On Southern Accents

I found out a local radio announcer is a North Carolina native, so after we had talked briefly by phone, recently, I made bold to email him with the question: Do people ever comment about your missing Tar Heel accent?

Yeah, he responded. He gave credit (or perhaps blame, depending on your perspective) on his mother, an English teacher. “You?” he asked.

Well, of course! I began to discard my accent, to pronounce words more fully, with more open vowel sounds, as a result of my middle and high school chorus teacher, who was a stickler for enunciation. Over the years, the more I’ve sung, the more distanced I’ve become from my southern accent.

No, I’m not ashamed of the way we sound down here. Some people think it’s charming — and it certainly can be evocative of magnolia blossoms and mint juleps. My family, though, is sufficiently removed from its alleged English landed gentry ancestry that when I joke about my redneck roots I’m not exaggerating by much. Our people, the rural southerners, sound more as if they might have a pinch of snuff tucked between teeth and jowl. Our vowels come out flat, able to stretch what is supposed to be a single syllable into two and sometimes three: Ca-yat, pro-nou-yance. Our voices carry more than a hint of a challenge to the listener — or perhaps a threat of potential danger.

And let me be honest, we do laugh at people with other accents, and we hold our own stereotypes of certain accents, just as people hold stereotypes of ours. For instance, New Yorkers (from NYC or Rochester, it doesn’t particularly matter) come to the South as determined to take over and rebuild us in their image as Sherman in his march to the sea. We hold these Yankees in about as much esteem as we did Sherman, too — although we can be quite pleased to take their money when the mood strikes. And with the golf and tourism industries ruling the roost around here, the mood rarely departs.

It’s funny — a friend from California says my southern accent is charming, folks from Louisiana thought I sounded Yankee, while my cousin down the road complains that I don’t have any accent left at all, that I’m gettin’ above my raisin’.

Can’t win for losing, sometimes.

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