Letters from all over

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 06, 2007 12:01 PM
Letters from all over

Dear Michigan Reader,

It was wholly a pleasure to receive your correction to my obituary tribute to the late Gerald Ford. You grant that young Ford was indeed a center on Michigan's two national-championship teams in 1932 and '33, but he was not the center. Oh, what a difference the use of the definite for the indefinite article can make. An All-American, Charles Bernard, was actually the starting center on those teams.

Glad to have that straightened out. Football is mighty important down here, too.

I also understand that Mr. Ford was president of the United States at one point.

Gratefully,

---

Dear Distinguished Arkansan,

As wholly a pleasure as it was to hear from you, I wish you hadn't taken exception to the Southernisms I slip into from time to time in this column.

You refer to such colloquialisms as bad "grammar," rather than as bad spelling or pronunciation. There is a difference between those various categories, and it ill behooves as distinguished a citizen of Arkansas as yourself to confuse them.

Why, consider how your loose language might sound to educated people, or just rich folks visiting our state with money to invest. For it is they who seem to be the principal object of your concern - lest they pick up my work, confuse down-home language with illiteracy, and flee the state in horror, taking their money with them.

If I didn't know better, I'd suspect that this outbreak of correctitude on your part is just our old Southern inferiority complex acting up again.

As for the substance of your letter, if I were to follow your advice and avoid homespun language, much of the life would be drawn from my prose, which needs just about all it can get.

There is such a thing as over-correcting the language, until it becomes but a dull, pallid imitation of true Southern speech, which can go from aristocratic finesse to potlikker plain in a New York minute.

So, please, sir, a little more respect for colorful language. You are a distinguished citizen of our state, and should not disillusion your many admirers, me first among them, by blurring your language while trying to improve mine.

It long has been my belief that the first sign of decadence in a people is the impulse to rein in its native tongue in order to cut a better figure with outsiders.

A confession: As an editor of Arkansas' statewide newspaper, I'm less interested in impressing visitors, as welcome as each and every one of them is, bless 'em all, as in speaking candidly to our own folks in this small, wonderfully close-knit state. And there's no better language for that purpose than our own shared speech. If it's vivid enough, readers elsewhere will have no problem understanding it from the context. If they don't, well, it's better to mystify than bore.

I myself much prefer distinct American dialects - especially those of Maine, Brooklyn and New Orleans, as well as Tex-Mex - to standard, plodding, Dick-and-Jane American English.

I'd like to think readers can depend on me to tell it plain - with the bark off, if that informal phrase does not jar your sensibilities.

It is always a delight and honor, not to say a great entertainment, to hear from you on the subject of proper usage. And how 'bout them Razorbacks!

More than cordially,

---

Dear New Yorker,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your e-mail and insight. Agreeing that the young children of immigrants readily pick up English, you write:

"Living on the ever-expanding edge of Chinatown, every day I see the truth of what you write. The second generation is generally fluent in standard American English and culture, and act as guides. There's nothing quite as poignant as seeing a 7-year-old taking her grandmother to the store."

I can identify with those kids in Chinatown. I used to take my non-English-speaking grandma (Bubba) to the supermarket. She made me point out the U in a circle on any canned goods we bought, so she'd be sure they were kosher. That lady wanted proof.

I know. I had to show her the marks the phylacteries had left on my arm as evidence that I'd said my morning prayers. Only then did I get my breakfast.

Thanks for the memories,

Inky Wretch