Friday, April 11, 2008

Fixin' to be upset

Michelle Malkin enjoys some schadenfreude at the expense of former Sen. Trent Lott -- and I have no problem with that. I still haven't forgiven Lott for the 1997 budget deal, which was the death knell of the "reform" agenda that elected a Republican majority in 1994.

But there is something in the Washington Post blog post by Mary Ann Akers that Michelle overlooks, namely subtle bigotry against Southerners:
“I took the Metro for the first time,” Lott told the Sleuth Thursday afternoon in the makeup room of MSNBC, where he and his new lobbying partner, former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), were fixin (as Lott says) to do a TV segment.
“He’s been standing in front of his house waiting for his car and driver,” laughed Breaux from the makeup chair, adding with a tinge of a low-country twang, “He’s learning how to hail a cab.” (Read: HAY-ul a cab.)
Did you catch that? First, Miss Akers calls attention to Lott's use of the Southernism "fixing" and then she mocks Breaux's drawling pronunciation of "hail."

I will first make the point that "fixing" is good English. My Thorndike-Barhnart Dictionary (1967 edition) lists "to prepare" as one meaning of "fix" (as in, "to fix dinner") and also notes the construction "fix up" ("to make oneself neat and well-groomed").

While the phrase "fixing to" -- a statement of intent, the grammatical equivalent of "about to" -- is distinctly Southern, it clearly derives from both of those dictionary-validated definitions. If Senator Lott says he is "fixing to" appear on TV, he means that he is preparing to do so. Obviously, one would wish to "fix up" for such an appearance. (One might play linguistic anthropologist and surmise that "fixing to" probably began with people talking about preparing ready to travel -- "I'm fixing to go to town" -- and was then generalized as an expression of intent.)

Why, however, does Miss Akers drop the "g"? Dropping the final "g" from "-ing" suffixes is extremely common in informal spoken English. For a journalist to call attention to a dropped "g" is rather rare. Bill Clinton routinely drops his "g's" when speaking -- excuse me, speakin' -- and journalists almost never note it.

Now, as to the Breaux pronouncing "hail" as "HAY-ul" -- all Southerners do this. Extended vowels are what gives Southern speech its distinctive drawling quality. (Virginia native Dagen McDowell of Fox Business News has the most beautiful drawl in TV news.) In general, Southern speech gives more value to vowels than to consonants. But, just as with the dropped "g," reporters almost never call attention to this. You could never imagine a reporter doing such a thing to Jimmy Carter.

Something else you could never imagine a reporter doing: Making fun of the speech of any other ethnic group in America.

We await the blog post in which Mary Ann Akers mocks the elocution of Jesse Jackson. And I reckon we're fixin' to wait a long time for that.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that the strange way the reporter highlighted these quite common colloquialisms is strange, and it does make me wonder at her motivation for doing it.

    One thing at the end of your article stood out to me as I read it. Your use of the word "ethnic" to describe those who speak "southern English". That struck me as an incorrect usage of the word "ethnic". That word is used so universally to identify every type of group under the sun, I constantly question its use.
    Well, I hopped over to Merriam-Webster and found this entry:
    2 a: of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.

    So there you go. You were right. Linguistic groupings are appropriately described as "ethnic".
    Learn something new every day. Uhh, in my case, as a result of reading so many fine writer/bloggers, the number is frequently well above just one new thing a day. :-)
    I linked from MichelleMalkin to find you, and I enjoy your writing. I'll be back again.