Over the summer, I met people from Norway, Germany, and the Netherlands, and was able to practice some of my European language skills. “All I need now is some French people to appear,” I thought – and voilà! This September a French sailboat showed up in town. Since then, I’ve been studying French, two lessons per week, in exchange for a few English lessons. My French teacher, Cecile, and her family are now house-sitting next door, and our houses are so close together that it’s almost like having housemates rather than neighbors. Although they are all trying to practice their English, I’m sure they’d agree to speak French most of the time if I asked. I could practically be in a French immersion-language setting, right here at home.
It’s hard to switch gears completely, though, and I am still a total beginner as a French student. Certain concepts are way beyond my ability to express in a foreign language. Although Cecile’s English is excellent, inevitably words or phrases come up that she hasn’t encountered before. I’ve started a list of all the things that have required further explanation, and it’s pretty fascinating, as it shines a light into life here in small-town Alaska. So far, the list includes: shack, potluck, preaching to the choir, the odds are good but the goods are odd, black powder, up on a soap box, off the grid, bread and butter, outgoing tide, gerrymandering, slough, wiggle-room, red-eye, The Back Forty, carnie, to scrounge around for, weird, boots-on-the-ground, half a bubble off, and bucket list. Cecile’s gonna end up with a pretty strange vocabulary, that’s for sure.
Although I’ve been super focused on French, I’ve been thinking a lot about how English, like all languages, is always evolving; eventually it will metamorphose entirely. And once you get hooked on learning about your own language, it’s a slippery slope. Every little thing people say becomes more interesting. When asked “How you doin’, Ray?” my grandfather would say, “Finer than frog hair.” I mentioned this to a friend yesterday, and she said, “Old man I used to know would say, ‘Finer than a frog’s hair split in two.’” Whoa. That’s even finer than my granddad’s finest.
Grammar: that’s another thing. When you study a foreign language, it’s a review of all the parts of speech you learned in grade school (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions), plus some crazy stuff like “partitive pronouns” “reflexive verbs” “past conditional” and so on. We never name any of these when we speak our native language – it all just comes naturally. But you have to name it when you’re learning a new language; just like you have to know the names of the parts of a boat so you can communicate about how to sail it.
In French, they have this lovely second person plural word, “vous.” Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a plural word for “you” – other than “you,” exactly the same as the singular – which is why we say “you guys,” or “y’all” when speaking to a group. Even though I’m not from the south, sometimes I say “y’all” because it’s genderless. “You guys” really grates on my nerves when a group of women is being addressed, especially if it’s a more formal situation, such as a gaggle of older ladies at high tea.
In French, they also have a word for the second person plural possessive: “votre.” In English, our only choice is to say “your,” whether it’s singular or plural. If you wanted to say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, your coffee is ready,” in French, you’d use votre, which is the plural “your.” For some reason, Americans often feel the need to distinguish the difference between the singular and plural “your.” Thus, in the American South, you might hear a waitress say, “Y’all’s sweet tea is ready,” which actually sounds kind of nice. But, this one time, back in 2003, I remember it like it was yesterday – I was sitting with my mom in a diner in North Dakota and the waitress said, “Your guys’ food’ll be out in a sec.” I’d never heard anyone say, “Your guys’” before, which is pronounced “yer guises,” and the shock of it made me physically recoil. Since then, of course, I’ve heard lots of people say it… and I’m almost used to it now. It’s only taken fourteen years.
Lately, I feel like I’ve been hearing people say “drug” as the past tense of “to drag”. The “drug” thing sounded glaringly wrong to me, and I don’t remember hearing it before, so it made me wonder: am I witnessing the evolution of English? Or is this an Alaska thing? A rural way of saying it? Am I hanging out now with people who have fewer years of formal education? What the heck?
To solve the mystery, I posted a question on social media: “Just curious: When you are talking in the past tense, do you say ‘dragged’ or ‘drug’? Please reply by telling me which one, then where you grew up, and where you live now.”
I was absolutely shocked when twenty-five people replied or commented. Maybe I’m not the only one fascinated by language! (If you’re still with me, and continue to read further, bless your heart.) Although I admit that the sample size is perishingly small, and my friends are not the most diverse lot, the results ended up revealing some unexpected patterns. Among the responses, there were 14 for dragged, 5 for drug, and – here’s the surprise – 6 people reported that they use both. I didn’t see that one coming.
I drug a log behind the truck. I dragged my butt off to work. I drug it through the mud. I dragged the lumber across the yard. I drug this up out of the basement. Look who the cat dragged in. The job just drug him down.
I tried to sort out whether drug is used for passive and dragged is used for active, or vice versa, but there didn’t seem to be any kind of consistent pattern.
While there doesn’t seem to be a clear educational or geographic connection to the drug vs. dragged usage, there does appear to be an urban/rural split. Drug is definitely more rural, regardless of education level.
And the closer people are – physically or emotionally — to Britain or the former British Empire (England, Scotland, New England, Canada, New Zealand) the more likely they are to say dragged. And they’re absolutely certain about which way is the proper way. Here’s an example: “Definitely dragged. I’m Scots/English/Bostonian Empire-loyalist, northern Ontario. Only drugged when under a chemical influence.”
Ultimately, it seems that people vary their usage depending on who they are talking to. This was illustrated best by an exchange with my friend, Nadine, who is a former English teacher and school principal. She lives in the rural Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, which makes her a Yooper.
Nadine: Dragged is correct past tense.
Me: Now, now, no judgments Nadine! This is an impartial, volunteer survey… I assume you say “dragged” then?
Me: So, you say DRUG? Now I’m confused!
Nadine: The old English teacher in me knows the correct conjugation but I’m a Yooper now!
Nadine: I assimilate well, eh?
Me: You betcha!
Nadine’s an excellent role model. Personally, I know I need to let go of my tendency to judge others on whether they’re speaking proper English. And frankly, both dragged and drug look incorrect to me now. Or correct. Whatever.
Oh well, it’s been fun y’all, but I have to go. Time for a French lesson. Thanks for yer guises attention.