And last night one of my students e-mailed me just to say — I kid you not — that he realized that the American rural regionalism “of a night,” as in “when I lie awake of a night,” is a hold-over of the genitive of time from Old English and early Middle English.
This is why the world needs linguists: they remind us of where we come from.
My mother’s family is from Appalachia, and I’ve spent my life in varying degrees of opposition to the linguistic inheritance that I got from her. As a child, I couldn’t stand it when I heard her or my great aunts say “I seen them that did it when they done it” or “Livin’ at the old house, I wartched clothes down at the crick [creek]” and like Egghead, Jr. from the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, I would either bury my head in a book to avoid them, or worse, correct them and then bury my head in a book.
It took me a long time to drop my youthful prejudice against the Southern accent. Going to college helped a lot. In high school the only people I knew with heavy accents were in general ed classes, since the A.P. and college prep track was populated by transplants from better school systems in California, Iowa, and Florida (and with mimic men like myself). Time in the North for grad school helped, too, making me nostalgic for the voices of the people back home. Today, I only flinch a little bit when my mother tells me what she “seen tother day,” and I don’t beat myself up too much when the occasional deep-Southern remnant falls out of my own mouth.
These days, I even like to brag that my Southern roots help me as a medievalist. I’ve never struggled with Beowulf’s Hwaet, I tell people; I just always assume it’s the same as my sister’s starting every story with an emphatic Y’all.** I am perhaps too proud of the day I surprised my professor as an undergraduate by rattling off the details of the Harrowing of Hell in a seminar on Langland. I wasn’t being precocious. I had heard the story while sitting in a pew at one of the First Baptist Churches of Somewhereorother my mother took me to, in a sermon where the event was presented as literal fact.
Most of my Appalachian relatives are dead now. Their children and grandchildren still live in the same places as their parents, but they talk like people who work in Southern cities. They drawl, but they know they’re being funny when they call a creek a crick. The only one left is my great aunt Selma, and at eighty-eight, she’s not going to be around much longer. The last time I saw her, she asked me, half-conversational, half-concerned, “Do you sleep of a night?” It took me a lot longer than it should have to figure out what she was asking.
*Possibly, that’s the most medievalist blogs I’ve ever referenced in a single sentence.
**As in, “Y’all! I was at the store yesterday, and you will not believe what happened.” This is not the y’all of direct address. The whole sentence starts again after the y’all, which serves to declare, “Hey, listen to this.”