11. Why the Tractosaur Wouldn’t Go

Bob Dill wrote the song Good Old Boys Like Me, which contained the words:

But I was smarter than most, and I could choose.
Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news.

If you live south of Tulsa, you know that he meant the newsman used more words, bigger words, used them in the right places, and didn’t say ain’t. But he pronounced his words just like everybody else.

In Stairway to Danger, one of the books out of my childhood, the Spindrift Island folks were building a remote controlled bulldozer that responded to voice commands, which they nicknamed Tractosaur. They chose a set of command words which were pronounced the same throughout America, including get.

Get? Really! Is there any word which is less universal? Everyone north of Tulsa pronounces it “get” and everyone south of Tulsa pronounces it “git”.

I am an expert on this, as Okie is my native language. Okie is a less extreme version of the language of the deep South.

When I went to college in Michigan things got a little confused. When I first met my new roommate, he said he understood that Oklahoma was a big state for rustling. I said that I hadn’t heard of too many cows being stolen lately.

Rustling was his Michigander way of pronouncing wrestling, which everyone in Oklahoma knows you pronounce wrasslin’. After he got used to me, he translated everywhere we went.

I married a Michigan girl, and after forty-seven years, we still can’t agree on the difference between “i” and “e”. She writes with a pen; I write with a pin. (Actually we both use the computer, but you get the point.)

I can say “pen”, but it hurts my mouth, and I can hear the difference. In fact, if you challenge a non-Southerner, they will pronounce the difference so clearly that you couldn’t miss it if you tried. But catch them when they aren’t thinking about it – especially on the word “open” – and you will hear a sound that falls somewhere between “i” and “e”.

The worst case of i-e confusion came from a vendor selling a pattern at a quilt show in California. She was clearly from the South. Someone had cautioned her against using “i” when others use “e”. Clearly she couldn’t hear the difference, so she stopped using “i” altogether. She gave her demonstration saying, “First you put a pen her, then you fold the cloth this way and pen it again here . . .”

This silly disagreement led me to many hours of reading on linguistics and the history of language. I will spare you the details, but next post I will tell you why Okies can’t use dictionaries.

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