Friday, February 23, 2007


DH and I got up early this morning so we’d have time to enjoy our new tea. Auntie turned us on to it by including a sample in her Christmas present to me; when we ran out, we ordered more over the Internet and it arrived yesterday. If you’re in the US and looking for English Breakfast tea that isn’t shockingly expensive (or disgusting in taste), then I highly recommend as a source.

It’s amazing to see my husband, a classic coffee-snob, not only drinking tea, but showing signs of tea-snobbery as well. I probably ought to warn him to be careful about that because tea-snobbery is uncommon in the US; it is seen as affected, and much more so than coffee-snobbery. In fact, it often seems to be viewed in the same light as affected American poseurs who use Briticisms to seem more … something…

Whatever the reasons, Americans who use Briticisms are often considered noxious, as this old quote by Ben Yagoda in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 18, 2004 ) suggests:

“It's hard to pinpoint the cause of the use of all these Briticisms. Anglophilia hardly seems to be rampant at the moment. Perhaps the success of BBC America is a factor, or maybe the importation of British editors like Tina Brown and Anna Wintour a decade ago is finally trickling down. But I wouldn't underestimate the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious. The gathering storm of Briticisms would seem to provide a perfect opportunity.”

Mr. Yagoda’s point may be valid; Briticisms have become more popular in the US. I’m uncomfortable with his conclusions of pretension, however, because it hits too close to home. I don’t just mean that metaphorically; I mean some things that are considered Briticisms, I learned at home, and some others at school. In Arkansas. No kidding.

[Note: Blogger very helpfully kept me from accidental pretentiousness just now, by pointing out the error in my natural inclination to use "learnt" instead of "learned."]

My best friend is Australian, and I don’t deny that I’ve picked up the odd expression from her – “twee” being a notable example. But I wouldn’t normally say things like “in hospital” instead of “the hospital” or “on holiday” instead of “a holiday.” And no one would ever think I sound British when I speak; I don’t have a strong accent, but what’s left is Bill Clinton-variety southern. In fact, I like to listen to Clinton because his accent is so similar to my dad’s. Still, I can’t deny that I do use some apparent Briticisms. Dang! (That isn’t one of them.)

Of course, what stings is that one who is trying to “sound classy,” is one who is obviously failing to do so. I used to be quite self-conscious about this, but not so much now that I have a better understanding of where I come from. For one thing, although I’m from Arkansas, I’m from a place that’s exceptionally “Anglo,” as my Aussie friend noted when I took her to visit my family. In fact, some branches of my family have been in the general vicinity of this same area for nearly 200 years (before Arkansas was even a state); over a period of 100 years or so, different groups of English (and Scottish and Irish) ancestors following one of two routes (the National Road or the Natchez Trace) converged there. A concentrated Anglo community resulted -- for example, different branches of my family hail from places named Tull (for the English agriculture writer, not the band), Merry Green, and Old Belfast. These are not new affectations; they’ve been around for close to 150 years.

Although I spent my first few years in Tull, I didn’t live there for any great length of time. But I was raised by people who did (and do still) live there, and I go back whenever I can because I’m fascinated by the ways in which I was influenced by absorbing an older culture as I was growing up. Of course I had no idea I was doing this; I thought Tull and its environs were typical of the rural south. For example, I had no idea that “shaped note singing” wasn’t as common as ticks on a dog (how’s that for a southern-fried expression?). It was only a few years ago that I learned (thanks again, blogger) it wasn’t common; it was endangered at one time, but seems to be experiencing a resurgence. (Maybe Anna Wintour...?)

In case you haven’t heard of it, shaped-note singing (also called sacred harp, or fa-so-la) refers to music in which the notes are indicated by different shapes. There is a whole history to this, which I’ll spare you, but suffice to say that each year, on the third Sunday in May, far-flung branches of my family gather in the Ebenezer Church in Tull, Arkansas to sing from tattered photocopies of tattered photocopies of the “new” music books (purchased in the late 1800s to replace the old books that burned along with the old church). Though I haven’t gone recently, it happens every year like clockwork; once, DH and I, along with my mother and her sister, my cousin, and my grandmother even took a turn at leading a song up at the front of the church. Lest you think I’m kidding, well, have a look at these (the handwriting is my grandmother’s):

OK; enough with the nostalgia. My point is that many of my Briticisms (which, incidentally, used to delight a former boss who had a PhD in Linquistics) seem to have originated from my pretentious, tea-drinking, pseudo-Anglophile, redneck family. Making me what? A pretentious redneck?

As we say in the south -- go figure.

By the way, if you're interested in shaped-note singing, "Awake My Soul" is a documentary about it. The website includes more detailed history and some clips of what it sounds like. I also had the recent good fortune to get my hands on a recording someone made of the 1979 Tull Singing. It's poor quality -- obviously done on a portable cassette player, but I'm pleased to have it since it's the real thing, as opposed to stuff by one of the new groups that have formed in order to teach others how to do it.


Gillian said...

Shape-note singing - yay!!! I'm listening to all the tracks on that website with great glee. Does the Tull version of the music sound much different to these recordings?

I don't think Australian English is any more British than the English you grew up with. I rather suspect that some regions of the US are still scared of British taxes and their language biases reflect this fear. Unless people are terrified of words such as 'twee', which would be entirely understandable.

Also the more I learn the more I realise how strange some assumptions of Southern ignorance truly are. Your family is from the South and especially from the mountains therefore it is illiterate. Obviously your family has a genetic inheritance which includes Shakespeare - never had to read it, just knew it from birth.

Doubtful Muse said...

The Tull version doesn't sound nearly as good as the stuff on the documentary site. Of course it's doubtful that anyone realised (whoops) realized *g* that someone was recording them! If the files weren't so huge, I would try to put them online, but maybe I can put a clip on.

As for assumptions of Southern ignorance, I'm afraid we're far more ignorant than anyone gives us credit for, but not in the ways people expect!

Gillian said...

I'm not sure it would be fair to the singers to put it online. Copyright for this sort of thing and privacy for this sort of thing have become a bit shaky over time. I guess no-one's making money from it and it's public singing, so it's more about privacy than copyright.

I was looking at the hymn books used by the singers on the other site. The Tull version uses an older book. As far as I can make out, it's a quite different branch of the tradition. It's interesting it's so much less studied.

Doubtful Muse said...

You're right, but I think a clip lasting no more than a few seconds to give an idea of the sound wouldn't be an unreasonable violation of privacy and it would fall into the "fair use" area for copyright purposes. The biggest deterrent is that the recording was made live, and it's completely unedited, so it would require a lot of listening just to identify a section worth isolating and cutting out. You're right about the hymnbooks from the documentary site -- Tull uses the 1873 "Christian Harmony" books. It's a 7-shape variety, but seems to be based on the older 4-shape type. I haven't worked out all the differences (yet), but one of these days...

mh said...


I'm the producer/ director of the above mentioned film, and am interested to learn that there is a Christian Harmony singing (still?) going on in Tull. It ought to be listed in the schedule of singings:

The Christian Harmony was published by William Walker, brother-in-law of BF White who published The Sacred Harp (the subject of our film, although we treat the tradition rather broadly, going back to the 1700's). The Sacred Harp was published in GA in 1844, whereas the CH was published in 1866 in SC. The SH employs the older 4 shape notation while the CH uses 7 shapes, which was typical of the more "modern sounding" songs being used in it and most other books of the time. Both of these books have gone through various revisions through the years.

By the way, 98% of the singers you hear on our website had no idea they were being recorded, nor would they have sung any differenty if they had. This is just what Sacred Harp singing, at its best sounds like. It's a large group of mostly "traditional" singers who were raised in it. Not that you can't find plenty of smaller, scrappy- sounding Sacred Harp singings. But after all, we're not singing for an audience....

It's most common in GA, AL, and TX (and there are also singers in Ark.)

For more, of course, feel free to get our dvd!


Tess said...

Interesting re the Briticisms. I use them all the time, seeing as my mum is English and my dad learned to speak English in England (he was Polish). Half the time I don't even realize I'm using a Briticism till a blank expression appears on the face of the person I'm speaking too. I'd use "twee", not to be pretentious, but because it's just such a great expression and when the circumstances warrant, out it comes.

Interesting re shaped note singing - I'd never heard of it!