My sister called me from her car.
“I need you to speak Des Arc-ian for my children,” she said.
Des Arc is the tiny rural Arkansas town where we grew up, and from which we both gratefully escaped at the age of 14. Well, at 14 we weren’t exactly grateful to be sent to boarding school, but in retrospect it was probably a good idea. If we had remained, we might never have learned to speak anything but Des Arc-ian.
“What do you need me to say?” I asked her.
“You are, of course, familiar with the phrase southerners use when they mean that they’re about to do something?” she asked.
“Like when we say we’re ‘fixing to” go to the store?” I really had no idea where we were headed with this.
“Yes,” my sister said, “but that’s not how it’s said in Des Arc.”
“Right,” I acknowledged, rolling my eyes at myself. I’ve apparently lived in the big city of Little Rock for so long I completely forgot my oral roots there for a split second.
“How is it said?” she prompted me, putting me on speaker so that my nephews could hear the pronunciation. “Use it in a sentence.”
“Boys, I fikina snatch a knot upside jer heads if ya don’t listen to ya mama,” I said, helpfully.
Howls emanated from her passengers.
“Oh, my god,” yelled my 13 year old nephew, Austin. “It’s true!” I could hear nothing but the boys’ laughter.
By the way, for those reading this blog who have never been to Des Arc and encountered a native there who announced herself to be on the cusp of activity, “fikina” is not pronounced fik-EEN-a. It’s pronounced “FIK-in-ah.” And the name of my old hometown is “Day-uz Ark.”
There are lots of Des Arc-ianisms that Sis and I recognize as being uniquely Des Arc-ian, and which no one from Des Arc would think odd at all.
For example, if Des Arc had a fast food place with one of those fancy drive-up speaker things at which you could place your lunch order (it doesn’t, in case you’re wondering), you would most likely hear the helpful staff on the other end of that speaker say, “Yont fries widat?” (“Yont” rhymes with “don’t.” )
A Des Arc-ian calling his dog would shout, “Hyah! Hyah, Blue!” instead of “Here! Here, Blue.”
“Have yerseff a seat rye cheer,” says a Des Arc-ian, beckoning you over and indicating that you should sit on the stool next to his at one of the two town beer joints. In Des Arc, they are not called bars or honky tonks, and there are never more than two operating legally at any given time. Colorful characters with such fanciful sobriquets as “Biscuit” and “Coot” might frequent such places. Yes, I know and like both Biscuit and Coot.
You may know the material that those white cups suitable for coffee and other hot liquids are made as “styrofoam.” Don’t be fooled. Each little round speck that connects to each other to form that self-insulating cup looks just like a star in the night sky, and spread as thickly as Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread it’s clear why it really ought to be called “starfoam” by everyone.
“Jeet yet?” inquires your friend when you happen by at supper time. He’ll pull out a chair and bring out an extra plate of beans and cornbread and set it in front of you if your answer is in the negative.
My own name has a Des Arc-ian pronunciation. You probably think “Anne” has one syllable. You’re wrong. It has two. In Des Arc-ian, my name is pronounced “Eye-un.” As if that isn’t bad enough, what always makes me cringe is when Des Arc-ians call me by the nickname my father’s family has for me. No, it isn’t an unusual nickname for a girl named Anne. It’s a pretty common one. I absolutely hate the way my Arkansas family and friends say it, though.
“Eye-un-eh” is equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard for me. I have always corrected every southerner who makes the mistake of calling me “Eye-un-eh,” reminding them that my name is “Anne.” As a helpful hint, I even pronounce it correctly for them.
Oddly enough, all of my friends from college and all of my Yankee father’s family, almost without exception, have always called me “Annie.” I’ve never complained. I actually like it.
I lost my Des Arc accent when I went to boarding school. Then I lost my southern accent when I went to college. I lost my New York accent when I came back to Arkansas to go to law school. I didn’t slip back into the accent of my childhood when I returned here, though. I speak sort of a hybrid of “Educated Little Rock” and “You Ain’t From Around Here.” I almost never speak Des Arc-ian.
I left there 31 years ago, but on occasion, before my parents moved to Little Rock to be closer to my siblings and me, I did find myself going back to visit, and sometimes on those visits I was in a position where speaking Des Arc-ian was inevitable. I would be talking to a local friend and I would slip into the patois. That vernacular isn’t something that rolls terribly easily from my tongue, but yes, I speak Des Arc-ian fluently when I want to.
Now, if you ever talk to me in real life and a Des Arc-ianism slips out of my mouth, please look the other way. If you simply ignore it as though it were an untentional tummy rumble or the like, my acute embarrassment resulting from the slip will pass more quickly.
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