Enjoying the language of The South

Alden Olmsted
7 min readAug 20, 2022

I think it’s the heat

From my limited knowledge that’s the cause of the word-shortening phenomenon here in the south. Of course Nashvillians are quick to point out this isn’t the “real” south, especially as so many transplants have moved in and changed the demographics in the past five years — ish.

When I first visited Nashville, on an epic road trip in 2016, Music City was receiving 100 new residents per day. Add in a pandemic-induced migration in 2020–22 and yeah, it’s a changing place.

Regardless of recent California and New England transplants this is the south. The western edge of the south is, I believe, Paducah KY, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers, at the bottom of Illinois and a stones’ throw from Missouri. Landscapes and geography back me up. The Eastern edge is the Atlantic ocean, places like Tobaccoville, South Carolina and Chapel Hill, North Carolina are most definitely the south, and the Northern boundary is of course the famous Mason-Dixon line, further North than you might think though, forming the bottom of Pennsylvania.

Back to the vowels

Look there has to be a reason for places like Lebanon (TN) being pronounced Leb’nan (emphasis on Leb), Shelbyville with its’ three distinct syllables spoken efficiently as just Shell-vul, and phrases like “I might be abie to” shortened to “I might could” — as in “I might could bring deviled eggs if ya’ll can’t.”

And yes even if here’s only one of you it’s still ya’ll*

*it’s not some passing pronoun trend, ya’ll literally means you and your family and/ or all the people you are attached to — ‘akin to’ — if that makes sense.

Maybe being a nomad is NOT a southern thing.

Maybe that’s why fate had me born out west.

Ya’ll Ok?

I put my car in a ditch my first month in Nashville, back in 2017. And even though I was by myself every car that stopped (and yes every car did) asked with genuine concern “ya’ll ok?”

At the time I foolishly thought how silly of them to pretend there was more than me when in my car was clearly only me, whereas they probably thought my refusing help equally silly — “aw, bless his prideful California heart.”

They were more right than wrong, but it wasn’t as much from arrogance as it was ignorance.

Now I know what ya’ll means and now I understand it.

And yes even this Californian has grown to appreciate it.

Back to the heat

As I stated my theory at the onset, I think in the heat of summer who needs to be bothered with silly vowels and extra words?

Brevity is the soul of wit, said some playwright named Bill.

I wonder if the great humour-historian Bill Bryson has found a reason for the south’s language efficiency. I read his amazing book on the English language ‘Mother Tongue,’ but not being in the south at the time it’s possible I skimmed over that part. If it was even there. Comments are welcome if someone’s familiar, and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend.

Maybe read it again for me.

I enjoy reading but learn more deeply (and more quickly) by witnessing firsthand. So it was that I found myself in the middle of a real-world example of a phrase I’d never heard at this back-in-time grocery store in Northwestern Alabama:

I was talking to the manager as part of my day job, when another employee came up from behind and, clearly thinking I was someone else, continued a conversation my doppelgänger and her must have been having. As I turned my head I saw her shock and she quickly recovered, addressing the manager: “don’t he favor Glen from behind?”

Don’t I favor?

LIke don’t I favor donuts over croissants?

In fact I do.

Oohhh — she meant “from the back don’t I look like some guy she knows named Glen?”

But don’t he favor is three words while doesn’t he look like is four — and sounds clunkier and more trouble.

Again I blame the thermometer.

There’s an efficiency that happens in wartime and in survival scenarios that weeds out the bull. Clearer decision-making. A minimum of movement and effort. To the outsider it may look like laziness but it “ain’t. See what I did there?

It’s conserving movement. Conserving words. Conserving energy.

You never know when that sky’s gonna cool ya’ll down. Might be tonight, might be t’morrow.

One would think with all this shortening of speech and efficiency of movement that it might also therefore result in a shortening of tempers but I’ve found the opposite is true. Words and syllables are frugal, yet time given to people, in even the simplest of interactions can be very generous. No matter the heat.

In other words if you’re employed in outside sales or any kind of sales in the south you best not be in a hurry. You ain’t gonna sell sh**.

The Wave

We’ve all seen the courtesy wave from like minded enthusiasts — motorcyclists famously drop a quick wave to other cyclists, bicycles sometimes mirror motorcyclists, and Jeep owners, esp older Jeep owners (the vehicle age not necessarily the driver) — wave a confident hand to other members of the Jeep tribe.

I drive through small towns early in the morning across Tennessee and Alabama mainly, often at six or seven AM and what I’ve witnessed is something different.

Imagine you go to visit a friend. Maybe an old friend. Now imagine that friend is out front of the house when you roll up, mowing the lawn or getting the mail or walking the dog. What is his or her reaction upon seeing you? Eye contact and a direct wave or nod that is as far from a courtesy wave as a NASCAR yellow-flag lap is from a traffic jam of Teslas.

Light years different.

There’s a house coming into a tiny town I pass through every two weeks, on the Alabama — Tennessee border, and there’s a few that are right on the highway, with just their lawns separating. There’s a curve and a school so everyone slows down and in one house there’s a man I’ve seen out doing various things, as I said in the morning is when I pass. Each time I’ve seen him the man gives me a wave and a direct glance which requires me to do the same. It’s the type of wave that feels as if I pulled into the driveway and asked how the family were doing, or where the farmer’s market is, I get the feeling it would not seem strange at all.

To him or me.

The glance is probably just one second longer than a courtesy wave but what it says to me is “good to see you this morning.” Not an acknowledgement of just another human, as in a similar vehicle, but like an acknowledgment of another human with a slice of genuine solidarity dolloped on top. Like the old man is out and gettin’ after it so it’s good to see whoever else is out gettin’ after it too. And we’re both better off if we acknowledge that fact.

And this happens in other towns.

From both men and women.

But mostly from men.

Maybe it’s just a country thing.

Or maybe it’s the simple reality of dropping a nomad into a slower-paced, more family oriented culture.

Or maybe it’s in my head and nobody else notices it.

Maybe it’s a minor regional event that miraculously has survived the last twenty years of political attempts at ‘equity’ that have resulted instead in the most divided country since the 60’s and a breakdown of common courtesies.

Maybe that’s why right now it sticks out.

And maybe these small towns don’t pay much mind to trends.

And maybe it’s why this guy was so popular.

Regardless of the why, I’m enjoying it.

See ya’ around Vern.



Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.