Hey, y’all. South Carolina ranks 48th in a new national study.
We be like, duhhhhh!
But this one’s a study of how fast Americans talk. Only the fine folks of Louisiana and Mississippi talk s-l-o-w-a-h.
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a rip about being 48th this time. I was fixing to think we should change the name of our state of South Ohiolina.
A firm named Marchex analyzed more than 4 million of those phone calls that “may be recorded” for two years. They measured the rate of speech, density of speech (how talkative we ah), hold time and silences to come to the astounding conclusion that America’s slowest talkers live in the Deep South.
The fastest talkers are in Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Kansas and Iowa. New York will no doubt sue.
Also, South Carolina ranked as one of America’s most talkative states.
If you’re tired of waving at yammering South Carolinians, trying to hurry them to their point as if you were playing charades or directing traffic, fuhgeddaboudit.
Hearing the news, I rushed to tell the slowest talker I have ever met.
Alan A. Ulmer Jr. of Bluffton answered his cell phone out in the field, but every time I said “48th in America” he thought I was saying “48 acres” and the conversation went south from there.
I learned that his brother-in-law, Jim Snow, who used to be a teacher, sent him everything he needed to know to use email but it didn’t work.
Sometimes it’s better to talk slow and kind of think about what you’re going to say.
Alan A. Ulmer Jr.
“It won’t do what I tellll it to,” said Ulmer, 74, who was on his way home to feed the livestock, deep in the woods behind Lowe’s, Moe’s and Michael’s.
I heard, again, about the hundreds of acres of Bluffton hinterland his grand-pappy started buying before the Civil War. And how he used to could ride a horse down U.S. 278 when it was a dirt road, fixin’ fence all the way.
“At that low place, where the Ford place is now, you could get bawged down,” Ulmer said. “And if you weren’t careful, you could get bawged down in the sand trying to go up the hill too.”
No, I said, 48th in America, not 48 acres.
“Sometimes it’s better to talk slow and kind of think about what you’re going to say,” he said.
Whenever I get depressed, I call Becky Trask in Beaufort.
Her voice rolls smooth as the Beaufort River curling through town. It laps over my Hilton Head Island ears and right on down into a parched soul.
She threw me one of her delicate lifelines the day I asked her about the Clover Club.
“The Clovah Club is a 125-yeah-old literary society,” she said, “and, honey, I am not a chahtah membah.”
The national study of how we talk did not captchah huh imagination.
She flew right on by it to say she grew up in Florence, “the Pearl of the Pee Dee, the most wonderful place in the world.”
But she was blessed to have two Beaufort girls for roommates at the university. That’s how she met her future husband, Neil Trask, of a large-scale truck-farming family in Beaufort.
I’ll put it this way. If I talk slowly, it’s the only thing I do slowly.
“I was in Blanche’s wedding on March 4, and in my own wedding the next March 4,” Trask said. “Neil was really on the ball about that. It had to be before tomatoes and after greens.”
She said they were going out to celebrate their anniversary on Friday night and might stay out till 9 o’clock.
“I’ll put it this way,” she said. “If I talk slowly, it’s the only thing I do slowly.”
And then she said, “You take care of yourself and know that weah glad you’re heah.”
A lot to tell
Jeanne Sams Aimar was born and bred in Beaufort and she’s never heard it suggested that we talk slowly.
“Sometimes I can’t understand other people,” she said. But she suspects that’s due to the ears of a woman now packing photographs and mementos to move into a smaller house next door on the Point. It’s right where she started when her late husband, Charles Aimar Sr., set up his pharmacy many years ago.
She tells me about her Sams and Talbird families, and how much there is to learn when your family has been here since the 1700s. And how much there is to tell.
Sometimes she sees visitors wandering her neighborhood, staring at the stately homes and lush gardens. And she can’t help but go tell them the stories behind the columns.
“Sometimes people ask me where I got my accent,” she said. “I tell them I look out my window at the back of the house I was born in.”
Nelle Smith talks slowly, and it almost cost her the love of her life.
She lives in Beaufort now, but she and her late husband, John Gettys Smith, were in the early wave of newcomers to Hilton Head in 1963. He marketed Sea Pines, and for 25 years she ran Nelle’s Harbour Shop in Harbour Town.
Nelle grew up in Winnsboro, above Columbia, daughter of Dr. Charles McCants.
When she finally got to Carolina after two years at Mary Baldwin in Staunton, Va. – “at that time, people, at least in Winnsboro, thought Carolina was so wild that the girls should go to another school first so we would not be so wild right away” – Nelle McCants had a blind date with John Gettys Smith.
Actually, you’re the one who has the accent.
He thought she had introduced herself at Nelma Cants.
He called her Nelma.
“I was so excited about this blind date – he was really good-looking and had that crew cut and dark tan, that I didn’t want to correct him, but I did,” she said.
Later in the date, he called her Thelma. “I hated to correct him again,” she said.
Nelle Smith loves to talk.
In her shop, she found her slow and gracious way of talking to be an ice-breaker.
“Everyone seems to get in a good humor,” she said. “They would mention it, and I would say, ‘Actually, you’re the one who has the accent. We’re so glad you’re heah.’ Especially when you’re selling things, it relaxes them, I think.”
How we talk is a science for retired University of South Carolina linguist Michael Montgomery.
He pores over our talk like an entomologist studies a bug.
He knows about the peculiar dialects of southern Appalalachia, the Outer Banks and our own Sea Islands.
He knows that there is more to it than what you learned in “Gone With The Wind,” “Hee Haw,” “Petticoat Junction,” “The Beverly Hillbillies” and Stuckey’s.
The way we talk does not mean we are slow-witted and slothful as an aged hound in August.
“Southern speech and behavior are often caricatured in a fashion consistent with northern stereotypes of southern speakers,” Montgomery writes in “The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.”
This has meant that Gullah speakers in Beaufort County were at one time forbidden to speak Gullah at the dinner table, and offered speech lessons to better get jobs on Hilton Head.
This in a state that had U.S. Sens. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings for half a century, both with such odd accents they might as well have been speaking Chinese.
Montgomery says Southerners have pride in their speech, but can often change like a camelion, depending on their audience.
Times also are changing.
John Shelton Reed, retired University of North Carolina sociologist who specializes in the ways of the South, told me, “Some research I did a while back on stereotypes of Southerners held by non-Southerners found they were pretty constant from the 1960s through the 1990s. The one exception was the trait ‘lazy,’ which was there originally (and had been since Thomas Jefferson called us ‘indolent’), but that was pretty much gone by the end of the century.”
Montgomery points out that the social changes of upward mobility, migration around the nation, mass education and urbanization have “blurred the traditional distinctions in speech.”
And he concludes that Southerners may indeed have a drawl, which may involve lengthening and raising accented vowels, even adding a second or third vowel, but that “does not necessarily entail a slower overall speech tempo.”
So don’t get bawged down by stereotypes or stopwatches. A true Southern accent is like the finest wine of France.
Reed summed it up perfectly in his book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About The South.”
He quoted Mark Twain:
“The Southerner talks music.”