More Southern Grammar: Double Modals

Whoa!  Sounds fancy, doesn’t it?  It’s hard to believe that something many people consider “bad grammar” has such a fancy name.
So what the hell am I talking about?  From Wikipedia:  “A modal verb (also modalmodal auxiliary verbmodal auxiliary) is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality – that is, likelihood, ability, permission, and obligation.  Examples include the English verbs canmust and should.”
So it follows that a double modal is using two of them at once–like a double negative, except they don’t cancel each other out (neither do double negatives, not really–English isn’t math, after all!).
When I studied double modals in linguistics classes there were several examples listed, but the only one I use or hear used is “might could.”  Example:  “Mommy, can we go to the store?” “Well, we might could go later.” Here’s another:  “Can you tell me how to get to the interstate?” “You can take Dutchtown Road, or you might could take Bob Gray.”
It’s hard for me to explain why Southerners say this or exactly what it means.  It’s been suggested that it arises from our innate politeness, especially in the second example where we wouldn’t want to TELL a stranger what to do, but would rather offer a gentle suggestion.
Another thing, unlike “Y’all,” which as I explained in an earlier post is considered a high prestige usage and is quickly picked up by immigrants to the South, the use of double modals is viewed unfavorably and is rarely assimilated.   Speakers seem themselves to sense this–analysts have had a difficult time getting examples when people knew they were being recorded, and would often not hear double modals until they pretended the interview was over and asked for directions to their next stop!  It’s not something that I would typically use in writing, not even in something informal like a letter or a status update, whereas I use y’all in that context all the time.  It’s not something I’d say in a job interview either.
And although I know when to say it–I wouldn’t even have to think twice about it–all I can tell you is that there is a subtle difference in meaning between double modals and single modals.  In the first example, it’s somewhat more than might and less than could.  If any of my Southern readers think you might could explain it better, have at it in the comments!

Southern Vocabulary: Useful Words

“It’s impossible to explain to a Yankee what `tacky’ is. They simply have no word for it up north, but my God, do they ever need one.”
                                  — from The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
I think that “tacky” may be universally understood by speakers of American English by now, but there are surely other Southernisms that are at best misunderstood and at worst mocked by non-speakers.  I did not realize myself that some of the words I used regularly were regional until I went away to college and got laughed at for saying them.
“Don’t be so HATEFUL!” my friends would say with an exaggerated drawl.  Well, at least I was in good company.  The word makes frequent appearances in that Southern masterpiece, Gone with the Wind:   “Ashley’s so mean and hateful!” says Scarlett to Melanie at one point.  We were regularly ordered not to be hateful when I was a little girl.  I say it to my little ones all the time.
Another thing parents often say to children in these parts: “Stop acting so ugly.”  I don’t think I need to explain what that means, do I?
I didn’t grow up using a lot of specifically East Tennessee vocabulary.  My mother is only a second generation East Tennessean, and we learned what was “proper” from her.   My father’s family, here for over 200 years, speak very differently.  My Granny would greet us with, “Give Granny some sugar.”  She’d tell me that what I was looking for could be found “over yonder,” and she’d say “I reckon” instead of “I suppose.”
I reckon if I am an East Tennessean there’s no reason I shouldn’t sound like one.  I’ve already decided I want to be “Granny” when I have grandchildren, and I’ve added the very useful helper “fixin’ to” to my vocabulary.  For example, I’m tired, and I’m fixin’ to go to bed now. 🙂

Southern Grammar: It's Got Rules, Y'all!

No snarky comments about the title, please!  If you aren’t a lover of language and words like I am, you might not realize that all dialects have their own internal grammar and operate according to rules.  And I’m going to write from time to time about the rules of the dialect I know best: Southern American English, or SAE.
Today let’s talk about y’all.
Y’all (short for you all) is a beloved Southernism–a “high prestige” word that even Yankee immigrants are quick to adopt, unlike other usages which I will discuss another time.  There’s a good reason for this–it’s not just useful, it’s necessary.
Unlike many other languages, English lacks a second person plural (although earlier forms of the language had one).  “You” serves for one person or many.  Such simplification of forms is a regular occurrence in languages over time, but if you ask me this was a stupid one:  we obviously need a plural for you, and all dialects of English do their best to supply one.
If you aren’t a Southerner, you may laugh at “y’all,” but you probably say “you guys” yourself.  There are other regional variations–you’uns, youse, you people.  What it comes down to is we NEED a plural form of you and y’all fills the bill nicely.
Now here is the rule that I want all non-speakers of SAE to hear and internalize:  y’all is ONLY and ALWAYS plural.  No Southerner EVER uses it to mean one person, as I have seen on more than one occasion in books written by Yankees attempting to infuse their work with local color.  “Oh, y’all sure do know the way to a lady’s heart,” spoken by an eyelash-batting Southern belle to an admirer in a romance novel is just WRONG.  I have had non-speakers attempt to convince me that I am mistaken, that they are SURE they have heard y’all used in this way.  NO.
Now, y’all is occasionally used in a collective sense, where it is spoken to one person, but it is still a plural because that person is a representative of a group.  For example, I might say to a store clerk:  “Do y’all have any more Ugly Dolls in the back?”  (I DID say that, yesterday. )  Or I might say to a friend, “Where are y’all going on vacation?” (Y’all means her whole family.)
Sometimes even y’all isn’t plural enough.  So I might ask a group of friends, “Are all y’all coming with me?” It may sound crazy but if you think about the grammar it’s really no different than saying. “Are all of you coming?” or “Are all you guys coming?”
Finally, let’s discuss the possessive form.  In books I always see “y’all’s” and I have heard people say that now and again.  But far more prevalent here in East Tennessee is the form “your-all’s,” which caused my college roommate to fall off her bed laughing the first time she heard me say it.