On a hot day in late June, looking to buy some cheap tires for an old car of mine, I pulled into a tire shop on a stretch of highway near Fort Worth.  We’d recently had a lot of rain, and the sun was glaring, seeming to draw a screen of haze off the pavement at driver’s eye level.  It was going to be one of those days when your clothes start sticking to you quickly, and you feel a film of moist grit on your skin.  The shop was one among many along a strip of used-car lots, gas stations, and auto-parts stores, the clientele working class, many black or Mexican.

It didn’t take long to find tires for the car, and I was waiting as the two young men behind the counter—one black, his hair in dreadlocks; the other a Mexican-American—were writing up other customers, including an older black lady.  The black guy asked her how to spell her name, and the Tex-Mex guy laughed and said that could be a problem in here sometimes.  “How so?” asks Dreadlocks.

Tex-Mex hesitated . . .

“Oh,” smiles Dreadlocks, “you mean with the black people!  Yeah, it’s a problem for me, too.”  He smiles at the black lady and asks her, “How do you spell, say, Shantaveous?”  We all laugh, and the black lady, beaming, tells him that she used to be a schoolteacher and had to call roll every day, tripping over names like Quanesha and Davareous.  And the manner of speaking of those young people . . . 

Dreadlocks laughs out loud.  “Yeah,” he says, “they want to say my name’s ‘Sebasshaun,’ and I get mad at ’em.  My name’s ‘Sebastian,’—you know S-E-B-A-S-T-I-A-N, a normal name.”

Tex-Mex recalls an older white woman coming in, looking a little intimidated, and asking Sebastian if they had any white salesmen.  (Sebastian says it went right over his head.)  You know, Tex-Mex seems to be saying, somebody she could understand.

It’s all in the manner of speaking.  My 85-year-old father has trouble understanding foreigners—like the lady from the Indian subcontinent who was testing his blood sugar last winter.  He kept looking over at me to translate.  Daddy’s never had any trouble being completely candid with people, though.  He catches the part where she asks him if there is anything else he would like to tell her.  “Well,” he says, “since you asked, I don’t want no woman doctor.”  She nods, and for a few seconds I wonder if she is having trouble understanding him, too.  Smiling, she looks at me, and then it sinks in.  Looking a little flustered, she asks him if he wants somebody else.  That’s when I put a stop to the proceedings.  We’ve waited two weeks to get this appointment, and I don’t want to come back.

My father’s manner of speaking is dying out.  Not just the blunt honesty, but his accent, syntax, and vocabulary.  I don’t mean saying “ya’ll”—young people still say that in Texas (and I thank the Lord for small favors)—but something else.  I’m of a generation of Texans, for instance, that is always “fixin’” to do something—we don’t ever seem to be actually getting to it, but we mean to.  “Fixin’” can also mean “about to,” as in “It’s fixin’ to rain.”  Daddy’s manner of speaking is rawer still, more rooted in place and time, a time before mass culture had leveled out a lot of the regional, class, and racial and ethnic speech patterns I used to hear when I was a boy.

Daddy, for example, doesn’t “clean” anything; he “clings” it.  He doesn’t “make” breakfast, he “mekes” it.  He was a good baseball player in his day.  I remember him as a youth-league coach calling the catcher the “hind catcher.”  He rode motorcycles as a young man, vehicles he called “motorsickels.”  Daddy doesn’t say “kind of”—as in “It’s kind of hot today,” but “kindly.”  All manner of soft drinks are “soda water.”  (My generation called all soft drinks, no matter what the brand, a “coke”—as in, “You want a coke?” even if the “coke” was a Dr. Pepper.)  Movies are “picture shows,” man-made stock ponds are “tanks,” and if someone has already completed a task like chopping some wood, he has “done chopped the wood.”  If a person “like to have died,” then he almost expired.  Conditional syntax is not uncommon in requests or suggestions.  (“I guess you could go out and pick up some bread.”)  Daddy does a little bit of a-prefixing, too, as in “Don’t come a-running to me with your problems” (with an implied “which you have made for yourself”).  “Yonder” means “over there,” a “gunny sack” is any kind of cloth bag, and an “icebox” is a refrigerator.  That’s apart from the specialized vocabulary of work.  (Daddy was a carpenter.)

Words form our thoughts, and the spoken word helps shape how we perceive each other and the world.  Manners of speaking change—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.  Not all colloquial speech or slang should be celebrated as more “authentic” than Standard English.  I seriously doubt, for instance, that the speech of rap music and gang culture has enriched the lives of black people.  I also doubt that SMS language (“LOL,” “OMG”) has been a positive development in our lives, as convenient as those abbreviations may be on occasion.  But there is a longing in us, I think, for something that supports what postmodern people often seem to be missing—a sense of who they are and where they come from, a sense of a larger something they can be a part of.  Those are some of the prerequisites for living lives with purpose and meaning.  Our manner of speaking (and writing and singing) matters a great deal.

In America, the Bible, especially the King James Bible, was a source of a manner of speaking that provided a bridge across regional, class, racial, and ethnic lines, and supported Christian mores and civic culture.  How many of us have seen the handwriting on the wall, noting that pride goes before a fall?  Americans have often made mention of the letter of the law or that one earns his keep by the sweat of one’s brow (but man nevertheless shall not live by bread alone).  Many are called, few are chosen, but all of us watch for the signs of the times.  Minding your own business is a good policy, so put your own house in order and remember that there is nothing new under the sun and the truth shall make you free.

In the beginning was the Word.

A few days after getting a spelling lesson at the tire shop, I’m wandering around the farmer’s market set up at our town hall.  Though it’s not mid-morning yet, the heat is already oppressive as the shoppers walk among the tents set up by vendors selling meat, vegetables, honey, baked goods, and other items.  It’s quite a mixed group—people in stretch pants as if they are about to mount a bike, some walking dogs, others in flip-flops walking among men in blue jeans and Western boots.

I hear a man shouting.  “Repent,” he says, “the Kingdom of God is at hand!”  He is dressed in shorts and a baseball cap, his T-shirt already drenched in sweat.  He stands on a stone in the center of the large circle facing the town hall, waving a Bible, holding his hands up to the sky, speaking of judgment and forgiveness, preaching that God will receive sinners who repent.

I pass an old man in a shirt and tie standing with a basket full of leaflets.  A sign on the basket proclaims that Truth Is In the Bible.  At that moment, a small group of musicians—there are often bands or guitar and banjo players at the farmer’s market—strike up a beautiful old gospel tune, a little piece of Americana.  It’s in the language of an older manner of speaking, of preaching and singing, but one I’m profoundly thankful is still with us:

As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who shall wear the starry crown

Good Lord, show me the way . . . 

O sinners let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

O sinners let’s go down

Down in the river to pray

As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good old way

And who shall wear the robe and crown

Good Lord, show me the way

As the song finishes, the street preacher steps off the large stone he had used as an informal pulpit and walks away, looking exhausted.