Sunday, March 22, 2009

Local Language and Cuisine

In which Aviatrix tries to get her mouth around things.

I've been tasked by a reader familiar with the ways of Texans to try a few experiments. All involve comestibles. Two involve fast food establishments, the first of which is called Whataburger.

At Whataburger, you must have at least one thing on the menu. If it is breffiss time, you MUST HAVE A POTATO AND EGG TAQUITO. Must. If it is 'other' time, have a whataburger. No special requests, just have one.

Whataburger was only about a kilometre from the hotel, but I borrowed a vehicle, because that's how fast food is done, and drove to Whataburger. I still did it wrong, because it was only after I parked in the parking lot and went in that I realized they had a drive through. Look, they do have cars and drive throughs and everything in Canada. I've been through the Tim Horton's drive through and I know what a double-double is. It's just not my lifestyle. And I would have spent too long gawking at the menu and been hard to understand in the drive through, anyway. The instructions proved difficult to follow, as it was, as I'm on the late shift, prepared to work through to the early hours of the morning, so my breakfast is at noon, and Whataburger's breakfast menu ends at 11 a.m. I had carefully memorized the words "potato and egg taquito" but had not been prepared for it to be not available. I choked on the fallback and ended up with a chicken burger, which now that I re-read my instructions might not have been what I was supposed to do, but it was pretty good.

It came in a bag with a space on the side for me to write my name, I guess the idea is that I might reuse the bag for my kid to take his lunch to school. Better than sending your kid to school with a lunch in a liquor store bag. The chicken was crispy and the lettuce and tomato inside actually tasted like lettuce and tomato, not just garnish.

And touching on Airplanes, Breakfast and Chicken, we have this episode of SMBC. The linked cartoon is at the tamer end of the author's range, so don't click on to other examples unless your tastes range to sick adult humour.

I had a short flight in the rain that day, allowing me to return land, fuel and park in time to have supper at a civilized hour. We went out to a local place where I ordered pot roast with carrots and okra. The word okra always makes me think of okapi, but okra is a vegetable. It arrived breaded and deep fried. I keep forgetting that pretty much anything you order might be delivered that way. I should consider myself lucky the pot roast (tender and suculent and way too much to eat) and the carrots (can anyone wreck carrots?) were not breaded and deep fried. I peeled the breaded coating off the okra with a knife and fork and a little bit of fingers and the okra inside was really good. I'm not sure whether it was just the "fat makes everything taste good" principle or whether I actually like okra, but I didn't regret ordering it.

Meanwhile I'm learning not only a new accent, but a new grammar. In Deep East Texas, "you" is used only to denote second person singular. So if I'm talking to one person and they are asking me a question about myself, they say "you." But if I'm at dinner with a group, we are addressed as y'all. That's one syllable, in as much as anything a Texan says involving a vowel can have only one syllable. Rhymes with maul. That is the standard pronoun for seonf person plural. And it has a possessive form: y'all's. It was fascinating, because the word was unfamiliar it stood out. "Do y'all want y'all's salad before y'all's meals?" I don't think the waitress ever used used "you" or "your" to refer to us. And why whould she? I think in her dialect of English that was not an appropriate pronoun. It would have made as much sense to her as addresing us as "he."

I talked to one woman from Houston, she was working in an FBO a bit further north and her north Texas co-workers were challenging her to try not to say y'all. I asked her, "does it feel wrong to not say 'y'all,' and just say 'you' when talking to multiple people?" And she said yes, it did.

I guess people here are used to hearing movies and national news broadcasts and the like where the grammar isn't the same as theirs, so they don't hear my speech as wrong. Sometimes I have to say things a few times to be understood. The experience makes me feel a bit better about the quality of my French, as it shows that a person can be saying something correctly according to their initial instruction, and just not be understood because the local accent doesn't match the instructor's accent. I try to slow down a bit, and not speak 'so Canadian' but I don't want to be perceived as mocking. You can't turn off your native accent without striving to sound like something else. I don't even know if people could tell I was trying. There's a lengthening and lowering and gravelifying of the vowels that is a wonder to behold and at times seems like so much effort that I'm watching and listening to try and figure out if there is some new use they have for what to me are the easier shorter vowels. Do I sound like I'm rushing or clipping my speech?


Unknown said...

Hah...I don't believe a Chicken Burger qualifies. A Californian I fly with can't believe I've never eaten at a FatBurger.

amulbunny's random thoughts said...

The husband who was raised in TX says Whataburgers are OK but SONIC is better.
As far as accents, I grew up in Wisconsin and if I talk with family from there, that accent I've worked so hard to lose comes right back, doncha know?
And I'm in CA and avoid Fatburgers at all costs. I like In'N'Out.

Ward said...

In 'n' Out is my favourite. Only available in California, and a few places in AZ and NV, sadly. Their ground beef is never frozen, so all locations have to be w/in a certain distance of a warehouse.

It's amazing to watch them making fries (from whole potatoes) and cooking them on a busy weekend night in Las Vegas. They get so many people going through that someone is pretty much continuously running potatoes through the french fry maker and someone else is continuously loading and unloading baskets in the fryer.

Anonymous said...

Typoe: seventh lyne, third paragraph form teh end. "for seonf person"

Anonymous said...

I've heard in some locales "y'all" is second person singular, and "all y'all" is second person plural.

Julien said...

In-N-Out is good. Very good memories with the one next to the Marriott in Santa Clara, CA. Also remember driving in front of a Wienerschnitzel place in California, just do realize it's purely a hot dog place. Weird.

Some Australians also do not use "you" for plural, they use "yous" instead. The 's' pronounced as a 'z'. Kind of makes sense to disambiguate language this way. That being said, French is particularly bad since the plural version of "you" can be used as the formal form of the singular "you". German is even worse since the plural "they" is the formal "you". Never studied liguistics, so have no idea why, but being French with a German wife and living in Australia, it's all a big mess in my head :-)

Anonymous said...

"Yous" which Julien referred to, is generally spelled as "youse" in Australian print media. It 'grates' and is generally perceived as an unfortunate linguistic abomination used by people with limited education - in that respect it is quite different to "y'all" which seems a genuine regional dialect crossing socio economic borders ...

As an Australian in the US in the 70's I remember a colleague arguing against my planned assignment to the southern states, as no-one would understand a word I said :)

Anonymous said...

Running a blog subjects one to unsolicited advice. (Issuers of unsolicited advice then subject themselves to worse!).

You wrote:

I asked her, "does it feel wrong to not say 'y'all,' and just say 'you' when talking to multiple people?" And she said yes, it did.

First, the cuisine. I enjoy your writing. Immensely. Therefore please give some consideration to being around for a while. See "fast food nation" for greater detail. If it's in a wrapper that says "Vehicle" and is handed to you by someone wearing filthy vinyl exam gloves through a window, return it gently, then run.

Next, the 'y'all business. I am one of those dreaded George Carlin types who finds English and our special application of it in the US both entertaining and disappointing.

I've never known quite what to do with y'all. A man wearing a dirty ballcap ("I found it in the Win Dixie parkin' lot"), neighbors of my Florida parents, was introduced and his first greeting was (extending a grease-laden hand) "How y'all doin"? I was stunned for a moment, as the context of "you" and "all" indicated a strange brew consisting of, I think, informal first person singular and a plural. So I checked: am I in one piece or soon to be rendered into several? Although hearing this on a few (rare) prior occasions, the reaction was still WTF??

When someone, entrenched in the special region in which you find y'all, admits that it *does* "feel" incorrect to use y'all in place of "you", such admission might be seen as a hopeful beginning. Therefore I would encourage. But do so gently as these constructs are both habits and symbols of identity.

Identity in a club from which I would, as with stuff in a bag that comes through a little window, run fast and far away from.

Aviatrix said...

When someone, entrenched in the special region in which you find y'all, admits that it *does* "feel" incorrect to use y'all in place of "you", such admission might be seen as a hopeful beginning. Therefore I would encourage. But do so gently as these constructs are both habits and symbols of identity.

You misunderstand. The word "you" was incorrect to her as a plural. This is about a beginning, but it's the beginning of a new pronoun. For that Houstonian, y'all was the correct pronoun to use when speaking to multiple people, and not using it felt almost as wrong as referring to multiple people as "he" inatead of "they."

From that comment, the Australians can see that the nascent second person plural form is as denigrated in the US as it is in Australia, but I think it's fascinating to see new language develop. Prescriptionists can be counted on to say non-standard language is "wrong," and something that speakers should be encouraged to abandon, but I enjoy the diversity.

I have heard of the y'all = singular / y'all y'all = plural variation, that people have mentioned, but I have not yet encountered it.

Curiously, English has not long ago lost a second person singular pronoun (thou/thee/thy/thine), and in Spanish there are also regional differences in the use of second person forms, with vosotros (2nd person plural informal) being considered archaic in some areas. Anyone know of other languages where the 2nd person pronoun is in flux?

I've read fast food nation, and I don't live out of fast food restaurants, but kind of the way you can run a turbine engine on avgas or vegetable oil for a certain number of hours per overhaul cycle without adverse effects, I think I can run fast food through my system now and again.

Anonymous said...

The last time I was in Georgia, which at that time only required a state licence tag on the rear of the vehicle, the most common tag on the front was "Hi Y'all!". People in Georgia are very friendly.

Peter said...

"Y'all" is endemic in the US Southeast (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and a few others). In the northeast (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, etc.) they use "you guys" (or "youse guys"). Other areas tend to just use "you" for both singular and plural.

Think of it in contrast to the north-midwestern-US and Canadian use of "eh", or "don'tcha know".

Anonymous said...

The place for your name is a throwback to the old days before computerized ordering. Your name and order was written on the side of the bag in grease pencil and given to the cook. When it was done, your order was placed in the bag and your name was called.

Anonymous said...

As a southerner and language enthusiast I've puzzled over the correct usage of "y'all". My post on my resolution of this is at:

As far as burger places, I think it's a bit like religion: some are What-a-burger, some In-n-out, and some Sonic or whatever. One friend conducted an in-depth study of french fries (undocumented private communication). He favors In-n-out as a result. But I favor the burgers at What-a-burger myself not being a big fry fan.

Lynn Grant said...

There is also the SW Pennsylvania/Pittsburgh verision of "y'all", which is "yins".

Regarding the question of whether you should try to talk like the people around you, so they can understand you easier, or whether they will think you are mocking them, I was discussing this with my g/f. Her take on it was that they already have to deal with your Canadian accent, and if you try to talk like them, you won't be speaking exactly like them, so now they will have to learn to understand yet another accent.


Phil said...

I can further add complication to the mess by confirming that, at least in Louisiana, the use of y'all is also dependent on the user's emotional state:

JACKSON: How y'all doin?
THREE FOLK: We fixn'a jump off a bridge.
JACKSON: Look... y'all... all y'all idiots.

What happens here is that Jackson initially refers to his three pals as y'all. Then, incensed that anyone he calls friend would jump off a bridge, he uses 'all y'all' to both denote his exasperation and further distance himself from them as a single person far away from a group. Anyone can do it this way where I'm from, but it's the most authoritative when old Cajuns and black folk do it.
In using this example, I've put forth a inexactitude: most people I know in Baton Rouge would commend a friend for jumping off a bridge.
Also, I've unwittingly brought up 'fixn'a.' For people unfamiliar with this, it's a contraction of 'fixing to,' which means to be in close temporal proximity to an action:

NADINE: Y'all fixing to get run over. All y'all idiots.

I'm not sure where 'fixing to' came from, but it's always been in use as I was growing up, as has been the more popular 'fixn'a.' More recently, 'finna' has come into vogue, and it means the same thing without having to use all that bothersome extra punctuation:

LaROY: We finna roll up outta here.

Careful readers will notice that I've also included the trend of indicating your ire by skipping a verb altogether:

FRAMPTON: Man, y'all stupid.

Aviatrix said...

I clearly need to do more research, my interactions being limited to the neutral emotional level involved in ordering food and fuel and chatting to locals about where y'all's from.

But while you're giving examples with names, you have to include Lamar. It's common here and unknown in the north. Do Lamars who leave the south simply switch to another name as they cross the Mason-Dixon line, or is naming your child Lamar a guarantee that he'll never go any further than Catfish Creek?

Phil said...

If you think ordering from a drive-thru is an emotion-neutral experience, just keep ordering in the South.
I can shed some light on Lamar. Down here, Lamar is a family that's got an advertising empire going, and so whenever you see a billboard, there's LAMAR right on it. I dunno how that name went before, but now if I were to name a child, Lamar would pop up as an option just because I've seen it so much.
I gotta go back to LaRoy. LaRoy was a guy I sold used cars with, and before I heard him say it, I thought his name was LEroy. LaRoy is pronounced with vehement stress on the last syllable, such that a midwestern newscaster cannot say it correctly. You almost have to do a small body roll to say it right. That dude was hilarious. My first kid has a serious chance of turning out LaRoy Lamar.

Anonymous said...

And if you were from Dublin, Ireland, you would be used to hearing "yiz" a lot of the time, as in "Yiz are all gonna miss the bus" or "Yiz'll all be late for skule"