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You Ought to Sound Like Where You Come From

Following up on my earlier post about old sayings and folklore in Ava’s Man, I want to comment on what Rick Bragg said about Southern language.

In response to his brother Sam’s comment about fish not biting “on a bluebird day,” Bragg wrote:

“Yet I could not help but wonder where that phrase, that lovely phrase, came from. Who still talks like that, I wondered, in a modern-day South that has become so homogenized, so bland, that middle school children in Atlanta make fun of people who sound Southern?"

A Southerner could be mistaken for any other American — until he opens his mouth.

I happened on a USA Today story from 2005 about a class in voice and diction at — of all places — the University of South Carolina that will wash that drawl right out of your mouth. Erica Tobolski will teach you to replace those twangs, drawls, lilts and clips with Standard American Dialect — the bland speech you hear on TV.

Erica Tobolski (AP file photo)

Here’s how Tobolksi explained it: “We sort of avoid talking about class in this country, but clearly class is indicated by how we speak,” she said.

“Many come to see me because they want to sound less country,” she said. “They say, ‘I don’t want to lose my accent completely, but I want to be able to minimize it or modify it.’”

What she means is that folk often equate the Southern accent with a lack of intelligence. Then they give you a sidelong look and wonder if your family owned slaves. And from there a whole host of other assumptions may be made about you and your momma and your daddy and all the rest of your kin. For that reason, some Southern expatriats find it’s easier to fit in by trying to speak the way the locals do.

And sometimes your accent changes because you’re surrounded by people who talk funny. Case in point: I married a Yankee, so my accent has moderated somewhat to be a tad more Midwestern. (My husband still claims that conversing with my Louisiana family “is like being at the United Nations — you have to wait for the translation.”) Contrast that with my little sister and her husband, both Southerners. Their Southern speech is more pronounced than mine, even though they live up North, too.

And just what is Southern speech anyway? You know it when you hear it, but the fact is the South is the most diverse speech region in the United States. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture has this to say: “Although the South is the most distinctive speech region in the United States, it is also the most diverse, little more uniform than the nation as a whole. Outsiders may think that all southerners talk pretty much alike, but Southerners certainly know better. Some of the most unusual types of American English are found on the periphery of the South, in areas such as the southern Appalachian and Ozark mountains … Even the well-worn stereotypes so often featured in cinematic and other media portrayals of southern speech do not typify speakers throughout the South. For example, the lack of ‘r’ after a vowel, once a hallmark of much of the region, is fast disappearing and is increasingly confined to older and African-American speakers.”

Modern times are changing accents, particularly in the urbanized areas of the South. As our world becomes more mobile and as technology further alters the way we communicate, will our accents go flat in this increasingly flattened world?

If Southerners are moderating their speech, it seems folks in other parts of the U.S. may be affecting a drawl, says Dr. Nicolas Witschi of Western Michigan University’s English Dept. He calls this phenomenon the “Southernization” of U.S. culture. Witschi says the having two Southern presidents in a row has influenced the way Southern culture is perceived. Values are attached to the South (earthiness, religion, faith, family values, tradition) stand in contrast to perceived urban (i.e. Northern) values. Dr. Witschi was a presenter at The Book as Literature program on March 26. he says this Southernization is why one might happen on a drawl in such far flung locales as Idaho or California, even when the speakers have never left home.

Unless you are bound for a career in stage or cinema, taking a college class to lose your accent seems like a shame. When asked what he thought about washing away traces of Southern speech, the author Roy Blount Jr. said:  “I just think that there’s a certain eloquence in Southern vernacular that I wouldn’t want to lose touch with ... You ought to sound like where you come from.”

Give a listen to Rick Bragg’s accent in this video.


Rick Bragg (photo by Ann States)

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