrong. The last thing I'm trying to do is make fun of anybody. Nobody from Clinton, Arkansas, who occasionally says "dadgum" and "cain't" without a trace of irony, can afford to make fun of anybody else's dialect. Unless they make fun of mine first, and then it's on (I'm looking at you, Chicago and Boston.)

I love dialects, and it would be a dreary old world if everybody in it talked like Peter Jennings. Besides, while many educated people think regional dialects are a sort of degraded version of the language...they're wrong. Professional linguists will tell you that the "proper" form of a language is just as arbitrary as any of its dialects. The standardized version is useful and good to learn, but it's not the "real" version, any more than a Red Delicious is the "real" version of an apple. Every dialect has its own grammatical rules, and they're just as complex as the standard version. That means people who think of regional dialects as ignorant, degraded forms of the language are actually displaying their own ignorance about how language works. As someone who grew up speaking a widely-disparaged form of English, that strikes me as the sweetest of ironies.

So, with that disclaimer out of the way, how do people in Houma talk? You might think they would have a stereotypical Cajun accent where dey talk like dis, but most of them don't. You mostly hear that "flat" accent "way down da bayuh"; not here in town. Houma's accent is actually tough to describe. To my foreign ears, it sounds sort of like a cross between the Cajun accent and the New Orleans "Brooklyn" accent known as "Yat". For example, people here pronounce words like "water" as "watuh". Not "watah", as Scarlett O'Hara might say, but "watuh", as someone in pre-hipster Brooklyn might say. There are also some distinctive pronunciations. "Crawfish boil" becomes "crawfish ball". Mayonnaise is "mannazz". "Room" is "rum".

As in New Orleans, "y'all" works differently in Houma than the rest of the south. For example, one of my coworkers just asked me, "What's y'all password for this computer?" Being from Arkansas, I know that should be "What's y'all's password?" But she won't listen to me. At least people here know there's no such thing as a singular y'all. Only a Yankee would call one person "y'all." In the southern dialect, that's just bad grammar.

Another word with different rules in Houma is "fuss". In Arkansas, if you do something stupid you get fussed AT, but here you just get fussed. It's a much more focused fussing.

The dialect in Louisiana can change from one town or bayou to the next. In Thibodaux, just 20 miles north of here, if someone is embarrassed they're "haunt." But they only seem to get haunt in Thibodaux. People in Houma just seem to get embarrassed (though not very often.) Cajun French changes over short distances, too. I can't speak French, but I know that a werewolf is a loup garou in some parts of Louisiana, but a rougarou in Houma. They even have a Rougarou Festival here. You should go sometime; it's fun.

There are a few other Cajun French words still floating around. Stinkbugs are "peunez". The pretty yellow flowers that blanket the fields here in spring are called "Pis au lit", which can be politely translated as "wet the bed." Apparently that's what you will do if you eat them. When people see babies and puppies here, they squeal, "Ah, cher!" But it's pronounced "shah", and lots of people even spell it that way. Another quirk you can see even in writing is that people leave off the "ed" in words like "canned" and "boiled". That's why the grocery store down the street has a "Can Soup" aisle, and you can buy "Boil Shrimp" all over town.

Finally, some phrases in Houma have a unique syntax. People here don't say, "I've known him for years" but "I been knowing him for years." They don't say, "We went to eat", but simply,"We went eat." When I walk my dog most places, people say, "What kind of dog is that." Here it's "What kind of dog that is?" It's not "When did you go to Baton Rouge?" but "When you went to Baton Rouge?"

People in Louisiana are know for being easy-going and fun-loving, and for good reason. In my four years here, I'm not sure I've ever met an uptight Cajun. It's a cliche to say the culture and language here is as flavorful as the food, but that's because it's true. It's a flavor I'm going to miss.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Epidemiology of Attitude

A while back, a woman stomped up to the reference desk at the library where I work and confronted me. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on her, but she was mad at me because she was trying to do something on one of our public computers, and it wasn't working. Which meant, as it usually does, that she didn't know what she was doing.

I helped her out, and I was civil, but I can't say I was radiating friendliness. But I had been with the previous patron. She came to the desk with an almost identical problem, but she was smiling and pleasant instead of rude and accusing. Noticing how differently I responded to each patron got me thinking. If each of them were showing me their typical way of dealing with others, then the rude one must experience a totally different world than the friendly one does; a world she creates herself.

Her sour way of dealing with people surely creates a bubble of sourness that surrounds her everywhere she goes. People see the look on her face, and give her the same look back. She goes around creating a world that's less friendly to her than it would otherwise be, and she probably never realizes she's the one doing it. I imagine she figures most people are basically nasty, so she may as well be nasty back. So they're nasty back, and so it goes, back and forth, in a self-perpetuating cycle.

And it doesn't just affect her. Obviously, it makes things unpleasant for those she meets, but it goes beyond that. The people who meet her are likely to catch her ill temper for a while and pass it on. That's what I did after meeting her--I snapped at a co-worker for something I would have normally let go. Not only does nastiness reflect back it at people who exude it, but it also spreads outward, jumping from person to person like a disease. Nastiness is contagious.

Luckily, so is niceness. The nice woman I dealt with probably goes around seeing smiles reflected back at her, and sees the world as a friendlier place. That's likely true on a purely psychological level, but it's also true in the real, physical world--she doesn't just see people as friendlier; she actually makes them friendlier. She could meet the same sequence of people in the course of her day as the rude woman, but they would treat her far better, because she treated them better first. Being likable pays huge dividends. It's strange that more people don't realize this. I forget it myself sometimes.

The people the friendly woman meets will likely turn around and treat other people a little better. Friendly people go around spreading friendliness, and rude people go around spreading rudeness. I suspect each attitude can behave like an epidemic--infecting whole towns or workplaces with either self-perpetuating friendliness or self-perpetuating rudeness. I think superstition and reason might also be contagious in similar ways (guess which one is more virulent), but that's a topic for another day.

Just a couple days after I met the nice woman and the rude woman, my friend Chastity shared a Japanese folktale that captured my thoughts about them. In the story, a man sees a dog walk into a large room, and then walk back out wagging his tail happily. But then another dog walks in and comes out growling and bristling. Curious, the man goes to look in the room, and finds that it's full of mirrors. Each dog had gone in, seen his reflection all around the room, and responded in kind.

I like little fables like this one, which is called The House of 1,000 Mirrors. Two of my other favorites are The Blind Men and the Elephant, and The Emperor's New Clothes. These simple little tales reveal deep truths, and that's why they're so powerful.

Unfortunately, I suspect some people will see The House of 1,000 Mirrors--and perhaps this whole blog post--as too cutesy and trite. That might even be my reaction if you caught me in the right kind of mood. The story doesn't have enough bite and irony, or it sounds too moralistic, for today's zeitgeist. But the thing is, while it may be a little cutesy, it's actually not trite at all. It contains real wisdom about the real world. If you want people to be nice to you (and nice in general) you have to be nice yourself. If you're rude, the world will be that much ruder, particularly to you. You'll create a rude reality for yourself that follows you everywhere you go. The world you see is to a great extent a reflection of your own attitude.

Maybe the reason earnest little stories like this are unpopular today is that people have learned the lesson about the Emperor's New Clothes a little too well. There's so much insincerity, pretense, vapid commercial optimism, and true triteness in this world--so many naked emperors--that people have started acting like there are nothing but naked emperors out there. In a world so full of people trying to get you to take silly things seriously, it's no wonder people have such a cynical, ironic stance toward everything. It's a defense mechanism. But it can and has been taken too far. The lesson of the Emperor's New Clothes is an essential one, but so is the lesson of the House of 1,000 Mirrors. Maybe the trick is remembering them both at the same time?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Faith of the Founders: Why it's a Moot Point

One of the great national pastimes in the culture wars of the last few decades is arguing about the religious beliefs of the founders. Religious right types, who don't believe in separation of church and state, pore over the founders' writings looking for expressions of religious sentiment. And they find them, because many of the founders, such as Sam Adams and Roger Sherman, were devout Christians. Secularists pore over the founders' writings looking for criticism of religion, particularly Christianity. And they find them, because many other founders--including towering figures like Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison--were free-thinking sorts enamored with Enlightenment-era ideas. They weren't atheists, and most weren't exactly Deists, as people often claim, but they certainly weren't orthodox Christians.

But here's the thing: if what's at issue is the separation of church and state, the founders' religious beliefs are mostly beside the point. If we're trying to figure out the original intent of the First Amendment*, what matters isn't whether they were religious or not, but whether they believed in separating religion and government. Which most of them did, whether they were orthodox Christians or not.

These days, it's easy to get the idea that church/state separation is a secularist idea, because many of its most vocal advocates today are secular. People think that if you're a conservative Christian, you must oppose separation. But that's not always true, and it certainly wasn't true in the early history of our country. You can be a Christian and still support separation of church and state. In fact, Christians are the ones who first fought for it.

In the colonial era, many of the the states had established churches, and actively persecuted dissenting sects. Quakers were hanged in Puritan New England. Baptists were jailed in Anglican Virginia. Anti-Catholic sentiment was widespread, to the extent that George Washington had to forbid his troops from burning effigies of the Pope.

Not surprisingly, then, it was minority Christian groups who first wanted the state to stay away from promoting religion--because they knew the official religion would likely persecute them. In Virginia, Baptists teamed up with the Enlightenment rationalists Madison and Jefferson to push the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which would influence the drafting of the First Amendment to the Constitution, as well as the No Religious Test Clause ("no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States").

When Jefferson first used his famous and controversial phrase "wall of separation between church and state", he was writing to his allies: Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut. Not only that, but he was echoing words written over 150 years earlier by the religious dissenter Roger Williams, who had founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious freedom. Williams--no stranger to state-sponsored religious persecution himself--had written in 1644 about the dangers of gaps in the "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."

So, while it's an interesting exercise to try to figure out the divergent and complex religious views of the various founders, it's beside the point when it comes to church/state arguments. Then, as now, many of the biggest supporters of separation were devout Christians, who agreed with James Madison when he said:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects?
Who does not see this? Sadly, a whole bunch of people these days, especially among evangelical Christians. Perhaps they should take a look back at their history; back to the days when they were the ones being officially persecuted, and could still see the wisdom of that wall of separation.


* There are, of course, problems with relying on original intent in interpreting the Constitution. First, there never was one single original intent. The framers and ratifiers didn't all agree on what it meant, or what it should mean. Second, there are good reasons to be cautious about binding ourselves to the views of people who lived 200 years ago. It won't do to disregard their intentions in writing the Constitution, but at the same time, we've moved on from their views on race, sex roles, and many other things, and it's a jolly good thing we have.