I am the outlier in my family. My white American skin shines neon in a group of my honey-skinned Hispanic loved ones. I am also the only one who is monolingual.
I tried to learn French and Spanish and wrote about my failures here. Fortunately, no one ever depended on me learning another language to communicate with them.
Captain Argentina, my husband, speaks Spanish, English, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, a Native-American language called Guarani, and the Argentine street language known as Lunfardo. He also knows some French.
My daughter speaks Spanish and English and some Bulgarian.
And, my two grandchildren were raised bilingual (English and Spanish) and began learning sign language before they could speak.
This story is about one of my granddaughter’s languages.
My stepmother, who resided in Tennessee, passed in 2012. As per her wishes, there wasn’t a funeral. She was cremated and her ashes scattered in her home state of Maine.
Almost two months later, I traveled to Tennessee to rummage through her belongings and lay claim to anything she left me or anything I wanted. When I returned home, my precocious 3-year-old granddaughter was full of questions.
Is Tennessee in the same country as Florida?
Yes. Above Florida is Georgia and Tennessee is above Georgia — all in the United States.
Are the Tennessee people like us?
Well, yes and no. Some are but some, especially those who live in the mountains, are sometimes quite different.
Well, they talk differently, for one thing.
How do they talk different?
Using my best Tennessee twang, I imitated the accent of the mountain people I knew in my stepmom’s area of east Tennessee (apologies to any readers from the mountains of east Tennessee who disagree with my rendition of their speech).
Well, baby girl, up theres in the mountains of Tennessee people have a drawl and makes words sound very long and they calls things by different names. Like I would be your memaw and kids are chillens and your parents are Ma and Pa. We might eat taters for dinner and have moon pies for dessert. When you’s upset, you’s all tore up. And if I want a kiss from you, I’d say, “Give me some sugar, young’un.” You don’t go to school to learn, you go to get schoolin’. And, when you think someone is stupid or silly or wrong, you say, “Well, bless her heart!” and everyone knows what you mean. And, when you order a soda at a restaurant, it’s always a Pepsi or an RC even when it ain’t. Oh, yeah, you say “ain’t” a lot.
She was delighted and immediately imitated my accent. Soon we were talking what we called Tennessee, having long conversations in a “language” her 5-year-old brother said he didn’t understand at all.
I continued sharing with my granddaughter other words and phrases I remembered from my visits to Tennessee, particularly when my sister lived there and was married to a true Tennessee mountain man, whose speech often left me amused and confused. It was all innocent fun — or so I thought.
About six months later, my husband and I took the grandkids to a local bakery/cafe that has live music on Friday nights.
I recognized a woman at another table and waved to her from across the small room. As the performance ended and everyone gathered their belongings to leave, the woman and her companion came over to our table to say hello.
Introductions were made, including the children who were well versed in adult conversations. My friend introduced the woman who was with her,
This is my cousin from Tennessee.
My granddaughter became very animated.
Finally, I get to meet someone from Tennessee!
The woman, quite pleased with my granddaughter’s enthusiasm, replied,
Well, I am pleased to meet you, too.
With confidence, my granddaughter replied,
I can speak your language.
Looking confused, the woman said,
Beaming brightly, my granddaughter said,
Yes, I know four languages: English, Spanish, Sign Language, and Tennessee.
The woman, still looking perplexed, replied,
Tennessee? You speak Tennessee?
My granddaughter exclaimed,
Yes’m. I speaks jest like y’all. I knows y’all eat vittles and moon pies and don’t much like people tellin’ y’all what to do and get tore up about it whens they do. Yes’m, I speaks Tennessee real good. My Memaw learned me. But, my brother cain’t understand any Tennessee at all — bless his heart!
All eyes turned to me. My face flushed and I stammered,
Um, I had family in east Tennessee and taught my granddaughter some of the colloquialisms I heard there. No harm intended. Just a game we play. Never realized she picked up so much of it or that she thought it was a different language.
I quickly gathered children, husband, and jackets and slid my embarrassed self out the door.
For those of you old enough, do you remember a segment on the old Art Linkletter Show called Kids Say the Darndest Things? Well, I was living it.
But, to be fair to her, I did not consider that my granddaughter was a sponge who soaked up everything she heard. Our little game was fantasy and fun to me but real to her.
And, even now, at the age of eleven, she smiles and says,
I know four languages: English, Spanish, Sign Language, and Tennessee.
Then, she winks at me.
Dedicated to Anna da Silva who can speak many “real” languages: