Many of us have weeded old-fashioned figures of speech out of our everyday conversations. Maybe it’s time to start preserving “Barnyard English” as a threatened cultural treasure.
A few years ago UNESCO sounded the alarm that half of the world’s languages may become extinct by the end of our century.
Serious hand-wringing and think-tank creating followed, along with a big push by National Geographic, among others, to document and preserve the world’s linguistic diversity under the rallying cry “Save a language. Save a culture.” As its moniker makes clear, agri-culture is, of course, a culture, and yet nowhere in the mad scramble to document the world’s endangered indigenous tongues did I hear mention of what my farmer grandfather lovingly called “Barnyard English.”
If you grew up on or around a farm or ranch you know exactly the linguistic bumper crop to which I refer—that fecund, richly metaphoric language that seemed to roll off your grandparents’ tongues but now seems awkward or incongruous on yours. My farm-girl grandmother Julia, for example, was fond of the phrase “pert near”—a contraction for “pretty near” if we’re splitting hairs. Even now I can see her sitting at the kitchen table on the farm with a Coca-Cola in one hand and a grocery list in the other saying something like “That Mary Louise is pert near crazy” or “Your cousin Andrew pert near ran that little car of his into the ditch.”
Pert near’s a perfectly acceptable, wholly grammatical contraction, of course, akin to substituting “I s’pose” for “I suppose.” And yet how many of us farm-kids-turned-circumspect-professionals feel free to drop a “pert near” with a straight face and sans disclaimer in a boardroom, conference center or lecture hall? Same goes for another of my favorites, fixin’. I s’pose opening a meeting with “Next we’re fixin’ to hear our annual shareholder’s report” strikes the average listener as a mite shy of Ivy League.
We’re unduly sensitive about our perceived linguistic warts and especially thin-skinned when it comes to cultural pasts we’ve tried mightily as a people to transcend and evidently would prefer to forget. I remember, for example, the unprecedented vehemence my elementary school teachers reserved for the word ain’t, which I was told, when occasionally I would let it slip, was a word used by ignorant country people.
I s’pect to let an agrarian colloquialism like “pert near” back into our Digital Age vernacular in anything other than slick country music would seem erosive to most, a willful and egregious backsliding to the darker days when our livelihoods came hard hewn from the land, not spiral-bound and collated at the office.
Don’t know about you, but I’m proud of the way my grandparents spoke. They came by their language in the most time-honored method—by utility, necessity and invention, rather than via the way most of their Gen X and Gen Y grandchildren came to speak standard English—by the more nefarious method long preferred by assimilationists, hegeomonists, imperalialists and cultural assassins—by decree, by fiat, by threat of force or public shaming for language that exists outside the urban norm and carries still a whiff of the barnyard.
Of course, to reintroduce the colorful Barnyard English our grandparents spoke to a Facebook generation growing up in tony suburbs and exurbs like Tysons Corners, Virginia; Carmel, Indiana; or Belle Meade, Tennessee, would be daunting. Charismatic young digerati are happy to indulge their elders with the occasional hokey utterance of horsefeathers! for example, but only with the same retro-ironical spirit that finds them buying up all the 1970s league bowling shirts at the Goodwill with “Bob” stitched on the front pocket. Even the barnyard colloquialisms that once upon a time captured youth itself—sowing wild oats or making hay while the sun shines have largely been put out to pasture. How many in Generation Bieber have ever made hay anyway, do you reckon?
I, for one, am determined to stop censoring the agrarian English of my birthright for the sake of social expediency or professional convenience. Because for those of us who were farm-raised to say that something is a hard row to hoe is language with a fine point on it—born of the experience of finding yourself knee-deep in the middle of a field surrounded by an impossible snarl of morning glory, pigweed, horseweed or button weed.
Similarly, to opine that you can’t dress-up a pig is a hard-won and wholly accurate truism that speaks equally to a pig’s essential nature as well as to a pork barrel politician’s. And of course to say that one is goin’ to town on something is to recall a time in our populist gloaming when hitching up to travel to the nearest market town represented a difficulty requiring zealotry to overcome—a pluck and enthusiasm the Feds have more recently called “irrational exuberance.”
One need only listen to the language of our current chief executives, bureaucrats, plutocrats and wonks to hear the utter absence of real agrarian wisdom. A farmer understands what it means when a politician misses his mark so badly that he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The yeoman likewise gets what it means when a hastily conceived idea or a lazy, good-for-nothin’ policy is a dog that just won’t hunt. To their credit the farmer or rancher is less likely to cotton to unforgivable abstractions like “double down,” “transitioning,” and, my personal favorite, “pivot.”
Maybe I’ve missed the mark. Maybe the current generation of farmers’ sons and daughters studying at land-grant universities like the one I matriculated in now speak the language of the bureaucrat or CEO easily, breezily and well. Still, I suspect even they recognize the greater utility, virility, energy and integrity of the Barnyard English they’ve lost the courage or the cultural memory speak. The other stuff, the scrap heap of buzzwords and doublespeak and corporate euphemism, we understand add up that one agrarian linguistic nugget so apropos that it endures to this day as the perfect response for professional evasions and obfuscations—that’s bullsh&!
Zachary Michael Jack is the seventh generation in his family to make his home on an eastern Iowa farm. He is the author, most recently, of The Midwest Farmer's Daughter: In Search of an American Icon. He teaches courses in place studies and writing at North Central College.