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  • Talkin’ Proper
  • Bette Ford (bio)

My farthest-back memories are more of sight than sound. I see snatches of episodes first, but the sounds—the words—soon accompany them. Some of these remembered episodes create a maze of sight and sound: a cackle of chickens in the yard, or the chatter of adults and children during my frequent early-childhood visits with kinfolk in the country, where the yards were packed dirt. The talk there is sketchy in my memory. I can’t hear my own voice, not even as I romped through the dust with the other children, but I can hear snatches of adult conversations (though we children weren’t supposed to):

“O’ man Tadum laid Jake off yistiddy.”

“Hush yo mouf! Fuh whut?”

“I thank Jake gittin too feeble to han’l dem cross-ties.”

“He been down wit ‘is back off ‘n on fuh three or fo yeahs.”

“Jake ain’t ol’ anuff fuh a penshun—wonda whut he guina do. Maebell don’ make anuff up at Miss Pope’s house to feed haf uh dem chullun.”

“O’ man Tadum seh he guina look out fuh ‘im. Somebody sed de Railroad gittin redy to come out wit some kin’ a new penshun fuh sic ‘n ol’ folks. I jes hope we kin git it.”

It occurs to me now that I probably spent a great deal of the first seven or eight years of my life eavesdropping on grown-up talk. This was before my three younger sisters were born, including twins. I soon got to play the grown-up with them, helping my mother, especially after our father died, leaving her a widow at twenty-eight years old. I loved talking grown-up to my sisters then (sometimes I still do, though I’m sure they don’t love it). [End Page 125]

But my early talk may have been a little more “proper,” as they called it then, since my mother’s accent and usage approached “proper” and since I spent three or four summers with aunts, uncles, and cousins “up north,” where all our people were supposed to have talked “proper.” (It occurred to me many years later, probably during a high school grammar lesson, that the “proper” way to say this was actually “properly.”) Considering my total language environment before I was school age—including the Baptist church, where I’m still a member, my playmates, and the old neighbors, such as Mr. Frank and Miss Rosetta, who told us ghost stories and took us blackberry picking—it is quite evident that I heard more “not-so-proper” talk.

Quite often, before I was school-age, I walked to Miss Isabel’s house with my mother, where she worked as a maid. I don’t remember much talk at Miss Isabel’s, except that she pronounced iron “arn” and fire “far.” Miss Isabel and Mr. Logan—who drove his car through our neighborhood every week, the rear end sagging with chenille bedspreads, curtains, and couch covers to sell to the “gals” (as he referred to women in our neighborhood)—were probably the first white-skinned people I knew.

Then I went to school. At that time, of course, schools in Mississippi were segregated; and all my teachers and administrators were, in the parlance of those times, “colored.” At school most of our teachers taught “proper” English by the book. I soon determined that the up-north and textbook version of the proper were not necessarily the same. From the primers at our school, we read aloud, “Sally runs fast. See Sally run.” Now we children were “getting it right” at the school—from the teachers and the books. Yet every day and every weekend we went back to our homes and our yards and our churches, where most of us continued talkin’ dat talk.

At our elementary school, each grade held an annual school-closing program. This was a big community event. I remember having lead roles in plays. In the third grade play, I was Alice in Alice in Wonderland; in the fourth, I played Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer. I’m sure that during that time it was difficult to...

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pp. 125-129
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