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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Gullah

College of Charleston's Jubilee Project

Last year I participated in a year-long project by the College of Charleston to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Emancipation and the subsequent desegregation of South Carolina schools. My book, The Road to Frogmore, told part of that story.  The project came to a close last November, but today I received a request from the director:

"We would appreciate it if you could write a reflection about your book, The Road to Frogmore. Your comments should focus on what you found to be most important about your work--share what you found to be most rewarding, most difficult, most surprising, whatever you find to be most significant to your individual experience and the project overall."

After a bit of stewing about the prospect of yet another writing project , I realized that I had already written such a reflection as an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the book. So here it is, with only a bit of editing so that the article can stand alone as part of the archive of The Jubilee Project.


THE ROAD TO FROGMORE: TURNING SLAVES INTO CITIZENS
by
Carolyn P. Schriber
 
“Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”
~Francis Bacon
 
The Road to Frogmore tells the story of Laura M. Towne, who came to a small island on the coast of South Carolina during the Civil War and almost single-handedly created a school tha could turn former slaves into producive American ciizens.  The book is fiction, but its story is true, and its characters are real. How can that be? It is true because it is based on documented historical evidence. It is fiction because I have had to use my own imagination to fill in the blanks within the evidence.
 
There is no shortage of sources material for the story of Laura M. Towne. Laura, like most of her colleagues, kept a diary throughout the first years of her stay in South Carolina. All of her Gideonite colleagues were inveterate letter-writers, and much of their correspondence is still available. As a result, a researcher suffers from an over-abundance of material evidence. Almost every event during the Port Royal Experiment had multiple witnesses and participants. The problem, of course, is that when nine different people write their own descriptions of a particular event, they produce nine different truths—and all of them may be “true.” Truth changes, depending upon who tells the story.
 
Diaries, too, can be untrustworthy. The diarist tells what she knows, but she may not be able to
tell what she has chosen to forget or what she failed to see. In Laura’s case, her diary entries
often reveal a dark side to her character, and her fears come out to play in the dark. Her letters
can seem cloyingly sweet and cheerful. She was very likely to write to her sisters to tell them she
was bursting with good health, that she never felt better in her whole life. But a diary entry
written the same night may indulge in descriptions of raging headaches, nausea, and muscle
cramps that she feared were symptoms of terminal illness. Which one was the true Laura? That is
the question her diary and letters fail to answer.
 
The Port Royal Experiment was marked by ongoing disagreements—religious differences,
opposing political and economic theories, and widely varying reactions to the conditions under
which they were all living. The result was, of course, a narrative of disagreement. In a novel, the
reader wants to know how much is true, but there is a difference between truth and fact. Facts
reveal details but can hide the truth behind a wall of distorted mirror images. Which image is
true?
 
The writer of historical fiction must take the details and transform them into a story that makes
sense. Sometimes that task demands a new search to ascertain the “truth” and sometimes it needs
a healthy dose of imagination to make facts understandable. In The Road to Frogmore, all the
characters are real, and I have changed no names to protect anyone from the consequences of his
or her actions. Events are factual; dates are accurate; outcomes fully revealed. Is the story true?
Perhaps. But it is also fiction because it reflects my own interpretations of how the characters felt
and how they must have talked to one another.
 
My greatest challenge came when I tried to portray the slaves who were the heart and soul behind Laura’s story. The slaves of St. Helena Island left no written record of their experiences and feelings. Yet every time I described a crisis point in their story, I knew I was missing an important factor because I had no evidence of how the slaves interpreted the event. At last I chose one individual as a spokesperson for them all. That spokesperson was Rina, the slave woman whom Laura paid to be her laundress.
 
Throughout Laura’s diary, she referred to Rina in ways that suggested that this woman was a keen observer of her surroundings.  Time and again, Laura writes, “Rina says . . .” and the following comment turns out to be a crucial  observation. Rina appears throughout
Laura’s diary, all the more frequently as Laura came to rely on her as a conduit into the slave
community. In my book, she functions in the same way as a Greek chorus does—watching the action while remaining aloof from it and commenting on the behavior of those who don’t fully understand the culture in which they are embedded.
 
I must add a word about Rina and the language she speaks. Rina, like all of the slaves in the Low Country, spoke Gullah, a language in its own right, with its own rules of grammar, a distinct syntax, and a vocabulary that contained both English words and words from several African languages. It also used certain sounds that a speaker of a European language cannot pronounce. Linguists no longer see Gullah as patois, or a form of broken English. But for that reason, it became a daunting task to reproduce it authentically, while making it understandable for readers of English.
 
While I wrote, I kept by my side a Gullah dictionary and a wonderful translation of De Gullah
Nyew Testament produced by the Penn Center’s efforts to preserve the Gullah language. Yet the
closer I came to being able to recreate the speech of a St. Helena slave, the more unintelligible it
became for readers. With the help of my editor, Gabriella Deponte, we finally settled on a
version of Gullah that preserves much of the authenticity of the original language while making
it accessible to speakers of English.
 
We started by eliminating all apostrophes. An apostrophe suggests that there is a right way to
pronounce a word, and that the speaker has failed to include all the correct syllables or sounds. It
privileges the English form over the Gullah instead of recognizing that they are separate
languages. An English speaker says “Tomorrow we are going to Beaufort.” A Gullah speaker
says “Morrow we gwine go fuh Bufor.” Both are understandable. Apostrophes are unnecessary.
We included a few words that appear only in Gullah, such as buckra, which means a white man
or white person. We also used the Gullah fuh in place of an English infinitive to and replaced all
forms of going to with the Gullah gwine.
 
The verb to be, with all its forms (am is, are was, were, have been, has been, had been) appears
in only two forms in Gullah (be or bin). A similar reduction occurs with pronouns, which for the
most part are not inflected (no possessive or accusative forms). So a speaker of Gullah says, “He
bring food fuh we” (not “for us”).
 
Gullah speakers do not (perhaps cannot) pronounce a sound that would be an unaccented syllable
at the beginning of an English word. This happens most often with words that begin with a
vowel, such as accept, which becomes cept or exactly, which becomes zakly. The result is a
speech pattern that always begins with an accented syllable and produces a strong rhythm similar
to the poetic sounds of an English dactyl.
 
Finally, certain common English sounds are difficult for a speaker of Gullah. Our version
changes all fricative th sounds to d (they becomes dey; other becomes udder). An aspirated th
changes to a simple t (thing becomes ting; thumb becomes tum). Similarly, most v sounds change
to a b (never becomes neber; very becomes bery).
 
With those adaptations, Rina’s voice rang true, and she was able to speak directly to the reader, putting into her own words the inchoate feelings of her fellow slaves.  Hers is the voice that guides the reader down the long road to Frogmore Plantation and the founding of the Penn School.
 

The Christmas Story, Gullah Edition

Each year at Christmas, I have tried to bring my readers a taste of how Christmas was celebrated in South Carolina just before and during the Civil War.  This year, I'm particularly delighted to bring you the story of Christmas from Luke 2: 1-20, as told in De Nyew Testament, translated into the Gullah language, American Bible Society, 2005.

Jedus Bon
Luke 2: 1-21

1 Een dat time, Caesar Augustus been de rula ob de Roman people. E mek a law een all de town een de wol wehe hab tority, say, ebrybody haffa go ta town fa count by de head an write down e name. 

2 Dis been de fus time dey count by de head, jurin de time Quirinius de gobna ob Syria country.

3 So den, ebrybody gone fa count by de head, ta e own town weh e ol people been bon.

4 Now Joseph same fashion gone fom Nazareth town een Galilee. E trabel ta de town name Betlem een Judea, weh de ole people leada, King David, been bon. Joseph gone dey cause e blongst ta David fambly.   

5 E gone fa count by de head, an Mary gone long wid um. E gage fa marry um. An Mary been speckin. 

6 Same time wen dey been dey, time come fa Mary gone een. 

7 E hab boy chile, e fusbon. E wrop um op een closs wa been teah eenta scrip an lay um een a trough weh dey feed de cow an oda animal dem. Cause Mary an Joseph beena stay weh de animal sleep. Dey ain been no room fa dem eenside de bodin house.

De Shephud Dem Go fa See de Chile Jedus

8 Now some shephud been dey een de fiel dat night. Dey beena stay dey, da mind

9 Den one angel ob de Lawd appeah ta um. De night time done lightnin op jes like day clean broad. Cause ob dat, de shephud mos scaid ta det. 

10 Bot de angel tell um say, Mus dohn feah! A hab good nyews wa gwine mek  ebrybody rejoice. 

11 Cause A come fa tell oona, Right now, dis day, a Sabior done bon fa oona. E Christ de Lawd. An e bon een David town.’

12 A gwine tell oona wa oona gwine see dey. Cause ob dat, oona gwine know A done tell oona de trute. Oona gwine find de chile wrop op een closs wa been teah eenta scrip, an e been leddown een a trough.

13 All ob a sudden, a heapa oda angel fom heaben been longside dat angel. Dey all da praise God, say,

14 "Leh we gii glory ta God een de mos high heaben.
Leh dey be peace ta dem een de wol wa hab God fabor!”

15 Den de angel lef um an gone back ta heaben. An de shephud dem say ta one noda, Leh we go ta Betlem fa see dis ting wa happen oba dey. De Lawd esef done sen e angel fa tell we.

16 So de shephud dem mek hace an gone ta Betlem fa look. Wen dey git dey, dey find Mary an Joseph an de chile. An dat chile been leddown een a trough. 

17 Atta de shephud shim, dey done tell ebrybody bout de chile. Dey tell um all wa de angel done say consaanin um. 

18 An all de people wa de shephud dem tell been stonish. 

19 Mary memba all dis ting an study bout um. 

20 De shephud dem gone back ta dey fiel. Dey da praise God. Dey da rejaice tommuch fa all dey done see an yeh. All wa de angel done tell um, e stan jes like e say.

If you have trouble reading this, try comparing it to The King James Version of the Bible, or simply read the sounds out loud.



A Journey Through Ourstory

Beaufort County, SC is the second oldest county in South Carolina.  This county became what it is do to the blood, sweat, and tears of Gullah/Geechees that toiled in the Sea Island cotton, rice, and indigo fields of the Sea Islands that the county consist of and who worked the phosphate mines and built the buildings.   For many generations, the story of Africans that were the architects of the coastal landscape that has become the Gullah/Geechee Nation was buried like so many seeds in the ground.  Just as ordered by Divine Law, the seeds that are planted and are nurtured will grow.  The Gullah/Geechee seed has grown to be a tree rooted deeply in Sea Island soil by the rivers of water.

During "Gullah/Geechee Nation Appreciation Week" in Beaufort County, SC, we have encouraged people to take a journey through ourstory.  For many people this will involve going to talk with elders in the family to learn more about who you are related to and how you all are Gullah/Geechee.  However, for many others that do not have a genealogical link or are unsure of the existence of one, this will be a time to visit museums and sites to simply learn the story of a people that they may not have heard of until they reached the Lowcountry of the Gullah/Geechee Nation.   So, in order to help with that journey through the county, here are a few places that one should consider visiting:

In Bluffton, SC make sure to stop by what has become the visitors center, 
Heyward House.  At this location stands the last of the enslavement cabins built by the hands of our Gullah/Geechee ancestors that dwelled there until they were able to purchase lands just down the road during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. After leaving Heyward House, take a walk down to the Bluffton Oyster Factory to see a site where Gullah/Geechees have worked and kept up the traditions that theGullah/Geechee Fishing Association is yet fighting for today.Then journey from Bluffton over the bridge to Hilton Head Island, SC and see more Gullah/Geechee architecture by visiting the "Gullah Museum of Hilton Head" which was established by Elder Louise Miller-Cohen.

 The journey to the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head will help to bring to life and to mind the vision that those who had also built and maintained "Mitchelville" on Hilton Head had.  These Gullah/Geechees set out to establish a town that would provide education to their children and provide them with homes. Unfortunately, many of the families of the island have since been displaced and their original homes were demolished.  Yet, the Gullah Museum building stands as a testimony to the soundness of building within the spirit of Gullah/Geechees.  It also stands as a testimony of how we have been able to endure and how everything that has been touched by the true Gullah/Geechee soul can and will endure and remain standing!

In order to see many more homes that have been sustained and maintained by Gullah/Geechees in Beaufort, once can visit the Northwest Quadrant in historic downtown Beaufort.  From there, walk over and visit the home of Gullah Statesman Robert Smalls and the buildings that his family helped establish such as the first library for Blacks in Beaufort which is now the University of SC-Beaufort's (USCB) art building.   This building is just blocks away from the new location of the Beaufort Visitor's Center which is the site where enslaved Africans were sold in the township.

Many of those that had been previously enslaved did as Robert Smalls did and did not settle for this as the only way that they could live.  Instead, they fought back and strategized during the US Civil War.  They became soldiers in the ranks of the Union Forces.   Many of them have been laid to rest at the National Cemetary in Beaufort which was actually created by executive order of President Abraham Lincoln.   It took generations before people would know that Gullah/Geechee and other Black soldiers that served were buried there.  However, there now stands a marker for all visitors that come to Beaufort to see in honor of the 1st SC Infantry of African Descent or the 1st SC Regiment: This marker stands on Highway 21.  

As you proceed on this highway across the Woods Memorial Bridge, you will journey to and through Lady's Island to historic St. Helena Island, SC.  The Gullah/Geechee story continues to be written here daily as the people of the island continue the living traditions of their ancestors through fishing, farming, architecture, quilting, cast net making, boat building, foodways, healing practices, shouting, The Spirituals, and so much more.  Disya da de place whey hunnuh gwine see de culcha ebeeday fa tru ya!

Many people visit St. Helena Island annually to go to the Penn Center National Landmark Historic District.  The Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music & Movement Festival™ participants will be visiting this site including the museum which is named for Dr. York W. Bailey whose home on the island is also on the National Register of Historic Places.   "De Gullah Roots Experience Tour" (www.gullahgeechee.biz) always takes people to these sites and many more on the island is an interactive Gullah/Geechee journey where the history of the Knights of Wise Men Hall, the historic churches, Fort Fremont, the praise houses, and many other historic sites is told.  

One stop along the journey is another picturesque location that thousands of visitors pull up to each year is the Chapel of Ease which (like Penn School) was built by Gullah/Geechee hands as well.  The true journey into ourstory involves engaging with the people and learning the story from the mouths of the Gullah/Geechees that have lived it.  However, as you take the time to visit these few sites, sit down quietly beneath an oak tree and tune in with your soul.  You will be surprised what you will hear.  Le hunnuh spirit opun an hunnuh gwine hab plenee fa share afta a journee een we storee een disya lan a de Gullah/Geechee.

Gullah/Geechee Nation Appreciation Week: De Link Wid We Land

As Gullah/Geechee Nation Appreciation Week continues in Beaufort County, SC, there are several things to do and appreciate outdoors along the Sea Island coastline.  Gullah/Geechee culture is inextricably tied to the land and waterways.  Thus, one cannot truly appreciate the culture without connecting to the environment.  Here are some things to do outdoors as folks prepare for the ancestral tribute and the Gullah/Geechee fish fry on launch date of the “Gullah/Geechee Nation International Music & Movement Festival™” at the Hunting Island Nature Center:

Take a trip to the island and town of Port Royal and stroll the Cypress Wetlands and view the historic marker dedicated to the arrival of Africans that were enslaved in this region.



Emancipation een de Gullah/Geechee Nation
Beaufort County, SC
August 2-4, 2013


Friday, August 2, 2013
Check in at the Hunting Island Nature Center for Noon Ancestral Tribute and Gullah/Geechee Arrival Luncheon
1-3:30 pm De Gullah Root Experience Tour of St. Helena and Hunting Islands (Advance ticket required.)
3:30-5 pm     Hunting Island Nature Center & Beach

Saturday, August 3, 2013
9-11 am Oyotunji African Village (Highway 17) Welcome and Tour (on your own)
BRING CHAIRS, DRUMS, TAMBOURINES AND AN OPEN POSITIVE SPIRIT!!!
St. Helena Branch Library 6355 Jonathan Francis Road St. Helena Island, SC 29920
     12-12:45 pm  Opening Ceremony with Ujimaa Drummers & Dancers and Gullah/Geechee Nation Leaders
     12:45-1 pmLighthouse Theater
     1-1:30 pm Gullah/Geechee Stories by Natasha Robinson and Sharon Simmons of St. Helena Island, SC
     1:30-2 pm James Brown & Ernest Parks-De Old Men pun de Porch
     2:00-2:30 pmQueen Quet & De Gullah Cunneckshun
     2:30-3 pmPeck Ensemble
     3-3:30 pm James Jamerson Tribute featuring Anthony McKnight
     3:30-4 pmSoulpower
     4-5 pm De Livin Marketplace & De Drum Circle
                     featuring Sankofa Traveling Museum
                                A Soulful Touch Wellness
                                Gullah/Geechee Soul Chocolates
7:30 pm Gullah/Geechee Ga’dun Gala (Ticket required.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013
10 am Spiritual Worship Services at Bethesda Christian Center on historic St. Helena Island
1 pm Depart on Gullah/Geechee bus tour to Savannah, GA   (Ticket required.)
Get a Gullah/Geechee VIP Pass for the entire event!  Gwine ta disya->http://gullahgeecheemusic.eventbrite.com/
Purchase your tickets online in advance or donate to the fundraising effort->http://gullahgeecheemusic.eventbrite.com/
For group discounts and more details:

A Short Lesson in the Gullah Language

The following excerpts, taken from Joseph A. Opala's website, "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection," illustrate the evolution of the Gullah language. At first glance, Gullah seems to be nothing more than broken English -- the result of slaves trying to speak the language of their masters.  But a closer examination shows that Gullah has changed, not only the pronunciation, but also the grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure, of the original.  And the changes reflect the slaves' original African language.

First, look at the English version.  It's not quite Aesop's Fables, but rather the English language as it was spoken by the slave owners of the Low Country.

Then, Fox started to talk. He said to himself, he said, "This here Crow is a woman, not so? If I can persuade her to talk, she has to open her mouth, not so? And if she opens her mouth, isn't it true the meat will drop out?"

Fox called to the Crow: "Morning girl," he said. "I am so glad you stole that meat from the white man, because he would have thrown it away to the dog... It makes me vexed to see a man do such a thing as that."

Crow never cracked open her teeth! All the time Fox was talking, Crow's mouth was shut tight on the meat, and her ears were cocked to listen.

Now here's the Gullah version. An English speaker can understand it, especially if it is read out loud.

Den, Fox staat fuh talk. E say to eself, a say, "Dish yuh Crow duh ooman, enty? Ef a kin suade um fuh talk, him haffuh op'n e mout, enty? En ef e op'n e mout, enty de meat fuh drop out?"

Fox call to de Crow: "Mawnin tittuh, " e say. "Uh so glad you tief da meat fum de buckruh, cause him bin fuh trow-um-way pan de dog... E mek me bex fuh see man do shishuh ting lukkuh dat."

Crow nebbuh crack a teet! All-time Fox duh talk, Crow mout shet tight pan de meat, en a yez cock fuh lissin.