Cumberland Times-News

September 1, 2012

Who made up all of them rules, anyhow?

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— My great-grandfather James (no middle name) Goldsworthy was born in a small town in Cornwall in the southwest corner of England.

He already knew how to speak English when he came here as a teen-ager in 1873, but upon becoming a coal miner in the Frostburg area was confronted with having to learn how to speak American.

My grandfather James E. Goldsworthy (a barber with an initial but no middle name) and father James William Goldsworthy (a high school principal) definitely learned how to speak American. Dad once told me, “I grew up in a bilingual household: English and what can be done with it.”

I — James Newton — also learned to speak fluent American, to the dismay of my mother, Lacy Ruth (Jackson) Goldsworthy, an English teacher whose father worked in a hardware store. (She did not care for the name “Lacy” and went by “L. Ruth Jackson” until she married my dad and became R.J.G.)

She told a friend that all of what I wrote for the newspaper appeared to be grammatically correct, but “I sometimes despair of the way he speaks.”

It helped none that I said, “Aw, Mother, that’s just on account of where I growed up at and who I run around with.”

My travels have allowed me to meet people from non-English-speaking countries who in many cases speak better English than most of the people I know — including me.

I wonder just how many of them would understand an American concept like that of one car being “T-boned” by another.

How anyone who grows up speaking another language can learn to speak fluently in any form of English is beyond me, because much of it makes no sense.

Take, for example, words that end in “ough.” Hiccough (up), plough (ow), through (oo), cough (off), rough (uff) and thorough (oh) all end with different sounds.

Why is “I climb the ladder” proper English, but “I unclimb the ladder” is not? Probably for the same reason that “sing, sang and sung” are correct, but “bring, brang and brung” are not. (Forget about “clumb” and “unclumb.”)

Also, the past tense of “teach” is “taught,” but the past tense of “preach” is “preached.” Why is it not “teached” and “praught”? Who made up these rules, anyway (or, as some Americans — like me — might say, “anyhow”)?

One would actually say in certain American dialects that, “He teached me how to do that,” or, as an alternative, “He larn’t me how to do that” (a derivative of “I learn’t how to do that”).

I’ve yet to hear anyone say, “The preacher praught last Sunday about us showin’ up more often than jest oncet on Christmas and oncet on Easter” (i.e., they show up “twicet” a year).

Speaking of “oncet” and “learn’t/larn’t,” some versions of American add a “t” where it shouldn’t be, or substitute “t” for “k.” What some call a “desk” therefore becomes a “dest,” and a “Volkswagen” becomes a “Voltswagon.”

One might hear the following: “Reach me them plarrs off’n my dest, wouldja? I’m a-fixin’ to work on my Voltswagon.” (Notice that “desk” becomes “dest,” but “work” remains “work.”)

If’n your hands gets dirty while workin’ on your Voltswagon, you stick them under the faucet and “rench (or warsh) ’em off.”

I stopped in the middle of reading a lesson last week during Bible study and asked, “Did I just say ‘warsh’?” They nodded and said I had.

Being bilingual in English and American has served me well.

Two friends recently told me about taking a ride on the‚ÄąPotomac Eagle, and I pretended not to know what they were talking about. After they explained with more patience than I deserved that they were referring to the  scenic train, I brightened and said, “Oh, you mean the Potomac Iggle.”

They — retarred college professors, bof of’em (or bof’em) — frowned at me. Gotcha!

The Famous Company of Myrtle Beach Golfers took its breakfast in a small restaurant that was favored by locals — including, one day, guys who worked for the South Carolina version of what we call The State Road.

Afterward, my companions asked me about what they’d heard. I had to explain that “tire” is the black sticky stuff they put on roads in South Carolina, and a “tar” is what you find on the four corners of an automobile.

Different forms of American have produced, “y’all,” “you all,” “all of y’all,” “youse” and “you’uns,” just as they have given us “pop,” “soda” and “tonic,” all of which mean “soft drink” or — as they say in some parts of the South — “Co-cola.”

Being mongrel, rather than purebred, the American language is more hearty and versatile than standard English and is far more descriptively colorful. (Or should I say “colorfully descriptive”?) A proper Englishman might describe someone as being “cross” or “daft,” but not as “hotter’n a stump on farr” or “nutty as a squirrel t**d.”

“Holler” is one example of a versatile word that can fill more than a single role. It can be the act of raising one’s voice, a low place between two ridges, or nothingness that’s surrounded by somethingness (as in, “He must have a holler laig, the way he kin drink.”).

Also, try explaining to people who speak English, but not American, why some of us pronounce “creek” as “crick.”

They might be confused if they overheard someone say that, “They’s catfeesh bigger’n a Voltswagon a-swimmin’ in that crick. I damn near catched me one t’other day, but he got off.”

And if you can, please tell me why “caught” is the proper past tense of “catch,” while the proper past tense of “fetch” — which sounds similar — is “fetched.” (I will add that someone who ain’t right in the head is considered “tetched,” and the past tense of “reach” can be either “retch” or “retched.”)

Or, for that matter, why is it considered proper to say, “sink, sank, sunk” but not “think, thank, thunk”? (“Thunk” is also the sound produced when someone gets hit upside the head. If he is tetched, it could tend to be a holler sound.)

It bothered an ex-girlfriend of mine from Virginia that we’uns referred to the Sheetz store as “Sheetz’s,” but the 7-Eleven was just “the 7-Eleven.” She said “Sheetz’s” was incorrect.

Not to us’ns, I said, explaining that “Sheetz” is a person’s name. We treat it as such and make it possessive by adding ’s to it. It’s Mr. Sheetz’s store. 7-Eleven doesn’t get the same treatment because it is not a person’s name.

So you see, there are reasons for the way we talk. Good reasons. But I reckon you might need to of growed up speaking American in order to understand them.